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TURNING GENDER BIAS INTO OPPORTUNITY

Having worked in industrial services, mining and construction industries for many years, in 2011 Haydee Rojas-Judd joined Coates Hire’s in-house legal team. She left in 2015 to travel with her husband and children and pursue other opportunities, only to return three years later as Group Manager of Legal. Haydee now serves as Chief Legal Counsel, sits on the Board of Directors and is a member of Coates Hire’s executive leadership team. 
 
In the lead up to International Women’s Day 2020 Coates Hire is celebrating the achievements and contributions of its female leaders. We invited Haydee to share her thoughts and some of her personal experiences around gender equality in the workplace.
 
Overcoming stereotypes, bias and other barriers
 

For the most part, Haydee has been treated well and felt respected in her work. But starting out in the legal profession and working in primarily male industries has exposed Haydee to her fair share of bias and stereotypes along the way. And gender hasn’t been the only barrier that she has faced – Haydee chuckles when she says, “being young and ethnic didn’t help much either!”
 
“Early in my legal career and even as I became more senior, I encountered people who assumed I was an assistant or legal secretary. They couldn’t get their head around the fact that I was the lawyer,” Haydee recounts. “Countless times I was referred to as the 'legal girl’, ‘sweetie’ or ‘love’. And even when I’d met some people several times they would still ask if they could speak with my boss.”
 
“At times this prejudice was frustrating, but I didn’t allow it to interfere with me professionally or affect me too much personally,” Haydee says. “I knew how hard I’d worked to be where I was and that was what mattered to me.” 
 
Rather than let these experiences get the better of her, Haydee tried hard to use them to her advantage. “I discovered that being different meant I wasn’t perceived as a threat, and that could disarm people and allow them to open up more. I saw this as a positive,” she says.
 
Sometimes even the seemingly small barriers to equality can be unsettling – like being the only woman in the room. “As a female senior leader it can be confronting to walk into rooms full of men and start conversations” says Haydee. “But whilst it can be daunting as a woman walking into that environment, equally I appreciate some men have felt uncomfortable or awkward with me in the room and felt the need to censor their behaviour.” “People tend to think less about gender equality affecting men, but they see it and feel it too,” she says.
 
Diversity of thought and perspective
 
When there is a lack of diversity – be it gender, age, cultural background or industry experience – what’s really lacking is diversity of thought and perspective. 
 
“Working in a male dominated industry doesn’t mean that we all have to think and approach things the same way,” says Haydee. “The more senior women and diversity that we have, the more we can innovate and challenge the way things are done.” 
 
Is equality improving? 
 

Before moving into her current role Haydee spent two years in leadership training, working with a business coach and being mentored by a female role model at Coates Hire. “I’ve experienced first hand the support mechanisms that are in place,” says Haydee. 
 
CEO Murray Vitlich also makes it clear that he supports women, and wants to provide opportunities for men and women to grow, develop and move into more senior roles. “When you’re led by someone with that frame of mind there is hope that this inclusive attitude and culture will trickle down through the business.”
 
“Perhaps it’s because I’m a lawyer that people are careful what they say around me” Haydee jokes. “But I’ve always felt valued and respected here and I’ve never experienced any negative behaviours towards me. I know there are examples in other organisations and other industries where women can have quite different experiences.” 
 
“I’m lucky to work at Coates Hire where there is the desire and intention for a more gender equal workforce, but we’re not there yet – we wouldn’t be having this conversation if we were” says Haydee. “But all signs are pointing in the right direction, and there’s enough energy and activity to be driving this change.”
 
Things are changing in the industry too. “Now when I’m talking to the senior leaders for our major customers, quite often I find I’m talking to women,” says Haydee. “Anyone who’s not on board with diversity or thinking in a gender equal way is going to be left behind.”
 
Women celebrating women
 
At Coates Hire support for gender equality doesn’t just filter down from the top. Haydee describes a culture of women championing and supporting each other – particularly in leadership roles. 
 
“We seek out women who are doing an amazing job and we share their stories and talk about their achievements – because we can’t support or celebrate what we can’t see,” she says. “There are a lot of great women here doing great things, and great men supporting them too, so whilst it’s important to talk about the issues of gender equality there’s a lot for us to celebrate.”

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