Don’t dim your light: leaders share their advice for fellow public service women

By on 25/10/2023 | Updated on 25/10/2023
The panellists during the Global Government Women's Network launch event in Canada (l-r): Nadia Ahmad, Mehnaz Tabassum, Vidya ShankarNarayan, Noreen Hecmanczuk; and Siobhan Benita

We launched the Global Government Women’s Network with a session at our AccelerateGOV conference in Ottawa, Canada, on 3 October. In it, five inspiring women leaders discussed everything from imposter syndrome to male allyship and wider inclusion  

The panellists began by telling the audience a little about themselves and their personal experiences of life in the public service. Nadia Ahmad, chief data officer & head of evaluation at Global Affairs Canada highlighted first that representation is just one element of diversity: achieving true diversity, she said, isn’t about the numbers alone but about valuing people’s differences.

One of the ways to value those differences is to create an environment where people feel able to be their full and authentic selves at work, but Ahmad admitted that at various points in her career she hasn’t felt able to do that.

“I’m a child of immigrants and I don’t feel like I had one single true authentic self. I had the self I was at home with my parents, I had the self I was with my friends, and a different self in a professional setting.

“Now that I have small kids of my own, I’m trying to knit that all together and be a more authentic version of myself everywhere.”

As someone who’d got used to mimicking the speaking styles of authority figures in the organisations she has worked for, learning to use her “authentic voice” isn’t easy. But she’s getting there.

In meetings with the deputy minister for development, in which she would previously have communicated in an “impersonation of a senior executive” – which often left her grasping for words and “took a toll” on her – she now speaks more naturally.

For her, this means using hand gestures and showing enthusiasm and passion as well as frustration.

“I’m emotionally invested [in my work] and I let [the deputy minister] see all of that. And frankly, I think it makes me much more compelling and effective, and most importantly, at ease in the workplace,” she said.

Sign up to become a member of the Global Government Women’s Network

Next to share her story was Mehnaz Tabassum, IT project manager, corporate services sector at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

She was encouraged by her parents who dedicated their careers to helping underprivileged women in their home country of Bangladesh. “One thing my parents always told us was that the sky’s the limit and we can do anything that we set our minds to. So with big dreams and ambitions I emigrated to Canada at the age of 17,” she explained.

Though it was a tough transition, she was determined and carved out a successful career for herself. Yet – as an immigrant woman in the public service and often one of the youngest in the room – she battled with self-doubt and shared Ahmad’s experience of feeling she was expected to behave in a certain way if she was to be taken seriously.

Her toughest challenge, she said, was transitioning from a business-orientated role to the STEM field, where, though she had diverse experience and knowledge, she was often questioned about whether she was qualified to be there.

What she’s learned over the course of her career to help her “navigate the bumpy roads” is to find the right mentors, to be selective of the leaders she works for – choosing those who will be her allies and advocates and who embed an inclusive culture in their organisations – and to speak up and share her perspective wherever possible.

“Oftentimes, people commend me for my resiliency and the fact that I was able to come this far, being an immigrant woman, but it breaks my heart, because should it really be this difficult? So networks and platforms like this truly make a difference, to raise awareness and to give women a place to share their story unapologetically,” she said.  

Listen to GGF’s women leaders podcast

Balancing the give and take

Vidya ShankarNarayan, assistant deputy minister and CIO at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is also an immigrant, having moved to Canada in 1998 to study. She worked first in the private sector before joining the federal government more than 20 years ago.

As a woman and a non-native Canadian, she said she has continually struggled with a sense that she must work much harder than colleagues to prove herself, leading her to become a workaholic who was frequently “on the brink of burnout”.

Many women feel they “need to keep doing more and more” to prove themselves to their superiors and their teams, while often having the lion’s share of caring responsibilities at home.

“How do we balance that give and take, and also not feel guilty to take time for ourselves?” she asked.

Noreen Hecmanczuk, senior adviser to the US federal CIO – who has featured in Global Government Forum’s Leading Questions podcast – described her fellow panellists as “phenomenal women with phenomenal stories” and said that like them, she had also suffered with imposter syndrome, particularly during her two stints at the White House.

She offered advice to the audience. “What I would say to all of you is: no matter what stage of your career, if you are asked to lead a project, and you are not in the meetings that matter, you need to bring that up with your supervisory chain,” she said.  

And if you don’t get an invite to the meeting, “you should also be networking and finding that next opportunity”.

Sharing something she’d told the delegation at the Grace Hopper conference – named after the US Navy admiral, computer scientist and mathematician – the previous week, she said: “We’re all born with gifts and you need to recognise what your gift is. And when you get a gift, you don’t just stare at the gift, you unwrap your gift, embrace your gift, share your gift, and loan your gift to other people – that’s called supporting one another, right?”

She added that “it’s okay to toot your own horn once in a while” and that though it’s hard to do, “you should step into your power and represent who you are and the value that you bring to the table”.

Hecmanczuk has been in the federal government for more than two decades, gaining a wealth of experience in various departments and getting to know her senior colleagues. It was this that led US federal CIO Clare Martorana, having noticed that Hecmanczuk “knew everyone in government”, to ask her to work with her.

“We’ve been together now six years and we dream and think big on behalf of the people and we call it federal magic. So find your own magic with your teams and your networks. And don’t let anyone put you in a box – shine,” she said.

Sharing her own story, Siobhan Benita, Global Government Forum’s event and webinar moderator and former UK senior civil servant, who chaired the session, recalled the day she returned to work after maternity leave as one of her worst.

