Choosing to Challenge: Why ABB is coming together to create change

ABB employees turn out en masse for a round table in honour of women’s contribution to the company and discuss actions in challenging the norms of gender bias.

What does it mean to challenge the norms of bias towards women and people of diverse backgrounds or gender in the workplace? International Women’s Day 2021 is themed Choose to Challenge and asks us to revisit and refresh our perspective. On Friday I moderated a round table for ABB employees to celebrate the achievements of female employees, and to discuss how to overcome the still potent issues of bias against women in particular.

We invited two inspiring engineering leaders, Ronaish Nathan, ABB’s Senior Project Manager delivering one of the company’s biggest projects; and Sara Long, Group Vice President and Global Account Executive for BHP, to the discussion. Mike Briggs, Head of Motion at ABB Australia, joined as a role model for what all men, but especially executives, can do to level the opportunity playing field. True to his title, Mike keeps moving the dial at ABB, choosing to challenge, wherever he sees it, the conscious and unconscious bias that gets in the way of equality both within ABB, and among the industries in which the company operates.

The theme of IWD 2021 is Choose to Challenge, because a world in which people challenge biased behaviour and assumptions is a world alert to the things everyone still says and does, often without realising it, that limit society’s belief in what half the population can achieve. Being alert and responsible for our own thoughts and actions, can help us build a more inclusive world — the potential is super exciting.

A definitive moment of bias

We asked our two inspiring leaders – both women who have built their careers in traditionally male-dominated fields – to tell us about a formative workplace experience that put them on alert, and Sara said that earlier in her career, when she was a project manager sitting with the Process Automation team at ABB, she was once approached by a service engineer who was not often in the office and so wasn’t aware of Sara’s role. He simply made the assumption that because of her youth and gender, she was the one he should ask to replace the toner in the office printer. “It wasn’t said with any mal intent,” says Sara, “but it’s in those moments that you need to challenge people’s unconscious perspective.” Sara didn’t challenge him at the time, and says she can laugh about the vignette now, but the memory still stands out for her as a misconception that she should have addressed.

Ronaish recalls working on a mine site, where every colleague and employee was male. “It was like the law of the jungle,” she says. “Vehicles allocated to me would be taken for my colleagues’ use; my laptop would go missing; my monitor would end up on someone else’s desk. The strong, the loud, the aggressive types, just took what they wanted.” She realised she had to stand up for her right to the tools of her profession. “I had to use my voice and state my case. It was a good journey for me.”

Mike Briggs has worked to encourage women to apply for roles advertised at ABB, insisting that recruiters provide at least one CV from a female, and changing the wording of recruitment ads to eliminate bias and appeal to all people with the skills and enthusiasm to thrive in each role. “The other thing that’s important to me is that when we do have really great employees who happen to be female, that we don’t treat them any differently, and that we don’t make it difficult for them to succeed. It’s about advocating for inclusiveness, in discussion and in presenting opportunities.”

Standing out as a role model

Ronaish has a 13-year-old daughter who is proud of her mother’s role-model position at ABB, cheering her on for taking part in the IWD round table. Ronaish says she has almost daily conversations with her about opportunity and positivity in how she contemplates her future.

“One of the things she struggles with,” says Ronaish, “is being able to deal with negative comments.” We evolve our skill sets to deal with that over time, says this mother who is striving to bring up a child who has a balanced view of people’s actions and intentions. “You don’t want to bring up a young woman who has a lot of anger in them about the bias and unfairness of today’s world.”

Sara Long reflects on learning from her strong, independent mother as she was growing up. “My mother is my role model. She taught me that if you want something, you work hard for it. And you just keep going – continue to be determined and driven. You know, obstacles will always present themselves in front of us but it’s really having that resilience to say okay, even if I fall down I’ll just get back up again.”

Of courage and empathy

So where do you find the courage to challenge people who knowingly or unknowingly obstruct access to equal respect and equal opportunity? Joanne Woo, Head of Marketing and Communications at ABB posed this question of the panel, saying, “There are times, say in meetings, where someone is being bullied or there’s some passive aggression, and you sit there and think, ‘This is a bit awkward. If I say something, does it put the person experiencing the aggression in a difficult place?’ What is the right or wrong thing to do?”

The general feeling of attendees is that if you feel someone’s not doing what’s appropriate or right, that you might not want to highlight it in a meeting or in public, but that you should definitely highlight it with that individual. If they have a negative reaction, the important thing to remember is that it’s not a reflection on you — it’s their inability to see themselves as others are experiencing them. It’s tough. But we can also discuss our approach to the situation with other colleagues — we’re not alone. There’s no perfect way of calling someone out, and people are going to be people, they’re going to be defensive, they’re going to react.

Ingo Patzer, Business Technology Manager and Technology Champion at ABB, and one of the more than 150 ABB employees who joined our discussion, said, “Many people can be intimidated, by the seniority of people around them or the fact that some people talk a lot and talk fast — like I do. But you have to be brave enough, whether it’s a manager at ABB or a client, to challenge when they’re expressing something that’s wrong.”

Inclusiveness is a state of mind

On the flip side, some of ABB’s Choose to Challenge roundtable attendees proposed that we can enable those people quietly sitting in a meeting, by drawing them into the conversation. This is another way to challenge the norm of only hearing from the typically confident cohort.

“I think the main thing is to use your time and your vision to direct the change that we all see is necessary,”’ says Ronaish. “Every scenario is an opportunity to make that little tweak, have the necessary conversation, set things right, include people.” She says the goal is to grow the team of positive people who share opportunities equally, those who “the younger generations can look up to and aspire to be”.

Female role models are important, but mentoring men also have a huge role to play. Ronaish’s role model was her uncle Mark, who blended engineering talent, courage, and respect and belief in human relationships, such that she just aspired to have the same, joyous life of contribution and participation. She says, “Even a 15-minute conversation with the right person is all it takes to help someone believe that they are capable of pushing the limits in some way.”

Sara acknowledged the strong turnout we achieved in our Choose to Challenge roundtable of diverse participants – not just women – and said she most hoped that the conversation would snowball. “After we all click ‘Leave’” she said, “I hope we continue these discussions with each other, that it becomes normal to talk about equality of opportunity and what’s getting in the way, because I think awareness is the first key and once you’re aware you can self reflect, and that’s where the changes start happening because you’re more conscious of your actions.”

Above: More than 150 ABB employees participated in the IWD Roundtable, showing their hands in solidarity and making the commitment to #ChoosetoChallenge

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About the author

Beverly Stacey

Beverly is the Head of HR for ABB in Australia. Prior to joining ABB in 2011, Beverly held several HR and Learning & Development Management roles within the global utilities sector and subscription television organisations. Beverly has extensive experience in executive and leadership coaching, organisational development, change leadership & management, competency development, workforce planning, job design and remuneration management, mergers, acquisitions and integrations. Beverly is passionate about responsible leadership, diversity, and inclusion within the workplace and is proud to work for a company which upholds those same values.
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