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  • Writer's pictureSarindee Patel

Empower: Chantelle Sampat Shah

If you google ‘equal opportunity’, the following definition is returned: ‘the idea that people ought to be able to compete on equal terms, or on a “level playing field”.

At University, I studied Aeronautical Engineering, a male dominated degree and went on to work in Formula One Racing and Tech at male dominated companies; so there have been very few women that I have worked with over my career. That said, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some exceptionally talented women, who are very good at what they do. One similarity we have is that we all broke through the glass ceiling to work in a male dominated field.

It’s common to hear about breaking glass ceilings, how to break them, success stories of how it happened, but this isn’t where the boundaries stop. Once you break through the ceiling, you need to be able to survive in the environment.

That survival requires an inner strength to carry yourself forward at work, which gets me thinking about the concept of ‘equal opportunity to succeed’. At the start of my career, I knew I broke a glass ceiling. I was the first and only female Aerodynamicist at the Formula One team I worked at during my entire time there and for many years after. However, there are countless times that I know I did not have the same equal opportunity to succeed as a male in the same role. Here are some examples.

Every month, one of the aero teams went on shift in our wind tunnel to test out our concepts for the race car. During these sessions, the pressure is on, and time is regulated. Results are analysed live and decisions need to be made fast. I was the aero on shift, so I oversaw running the session and there were a few team members, which we called model makers who helped fit the testing parts to the car. Since this was a day shift, it’s usual for many other team members to walk in and see what we were testing. On this occurrence, it was my supervisor who walked in while the model makers and I were checking the car. I used the opportunity to ask my supervisor for help on a configuration. The reply I received was “this seems like a ‘blue’ job rather than a ‘pink’ job”.

I worked in Formula One as soon as I graduated from university. Being young, I wanted to socialize after work and on weekends, but since the company was in a remote area, I had to move away from home, so I didn’t know anyone except my colleagues. When attempting to make friends with my colleagues, everything seemed fine at first. They were all young and were in a similar situation where they moved here not knowing anyone. Everyone was friendly and we went on some group outings to nearby pubs and restaurants. To me, it was normal to try and make friends with the guys, as I had been in male dominated environments at school and throughout university. With time, the tone of the conversations changed with many of these individuals. I realized they never wanted friendship and that their agenda was purely romantic. After receiving the first signs of suggested romance, I would always shut it down immediately and distance myself. Even when I thought I was ‘safe’ making friends with some of my male married colleagues, it turned out not to be the case. In one instance, after a year of friendship and meeting his wife several times, he confessed that he loved me during a pub lunch. The frequency at which these events happened became exhausting. Maybe you’re thinking, there are solutions here…join a gym, join a social club to meet friends outside of work. However, if I were a male, I wouldn’t be in this situation I found myself in so frequently. None of what I experienced would have happened.

The equal opportunity to succeed in this environment was not there. Each time I got put down, I moved past it, but when it happened consistently, eventually it became a hostile environment to be in. This is not an easy problem to solve for.

I can only speak for my experience in Engineering and Tech and I believe the first step we can take together is empowerment; providing strength to women who are trying to enter and succeed in male dominated careers.

The few women that I have worked with professionally are phenomenal at what they do. And the crazy part is that most of them don’t know it! I often wonder if situations such as the above have had an impact on their confidence to succeed, like it did mine.

Regardless, there is a message that needs to be heard and made clear to all the women who feel they are not ‘good enough’. They ARE good enough. They are BETTER than good enough. I can see that, why can’t they?!

To all the women out there in male dominated fields, here are some reminders of just how special you are:

  • You are stronger than you realise

  • You are intelligent and successful

  • You dared to be different

  • You are qualified to be where you are

  • If anyone doubts you, show them exactly how wrong they are

  • Always be humble and true to yourself

  • You are not alone in this

As women, we need to continue to reach new highs and find that inner strength to carry us forward in difficult environments to survive and succeed.

Sometimes having someone empower and support you can make all the difference.

- Chantelle Sampat Shah

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