Those who know me will know that I am not a shy and retiring person – I share what’s on my mind and some would say I wear my heart on my sleeve. It all began back in the 1960s: my two sisters and I were brought up in a household with a strong mother and quiet father. We were always taught to be polite and not answer back and, generally, we didn’t. None of us went to our local grammar school despite all being near the top of our year groups; we weren’t selected due to our address and the fact that our parents were not in professional careers. Injustice started at a young age and the desire to succeed burned in all of us.
As I have gained years, experience, and (some might say) wisdom, I have felt more equipped to challenge what isn’t right. At the very start of my career, equality really didn’t come into the conversation. I was enjoying a well-paid job and responsibility for projects. I was generally thriving in a buzzing research office. I met my ex-husband and we worked alongside each other, both being recognized for good work.
Following the birth of my first child, however, I was told to either return to work full time or resign. It was the early 1990s, interest rates were ridiculously high and we had a large mortgage to pay. But I was keen to be a mum and I knew I couldn’t manage my job and my baby at the same time. Another option appeared: I could work a part-time job, taking orders on their phone lines three evenings a week. So for a year, that is where I worked. There was no notion of flexible working, there was no support for working women at that time, and whilst my husband still had many opportunities to further his career by working abroad, I looked after the family. He thrived, while I survived.
I knew I could have more in my life and I wasn’t prepared to give up. I spent a good deal of time convincing a director that part-time could work. Eventually, by sheer pester power, he agreed to me being included in an assessment day, as long as I could prove I could do the job in three days. I did, and I worked incredibly hard to fit this full-time job into a three-day week, but I was the first person in this large organization (apart from those working in the telephone room or on the order line) who was allowed to work part-time. I’m proud to say that, and many women followed in my footsteps, but can you imagine that today?
I was a single parent with two daughters when I knew I had to follow my childhood ambition to teach. I went back to university to study part-time around my full-time job. That was seriously challenging, but I was keen to be a strong role model for my daughters and I wanted to be successful doing something I wanted to do. I taught for five years, was very passionate about it and got many 16-18-year-olds through their tertiary education. I left my job in teaching when my head of department said that “as the youngest person in the department, I could only teach the younger students as I was more relatable”. Despite much counter-arguing, he wasn’t going to budge on his position.
Looking back, I’ve had a hugely varied career due to the fact that I will not tolerate bias, prejudice, sexism... call it what you will. I left my job working for a religious group when I was told not to talk to the men as I would encourage them and “men were weak”. It didn’t matter what my thoughts were about the men or that I was more than capable of handling myself.
I literally walked out of my job in account management one day when the all-female team bullied the only male in the office. I had been trying to ignore the toxic atmosphere, but that day I couldn’t. A month later (when they came to pick up my company car), I was questioning whether I had done the right thing, but materialistic rewards cannot make up for ignoring bad behavior.
The upshot of this is that you can challenge the status quo, but you won’t always win – and you won’t always be right! You will be faced with the dilemma of trying to change those around you and the culture of an organization, or walking away. I learned that some people just aren’t worth staying around for, because for me, the people are key to an organization’s success and ultimately job happiness.
I have worked in the technology industry now for almost 10 years. Yes, it’s an industry that’s predominantly male (only 17% of the industry is made up of women), but I am so pleased to see that it is changing for the better. Yes, I think sexism is still rife, but not where I work, not amongst my colleagues. Working at Immersive Labs has been a breath of fresh air. As a woman advanced in her career, I could easily be overlooked, but I am not – in fact, it’s the opposite. I feel very much part of the team even though I am the oldest female in the company. We all respect each other’s individual talents and skills regardless of gender, age, race or sexuality.
I am so pleased that society has woken up to the fact that women are fantastic contributors, leaders, team players, organizers – the list can go on and on. I’m glad my daughters don’t have the same struggles as I did, but there’s still so much to do. Women still earn significantly less than men and find it harder to break into senior positions. I sincerely hope that when my granddaughters enter the workplace that these barriers will have finally been eradicated.
The main motivation for my constant drive for more and better was to make my daughters proud of me and to instill into them that they can do anything if they put their minds to it. When I told one of them I was writing this piece, she sent me a note to help me get the creative juices flowing. It actually made me cry, so as she starts, I will end.
‘Today I want to talk about the strongest woman I have ever met, and my greatest role model, my mum, Debbie Tunstall.
She works at Immersive Labs, in an exciting and challenging role with heaps of responsibility. And I’m so proud of her. She experienced discrimination in multiple stages of her journey, including ageism and sexism, but has come out a powerful woman to be reckoned with, and a passion for what she does. I’m sure those of you that have worked with her know that well!’
– Beth Kawabata (Debbie’s daughter)
8 March 2021
Account Director, Public Sector
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