Working since she the age of 18, I, Cassandra Praba led a very sheltered upbringing which led to a naiveté that often got me into sticky situations as early as school. Currently working for Propay Partners, an HR & Payroll outsourcing firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as Senior Marketing Associate, I look back at my professional journey with pride.
“Back in school I was bullied for being tall and standing out. Wanting to fit in, I did a lot of things to please my school mates, which of course, got me into more trouble with my teachers and parents. Looking back, I can fondly laugh at those memories. My motto at the time was, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. However, at a later stage in life, I learnt that beating someone was not a choice, it was the only choice. Especially, if you were a woman.”
I am happy to share my story through the Women Icons Network here:

Throughout my 24-year career, I have come across a number of instances where I have been the only woman in the room, which made for uncomfortable situations. I’ve seen men in boardrooms avoiding my presence and ignoring my attempts even before I attempted to speak. To a certain point, being ignored had its advantages; I could sit back and observe silently the various personalities in the meetings which was not always an advantage to some of the people in these meetings.

It was during these times that I always wondered about the transitory role women had to take on at workplaces especially while leading a team or attending male-dominated C-suite meetings after a lifelong conditioning of “don’t-forget-you-are-a-woman” quotes.

When I was working for the Equatorial Hotel, I had a lady boss who was a real drill sergeant. I remember not wanting to go to work on a daily basis. A real taskmaster, she always encouraged me to be tough and stand my ground. At the time, I had no idea why she was so hard on me. I realise now the power women should have to own their workspaces. She was one of the first persons who made sure my voice was always heard.

Today, women’s rights have come a long way. No doubt things are changing in the new millennium but there’s a lot more work to be done especially in terms of normalising women’s influence at the workplace. Women are still not the first to speak up or grab opportunities or give ideas. They are neither asked what their needs are nor how safe their workplaces ought to be or even encouraged to demand for a raise like their male counterparts.

Family influence

One of the greatest influencers I have had in my life is my family. My father, a renowned hotelier for the last 40 years started out at a tender age of 16 as a bus boy and worked his way up. As a person who naturally has fun doing his job, dad’s attitude, zeal and audacity made him the COO of many global hotels which gave me the confidence to venture into industries where women didn’t care to go much – like films and pubs. There weren’t many women leaders also in those places whom other women could lean on.

My mother, too, was an indomitable force in my life. Having raised three kids mostly by herself due to Dad’s highly-demanding work schedule which led him to move to Mauritius for 10 years, Mom was the one person who was our real window to the world and she did a great job of keeping us grounded.

When I took over as General Manager at a popular bar in Kuala Lumpur, I was super excited to venture into a new industry. As it turned out, reality didn’t quite play out the same way my fantasy did. My colleagues – all men – who came from different countries, backgrounds and skillsets were not keen to toe my line until I earned their respect as their manager.

On unfamiliar territory

I slowly started learning things that they did – cooking, bartending and changing beer barrels. But the funny part was that because I was the only lady, none of the male staff really had any interest to teach me how each of these jobs were done. Even customers gave me glances if they spotted me being assertive with a male colleague. One gentleman went as far as to tell me that as a lady I should go back to my 9 to 5 job instead of being in a bar!

Since then, I’ve always wondered what the key to making women fall in love with their workplaces was. While many things are still a choice for men, women are drawn to their workspaces mainly due to comfortable environments, flexible work patterns, carer policies and mostly importantly, peer support. Most of the time, women shy away from opportunities because they don’t know how to do it themselves.

Learning and development opportunities play a vital role in bringing forth women to clinch opportunities with greater confidence. As working mothers and caretakers, women can’t be defined as any less aspirational than men. Career returnees and women leaders are subject to the same heavy expectations that men are given and that is basically unfair. To help women thrive, knowledge-sharing and peer support are crucial turning points in women’s professional growth.

When I started working with an ad film company in 2007, I didn’t even know how to hold a camera let alone shoot with it. I still remember some colleagues who helped me learn the ropes and encouraged me to do my best. In a male-dominated environment, women’s progress is never tracked because women fail to speak their minds or ask for help. Like a former lady colleague once reminded me, “this is as far as we can go”.

Calling all male allies

Even in leadership roles, women leaders who tackle issues are viewed differently from male leaders who take the same action. Describing women leaders as more impulsive, demanding and complicated don’t help much in eliminating biases that are central to gender-based leadership challenges. This can be solved by having gender-diverse workplaces where male leaders consistently appreciate women empowerment.

As leaders, women are constantly expected to show compassion and femininity so that they remain diplomatic and balanced, a trait never expected out of men. Men who seek equal representation of women in the corporate world are few and far between.

Frankly, I am very fortunate to be currently working for two leaders who are champions of diversity at the workplace.

To have a mountain of trust and hope put on you in roles you least expected is a huge blessing and it comes only from people knowing that both genders have a definite role to play in building a positive work environment. Putting it into perspective, parity offers women the real opportunity to actually make a difference without being judged.

Universally, women are often given the idea that the world is their oyster and they are free to make what they want of it. But real empowerment and ownership depend on minimising challenges that actually pull women back from achieving their goals. As god-mother to two of my nieces, I hope the world would be kinder and less biased. I also hope the glass ceiling that women have been trying to break for centuries won’t need to exist by then.

Like every woman chasing her dream, I know I still have a long way to go, but I’m already so far from where I used to be, and I’m proud of that.