As part of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are celebrating some of the Inspiring Women on our MBA programmes by asking some burning questions – from role models to career choices, and sharing advice to young women looking to further their career.
We are celebrating the Inspiring Women on our MBA programmes by asking some burning questions.
Today we have Herlene Benjamin, a professional in the oil and gas industry who, as an aspiring female leader, talks us through combatting prejudices and creating space as a strong female leader.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I consider myself as a dynamic and commercially astute professional recognised for ambition, growth mindset and open-minded curiosity. Following a decade within one of the world's largest oil field services companies, I had decided to undergo an MBA at Warwick Business School. I believe my managerial roles in the Caribbean and Europe enhanced my ability to build cross-cultural connections and extended my creativity to deliver results. I am excited to pivot towards opportunities to harness 14+ years' international success in operational leadership, complemented by recent training to transition into sustainability and marketing.
What made you choose your career?
Growing up in a hydrocarbon-based economy that transformed Trinidad and Tobago into a regional energy centre shaped my early career aspirations. The monetisation of the hydrocarbon resources by local and international energy companies motivated my decision to go into the energy sector as an offshore engineer. I began to appreciate the inter-connectedness of the local industry and its rapid expansion into globally traded commodities ranging from liquefied natural gas to ammonia and methanol exports. This perspective influenced my future roles as a Drilling Operations Manager and Global Commercialisation Manager.
How has WBS supported you in your career?
While the oil and gas industry is fascinating, the perils of COVID and previous recessions have exposed its volatility. The sector demands agility from its professionals. As a woman with career ambitions of senior leadership, pursuing an MBA with WBS gives me the competitive edge needed to navigate the unpredictable nature of the energy sector and the versatility to explore new industries. Combined with my technical and leadership background, it provides the tools required to carve my presence within any industry.
Additionally, there is much to learn about leading and managing people, which cannot be experientially taught. WBS MBA curriculum bridges my experience with theoretical learning. It provides access to networks of thought leaders to challenge my critical thinking and present opportunities to explore global and multi-disciplinary perspectives. Furthermore, my experience of working across cultures from the Caribbean to Germany has taught me that the exchange of knowledge and experience is vital to curating our leadership style. The diversity of WBS’s cohorts facilitates this cross-cultural engagement in an academic setting, which supports my leadership abilities professionally.
Have you ever faced prejudice in the workplace? How so? How did you handle the situation?
Yes, prejudices manifested as being passed over for opportunities ‘better suited’ for a male counterpart of equal qualification, underestimating my authority in meetings, and second-guessing my contributions - only to be repeated by a male colleague and commend him for his idea. Prejudices also included being interrupted because his opinion on the subject needed to be heard over mine. Three words, “I am speaking”, made famous by US VP Kamala Harris, became a mantra for many I have observed, including myself.
I managed these situations by getting allies and mentors. I confided in colleagues and senior managers and leveraged my network to engage with aspirational leaders. My mentors built my confidence to shut down those interruptions and call out preconceptions professionally. My allies were my advocates (for that next role or equal pay) in rooms I was not invited into.
What does this year’s theme ‘Break the Bias’ mean to you?
We are human, and naturally, we possess unconscious biases. We like to work with people similar to us or make us comfortable. Breaking the Bias means disrupting that perceived comfort, speaking about and reflecting on your personal biases and having the courage to initiate the difficult conversation with persons possessing a different worldview. Learning about our differences, and understanding the interplay of our uniqueness, leverages the power of our diversity.
How can we build workplaces where women thrive?
It is no surprise that masculine interactional styles have become the workplace norm (Kendall & Tannen, 1997) and women in male-dominated sectors navigate a labyrinth to achieve professional advancement. (Eagly & Carli, 2007) article provides excellent points on supporting female leaders with initiatives such as:
- Subconscious bias training within workplaces.
- Avoid having a single female member on any team.
- Coach women for line management with stretch assignments
- Welcome women back with alumni programmes. (For example, high performing candidates returning from a career break.)
Truth be told, many of the initiatives highlighted above have been implemented, yet biases still exist hampering the productivity and progress of women in the workplace. Do these programs not work, or has the root cause not been addressed?
Fundamentally, in addition to the initiatives listed above, I think company culture and allyship is also essential. Leaders need to create an open and inclusive environment. One in which biases can be called out and nipped in the bud by anyone, creating psychologically safe spaces where women feel supported and thrive.
What inspirational message can you give to young women reading this?
Ignore Doubt. Forget Fear. Understand your Power
Eagly, A., & Carli, L. L. (2007, September). Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership. Harvard Business Review.
Kendall, S., & Tannen, D. (1997). Gender and language in the workplace. Gender and Discourse, pp. 81-105.
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Find out about other Inspiring Women at WBS.