“I remember going into the toilets and crying at lunchtime because I just felt so lost, like, what was I doing here? I should be at home with my baby. There wasn’t a single person that I felt I could talk to about what I was feeling that day.”

Now Benita is caring for ageing parents and at the same time hitting the menopause. “I think no matter where you are in your career, there are going to be these moments. And I just think organisations, and all of us, could do more to support each other at those stages,” she said.

Touching herself on caregiving issues, Ahmad said women are often told they can have it all but the reality is that “you can have it all, but not all at once”. She balances her two children aged two and five and her 80-year-old father with a senior executive position.

“I had to choose the right job for me right now. And it didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to have a fulfilling job or a job that didn’t have really important responsibilities, I mean, I obviously do. But I couldn’t choose a job that was crisis driven and I couldn’t choose a job that required a lot of overtime or a lot of travel; there are all these restrictions I had to put on myself.”

Only one seat at the table  

The session also included thoughts and questions from the audience, starting with one from a colleague of Tabassum’s, who said she’d found that when there was an opportunity for career advancement, it felt like there was only seat for a woman.

“It almost pitted us against each other in a way and it was really unfortunate, because I think it took away our ability to be allies for each other,” she said.

ShankarNarayan referred to what she called the “light dimming of women”. People “dim our light and we tend to stay dimmed and figure out a way to be living in that dimmed light situation”.

“Let’s not let anyone dim our light,” she said. “As you say, sometimes, there is only one seat at the table” and it’s as if “there’s only one person who’s allowed to shine. No, we can all shine and there’s an abundance of opportunities.”

Another audience member chipped in, saying she was only just learning to “take the lampshade off” – how would the panellists suggest she go about doing this, she asked.

Tabassum’s response was to “put yourself in uncomfortable situations” and not to “shy away from taking big risks in your career because they tend to pay off”, while Hecmanczuk’s advice was to make sure you are part of the decision-making process.

Her practical tip for achieving this: if you put forward an idea in a meeting that you believe in but which is ignored, write it down. “A one pager is all you need and make it super easy for the senior leadership chain to understand. Here’s the problem, here’s a solution, these are the next three things we need to do and in my professional opinion we should make it a ‘decision memo’.

“It gives you power to move your idea forward. Take control. They may not like your idea and that’s okay but it gives you an answer and you can move on.”

Read more: Women Leaders Index: how the Canadian public service achieved gender parity in its highest ranks

Benita discussed her time in the UK civil service, when she headed up civil service reform with the then cabinet secretary. Expanding on the point about increasing the number of seats for women at the top table, she said that one of the things they struggled with in that programme was whether to set targets for gender equality and the issues around positive discrimination.

“How do you make sure that there are enough spaces for women? I think there are pros and cons to different approaches,” she said.

Benita’s tip for her younger self would be to not care so much what other people think. “I spent so long worrying I wasn’t good enough or that I was going to look stupid if I put that question forward or said I didn’t understand something. And then suddenly, you get to a certain age and you realise they don’t know more than you – you objectively look at the majority of the men in the room, and some are brilliant, but most are just average, and you think ‘why do we strive to be brilliant when we’re surrounded by average?’”

Male allyship – and wider inclusion  

The conversation moved on to the importance of male allyship. An engineer in the audience said she had been given the opportunity to be a mentor for women in engineering and that a student had told her she was in a workshop with one other woman and four men and whenever she or the other woman in the group put forward ideas, they were ignored.

“I was talking to some colleagues and I realised what we have to do is extend the conversation to men and make sure that they realise that gender equity isn’t just about us, but it’s about them as well,” she said.

Tabassum agreed and stated that men often describe themselves as allies but don’t actually take any supporting action.

The last question of the session focused on wider inclusion. An audience member said her colleagues often walk on eggshells around her because of her disability. There’s no need for that, she said – all she needs is their confidence in her ability to do her work effectively. Mirroring Ahmad’s earlier point, it isn’t just about representation and bringing people with disabilities into the organisation but about understanding what they can bring to the table.

Hecmanczuk said she is involved in ‘lunch and learn’ sessions where employees are asked to share their stories with colleagues. “There’s something about the power of storytelling… We are fully supportive and we want everyone at the table, we want everyone to feel comfortable and to understand but sometimes they’re afraid, right? If you say ‘Don’t be afraid, we want you to come and learn about why this is so important’ and you can tie a story to that, I think you will change hearts and minds and then you’ll start creating momentum in your organisation.”

Tabassum and Ahmad agreed that having conversations can go a long way.  

“Our colleagues are generally good, and if they knew how some of their actions were landing with us, they’d change their actions,” Ahmad said. “So if you have the courage and the ability to open up that conversation, and tell them in very honest terms how their actions are landing with you, maybe we can shift the behaviour.

“And if you don’t have the courage, it’s okay, we cannot force ourselves and take all the burden on our own shoulders – finding the allies who do have the energy to do that on your behalf is really important.”

The session was a great way to launch the Global Government Women’s Network, and there were more audience members keen to contribute than could fit in the available time. There will be more in-person and virtual events on a range of related topics soon as the network develops.

As one audience member said: “I think it’s really so fantastic that we have these forums… thank you for your stories and thank you for reminding everybody that we’re all people and we’re all connected. It’s just fantastic.”

Read related content on the dedicated Global Government Women’s Network webpage

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *