Inside the #SpotItToStopIt movement

Conversation with leaders


My friends say that they always knew I was going to be a leader

Miranda Ratajski

Chief Information Officer, Group Business Units, Westpac
You teach people how to treat you
Miranda Ratajski in conversation with Adam Bryant, Senior Managing Director at The Exco Group

Adam Bryant: As a woman in business, have you encountered headwinds over your career?

Miranda Ratajski: Absolutely. Because I work in technology, I'm often in meetings with people who don't always look like me. And those headwinds have worked for me and sometimes against me. Sometimes it's great to have that voice of diversity in the room for someone who thinks a little differently. In my case, I didn't do formal technology training. I didn't study engineering. I came from a very different background. That's one of my superpowers. I bring a different point of view to the table.

Some of the headwinds can be a bit tricky. I remember turning up to a meeting once and there were seventeen people in the room, and I was the only woman there. Ironically, I was chairing the meeting, but I was still the only woman. But I realized, at least there's one woman in the room. Battling those headwinds helps us get better diversity in technology. So that's what keeps my diversity optimism going, even though we are making progress slowly.

Adam: What are some specific headwinds you’ve encountered?

Miranda: What has helped me very tactically in those meetings is taking the time to be prepared for the meetings so that people are aware of my role and my knowledge. And if someone does start to mansplain—which is not just restricted to men—I tend to very politely stop the flow and let them know that I understand what they're talking about. Then I’ll say, “Let's talk about the topic at a more strategic level.” That will help lift the conversation out of that mansplaining.

In those moments, I might also use body language, like leaning back and putting my elbow over the back of the chair. I’ll show that I’m relaxed and in control. And if that doesn’t work, I may use verbal cues as opposed to physical ones. Once people know that you're not going to tolerate that sort of behavior, it tends to stop.

Adam: It sounds like you have a zero-tolerance policy toward this kind of behavior. Have you always been that way?

Miranda: It's always been there and it’s gotten stronger over time. My mother was a midwife. She had a strong personality, and so did her friends. My mother was forced to leave school when she was 12 years old because her parents decided that it was more important that her brothers got an education than she did. As an adult, she put herself through night school and went on to become a midwife. She was a “tiger mom” before we even knew what a tiger mom really was. She gave me a strong belief that I could do whatever I wanted to do.

I also think that's really important that other women get to see me behaving like that. There is that old adage, if you can see it, you can be it. If they see me with that innate belief, they know that they can do it too.

Adam: Have you ever encountered a repeat offender who you had to take aside for a difficult conversation?

Miranda: I have. This particular individual wasn't happy about me being in a role more senior to him. And I saw in him some behaviors that were not conducive to a collaborative environment, to say the least. I tried to talk to him about it, but it didn’t go that well. I then talked to my leader about it. He said to me, “I've totally got your back. You have my complete support. We need to make this work.”

So I went back to this individual again, and with that power shift, knowing that my boss had my back, it totally changed the dynamic of the conversation. And this person realized that, too. And going forward, there was a lot more respect and collaboration.

Adam: What were other important early influences for you?

Miranda: I was always taking risks as a kid. I played Australian rules football, which is pretty rough, as a little girl. The boys could play Australian rules football, so I saw no reason why I couldn't play, as well. I often would have a scrape on my knee.

My friends say that they always knew I was going to be a leader. By the time I was 17, I was working in a local supermarket, and I was a part-time manager, managing about 70 teenage girls. We had rosters to work out and you can imagine what being a leader for that many teenage girls was like. It was the foundation of my leadership skills for the rest of my life. Someone would have cried nearly every week. Someone would fight with their mom or their dad, or they'd break up with their boyfriend or they'd fail an exam. I learned to deal with customers as a leader very quickly, and it made me realize the importance of that customer focus.

Adam: Are you optimistic about the pace of progress?

Miranda: The United Nations says it's still going to take over 130 years for true equality for women. And while that is a horrible statistic, it also gives me a lot of motivation to continue to help change the ratio of gender diversity that we have in technology, for a whole raft of reasons. The first one is that diverse teams are more productive. They handle risk better, and they are more likely to achieve their financial outcomes.

And when I think about gender diversity, I don't think about it as a women's problem. I think of it as a leadership opportunity, because the more diverse our teams are, the better we can look after our customers. So that motivation is very strong in me. The other reason this an important topic for me is that I want to help other women see that they can do these jobs and make sure they have opportunities.

Adam: When you mentor and coach other women, what advice do you typically share with them about how to navigate these headwinds?

Miranda: A key piece of advice is that you're not alone. In the early stages of my career, given that I didn’t come from a technology background, I had this unfounded belief that everybody in technology knew everything about technology, which is obviously not the case. So I speak to women about having the confidence to take what might seem like a risky jump.

One way to make those big jumps feel less risky is to break them down into smaller steps and approach them almost like an experiment. It’s easy to look at something and think it's too big. So, break it down into smaller pieces. And as you get each one of those smaller experiments out of the way, you get that innate confidence because you know you've done part of it already.