In 2004, Joanne Soo joined a team of Singapore women to form the first Singapore women’s team to scale Mount Everest. In preparation for Everest, Joanne summitted Cho Oyu (8,201m), the 6th highest peak in world, in 2007, and summitted Mount Everest on 22nd May 2009. In the autumn of 2011, Joanne successfully led an all-Singaporean team to summit Mt Ama Dablam (6,812m) – acclaimed for one of the most technically demanding peaks in Nepal.
When I first started this journey, they were very few women who like climbing. When I did throw the idea to friends that I want to more than just climbing a mountain – most of them would just stare. When you are of a certain age, a lot of people have the stereotype that you should settle down, get married, get a stable job. I thought that creating a business to bring people to climb mountains is a stable job! But people thought it is very unstable and random. So I faced a lot of challenges of people thinking that it is just a one-off idea and that it would just die off. But I am glad that after so many years, I am still doing this and I am doing more now. I am glad that I chose to be myself and focus on the things that I can and want to do.
In this era, people are more expecting in what we are doing. If you have the intention to do something different or out of the norm in your community, I think a very important thing is to understand what is your goal in life. For me, I wanted to climb a lot more mountains. My mum always asked me what is so good a lot about mountain climbing? When you go to the mountain, there is a lot of quiet time and a lot of soul-searching, something that we don’t get in a city life. It has made me a better person. I understand what other people are going through. I have more empathy.
So if you are looking to pursue something that is out of the ordinary, then you need to be very clear about your goal. If you want to be the best mountaineer ever – it is possible. What you want is very important. If you are unsure about your goal then you will be very easily scared of the comments that come your way.
When you climb Mount Everest, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. Once you enter the mountain, it’s a level playing field. The mountain doesn’t lower down because you are a woman. When we were at the base camp, we (the women’s team) were like laying in a fish tank. Many foreigners came to our tent to look at the 6 women from Singapore and wondered how we can climb Mount Everest. There was quite a lot of uncertainty on us, that put so much pressure on us, and waving the Singapore flag you can’t lose out to anyone. We always seemed to be the last in the group, because we took our time and we were told that we had to go for more climbs in order to match the summit face schedule. But we didn’t agree. We just wanted to go slow. On the day of the final summit face, the first to arrive on the summit was a Singaporean girl at 3:45 am. She overtook a few men and an astronaut. On that summit day, I was the second person and second woman to reach the top. Women are considered the weaker sex, but we are not!
Arundhati Bhattacharya is an Indian banker and first woman to be Chairman of the State Bank of India (2013-2017). In 2016, she was listed as the 25th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.
We had the opportunity to ask her opinion on equal pay at an event organised in partnership with GLG and First State Investments, in celebration of International Women’s Day last month.
Arundhati also shared her opinions and experiences on a number of other topics. Here are some of her comments:
On getting to the top:
“Women must have the courage to stay the course, not consider themselves a victim, and have the ability to self-help. Of course, teamwork is needed both at home and at the office, without that, it is very difficult for women to step in.”
On being valued in an organisation:
“Women often feel that if people don’t miss their absence, then there is something wrong. They do not have the confidence enough to understand that if your absence is not felt it’s a good thing. Because it enables you to be somewhere else and do something else. Both at home and at the office. It is not your absence that should be felt, it is your presence.”
On becoming the first Chairman of the State Bank of India:
“As soon as I got promoted, the first day in the office, they asked me what kind of business card I would like. I asked them to print my title as ‘Chairperson’, and within an hour the legal department sent me a note that there is no Chairperson in the State Bank of India Act, so I would have to be known as ‘Chairman’, otherwise sign-offs would not be legal. I rationalized to myself that the ‘man’ portion in ‘chairman’ doesn’t really mean a man; you have ‘man’ in ‘woman’ as well. This is one word and it means to be the leader of an organisation, so let’s take it as that and be comfortable with it. It may be perpetuating certain ideas that the chairman has to be a man and maybe it would have been worth to fight for it, but I decided that there were enough battles without adding this one.”
On female talent retention:
“I headed HR for 2 years and I was surprised to see that at the time of recruitment we were getting about 33% women. In the top management, we only had 4%. Where did they disappear? Where did they fall off? Why are they not with us?
So we instituted a study and found that there are three specific periods where women seem to fall off in our workforce. The first period, of course, is the childbearing years, the second period was when the children are between classes 8 and 12 to prepare for examinations. The last reason we found is when either the parents or in-laws are falling sick (old age care). I felt that if we gave them 2 years during this period, it would enable them to come back to the work stream. Imagine a person having to give up their job and then 3 months later having nowhere to go. They would love to come back and be part of the (work) family again. And we as an organisation gain so much because they are all trained workforce. Of course, there was resistance to this. In fact, some of the women came and told me that I should not have done this because it is creating a stereotype that their husbands now expect them to be at home. I agree it does perpetuate a stereotype. In fact, later on, we gave it to single men as well, because they have the same challenges. But the fact of the matter is – that’s the reality! And in the reality, how do I help? Of course, stereotypes need to change and I do tell the younger women – it is you who will change the stereotype, by asking your spouses to carry out duties at home.”
On creating equal access to career opportunities at work:
“We found it very difficult for the women to go into the rural service. Initially, we thought that it is because they didn’t want to, but later we found out that the difficulty is going and staying there. Because no one in a rural area is going to rent out a place to a single woman. So I picked a house in a central place and we would allow the women to use it as a hostel. This way their promotions wouldn’t get impaired.“
“We also ensured that each local head office had a woman doctor, either a paediatrician or gynaecologist, for the women to consult. Because I found that they were neglecting their health. They just didn’t have the time to take off from work and go get their health check-ups done. However, if you have a woman doctor on the premises, it makes it that much easier. We also made the cervical cancer vaccination free for the children of our employees and our female employees.”
On the pay gap:
“Organisations need to try and really understand why there is a pay gap. What are the causes? Are you giving the right incentives? And therefore ensuring that the gender pay gap decreases as much as possible.
The fact is that it will take time for us to close the gap. There will be a time when the tipping point is reached – when things suddenly start changing, and that will only start happening if we start closing the gap from the bottom up. It’s not something you can close from the top.
What really needs to be done is to ensure that organisations reward merit without any bias of the gender. Once this is achieved, we will have more balanced organisations.”
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