International Women’s Day: Interview with Sophie Giesen

Throughout our International Woman’s Day celebration, we’ve asked women across Genesys what this year’s theme of #EachforEqual means to them.

For Sophie Giesen, Senior Manager of Strategic Business Consulting for ANZ, International Women’s Day and equality must start with creating and contributing to a working environment that represents and supports the entire community in which we live.

Read on to learn more about Sophie’s unintended career path, how she overcame being the only woman in the room, and our responsibility to speak and act for all members of our community.

What does the 2020 International Women’s Day slogan, #EachforEqual mean for you in your work life?

Sophie Giesen: For me, this is about creating and contributing to a working environment that represents and supports the entire community we live in, that sparks creativity in all our employees and helps us design for a future that everyone is part of.  When each of us is working to improve equality, we all reap the benefits — personally and professionally.

Your current job is Senior Manager of Strategic Business Consulting for ANZ. Is this role what you expected to be in when you started in the workforce? How did it change?

Sophie: Not even close. I started working part-time in a call centre when I was at university. I was studying biomedical science and was interested in getting into disease research or forensics. Honestly, the change occurred slowly and was more based on circumstances rather than plan.

I started taking on more hours so I could earn more, ended up stepping up into a Team Leader role and then was asked to join the workforce planning [WFP] team. The forecasting part of my role was really enjoyable, and I started helping to set up WFP teams in other centres in Australia. I found I was spending more time at work than on my studies and ended up making a choice to defer. And to the initial horror of my mother, I never went back. Whilst I wish sometimes, I could have two lives and also be in a lab coat somewhere solving biology problems, I do really enjoy the work I do and where I ended up.

What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?

Sophie: When I was young and just starting to work, I experienced sexual harassment at several of workplaces — from both my employer and customers. One employer even turned up at my house after hours because he thought we should “date.” It was terrifying and felt very isolating at the time as I had to find new work again. But looking back, what I can see is how common this was; my colleagues and other girlfriends didn’t see this as something out of the ordinary — unacceptable and disgusting, but common.  This wasn’t a barrier I expected when I started working, and I don’t think there was anything I specifically did to overcome it except quit, which at times, made things harder for me financially. I was lucky in many ways when I started professional work that was in a call centre.

Call centres have long been very female-heavy and family-friendly, so the balance in my workplace was often very organic. I had the privilege of working for some very supportive, interested and strong leaders over time, both male and female. And I was encouraged to take risks and speak up on ideas and ask questions. These were the managers that I remember the most and who I learned the most from — and I am forever grateful for having had them guide my career at different points.

Joining Genesys was the first time I had worked in a corporate environment that lacked gender balance. Again, I was lucky that I knew a lot of the local team from being a long-term customer and had great relationships with several of them. But being the only woman in an office or in most meetings was intimidating at the beginning and it influenced how I contributed. It’s an odd feeling to not see yourself reflected in your surroundings and it took me a long time to adjust and feel that my contribution wasn’t being assessed differently to those around me. Furthermore, I found some of the partner resources would ignore me in a group and only shake hands with my male colleagues, as if I wasn’t there. This would continue through the conversations, and I had to make a concerted effort to speak and try to say something meaningful to prove I should be included.

In 2018, a McKinsey report talked about this concept of women being “Onlys” in the workplace —  about 1 in 5 women are the only female in their team, office or workplace.  This doubles for women in technical roles. The report stated, “With everyone’s eyes on them, women Onlys can be heavily scrutinized and held to higher performance standards. As a result, they most often feel pressure to perform, on guard, and left out.”  Reading that resonated with me, and it explained why it had been a larger adjustment moving jobs than I had expected.

Moving into the tech industry had more subtle barriers but had a pronounced effect on me and I really relied heavily on informal mentors and the network I had already built in my own community in order to talk through what I was feeling and where I had influence and could feel included more. Additionally, I found some amazing male allies internally that used their voices to advocate for change where they saw it was needed — that made a huge difference, not just to the issue they spoke about but to my confidence that it wasn’t just me alone. It can be hard because barriers often can make you feel that it is because of you that they are there, and so there is this idea that if you lean in as a woman then you will overcome. To me, this simply puts the onus back on women to remove the barriers that others put in place. Sometimes you have to speak up and go forward, even when it feels impossible. But whether you overcome the barrier or not, it is important to feel like you tried.

Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in your field?

Sophie: Know that it’s hard. For me this is a role and industry that I love, and I would absolutely encourage anyone with curiosity to join. But go into it knowing you will have to work hard, and sometimes harder than male colleagues to get a seat at the table.  Times and mindsets are changing, so for every woman that enters this industry, a more diverse workplace becomes the norm. And there are amazing people here who you can learn so much from. So, my advice is: Know that it will be hard and sometimes there will be days that you want to pack it in. But if you create strong networks with people you respect and develop a reciprocal relationship with them then you will succeed. They say it takes a village to raise a child, I think it takes a community of support for individual success. And I am thankful for my network every day.

In your opinion, how do our individual actions, conversations, behaviors and mindsets have an impact on our larger society?

Sophie: We are a global community made up of individuals, and our ideas and attitudes are like bacteria — if the right substrate exists, a single bacterium will proliferate unchecked and with speed. This is true whether the bacteria are positive or harmful.   Social media is a prime example of a social substrate: one idea, one voice, one comment, one video can become viral in minutes. And opinions and movements can be created from that. No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes or say things that are thoughtless and without harmful intention at times, but it is important to be mindful of these, apologize when we become aware and work at being better next time.

When we look at major social changes/movements — #MeToo, the Arab Spring, apartheid collapse, American civil rights, the Australian Mabo ruling — these started from single thoughts and actions. But so did some of the worst parts of our communal history. We don’t live in a vacuum and being part of society means we have both rights and responsibilities to speak and act for all members of our community, not just the ones that look or sound like us.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?

Sophie: I spoke before about how isolating it felt at times being an Only. Well, it would be remiss of me not to point out that my experience is still that of a white, neurotypical, able-bodied, cis-gendered straight woman. I know that those in the community who have different identities and cultures have this isolation and “only-ness” on a far greater frequency than I do. I think that we owe it to each other, and especially to those that have an even more challenging and isolating road, to be a voice for them at every opportunity to try and pave the way even a little smoother for those that follow. While it is important to help everyone that comes behind you, some will be looking to you more closely — maybe because you are the only one that reflects who they are — and your help creates more impact for them than you can imagine.

Is there anything else you would like to add for International Women’s Day?

Sophie: People can sometimes be turned off by the diversity and equality discussion.  Conversations and processes labelled as such can start to have the opposite effect to its purpose in the workplace and for some it can feel exclusionary or token to those who aren’t female or in a minority. I think we need to be conscious of how we use these terms and being clearer about the definition. Furthermore, we sometimes see groups that appear very homogenous being touted as “diverse” due to schooling differences or life experiences as a way of meeting criteria. Diversity is about creating environments of equality — equal opportunity, equal treatment. Equal is for all. not some. By raising awareness around gender imbalance, we strive to create an environment that doesn’t, through its process design, assume we all need the same things.

Maternity leave is a great example. Most organisations provide longer paid maternity leave than paternity leave. This is unfair to everyone. All genders should be equally able to spend paid time being a primary caregiver for their new child. To assume that the mother will spend more time at home than a father is detrimental to both parents in a heterosexual couple and even more so to those in a same-sex couple. In an equal environment, there may not be maternity or paternity leave but simply parental leave that is the same length of time no matter what gender you are. Having a diverse workplace helps us see these imbalances and understand how to rectify them.

Continue the International Women’s Day discussion with our latest “Take a Moment” podcast and learn how two exceptional leaders walked the unplanned path to success. Barbara Gonzalez, VP, Global Business Consulting, and Janelle Dieken, SVP, Solutions and Product Marketing, share their philosophies on building high-performance teams and turning heartbreak into triumphs.

Get involved for International Women’s Day. Learn why Genesys Women in Technology is partnering with Water to Thrive to bring the sustainable blessing of clean, safe water to communities in rural Africa.