Isabel Chong, Country Manager for SEA, Eaton, speaks to Jerene Ang on the myth that women avoid careers in engineering, how she works closely with HR to bridge cultural barriers, and more, in this exclusive interview.

Q What sparked your interest in engineering and how did you get to where you are with Eaton today?

I stumbled into engineering when following my sister’s footsteps in enrolling in the subject at university. Once I started to learn more, I was quickly fascinated by the role engineering plays in our everyday lives – driving the things that matter and ensuring that they work.

Upon graduation, I entered the power and security industry as a regional logistics manager, and gradually accumulated over 13 years of senior managerial experience across various business functions. These wide and varied roles were crucial in providing me with the opportunity to learn and adapt to the evolving landscape of the functions and regional markets that I currently oversee as Country Manager for Southeast Asia at Eaton today.

My time at INSEAD has also helped me to hone the skills necessary to be effective in my current role where cross-border communication and collaboration is critical to success. Back then, I worked with classmates from over 35 nationalities who brought to the table different yet valuable experiences and perspectives. Through this, I’ve not only learnt the importance of being receptive towards diverse perspectives but also developed my cultural awareness. Beyond my role at Eaton, the ability to engage with all stakeholders, both internal and external, has played a significant role in shaping who I am today. Their feedback helps me become a better version of myself.

Q How would you describe your leadership style?

I take an open and inclusive approach to leading Eaton’s diverse team in the highly dynamic Southeast Asia region.

I believe that mutual understanding and respect are essential to fostering an innovative and collaborative environment where our people and business can achieve their full potential.

I often think of ways to actively engage with my staff and listen to their perspectives so that they feel empowered and valued by the organisation. This allows the team to find common ground and overcome challenges together despite the differences in our culture or background.

Q What are some meaningful lessons you have taken away over the course of your career?

One of the takeaways from my career, particularly at Eaton, is the value diversity and inclusion brings to any team or business. This goes beyond gender to age, culture and background. Recognising, valuing and leveraging the differences in our perspectives and backgrounds drive innovation and business performance. It also widens our access to the best talent and enables us to engage them fully.

Building an attitude and culture of sustained persistence is also critical for success. There are obstacles in every endeavour. These could be unforeseen circumstances, or even mental barriers that prevent us from achieving our full potential. The key is to have the grit to persevere and stay motivated in view of one’s long term goals.

Q There is this myth that women avoid careers in engineering. How do you think this came about and does this still hold true? If so, why do these barriers still persist?

I believe there are strong cognitive biases at play, where professionals - both men and women - search and interpret information that reinforces the myth that women avoid careers in engineering. The impression of gender disparity in the engineering industry can fuel self-doubt amongst women with an interest in the field and hold them back from pursuing their careers.

The fact of the matter is that female representation in the industry has risen over the years and there have been increasingly more initiatives by companies to encourage women to enter STEM fields and to empower those who are already in the line.

Nevertheless, it remains critical for leaders to highlight women who are contributing to the field and continue to champion initiatives aimed at minimising the gender gap to break existing perceptions and drive diversity within the sector.

Q What do you think needs to be done to encourage greater female representation and leadership in the engineering sector?

At the corporate level, businesses should start by fostering an inclusive culture and environment where all individuals - not only women - are valued and provided with opportunities to lead.

To combat existing perceptions, female professionals should be encouraged and empowered to contribute through structured programmes and platforms.

Formal training programmes and inclusion employee resource groups such as Women Adding Value at Eaton are examples of initiatives that enable organisations to improve engagement and drive greater female representation and leadership.

It is also important for industry leaders to nurture aspiring female engineers in the STEM fields on the individual level. I count myself fortunate to have the support of a brilliant community of female colleagues in the power sector, and make it a priority to encourage and empower aspiring leaders to pursue their passion.

Q What advice would you give your younger self, or other women embarking on a career in engineering?

My advice is to never feel intimidated by people’s preconceptions of women in the industry and to not be concerned over the gender norms associated with engineering. Women often bring fresh and unique perspectives to a table dominated by men. Our contributions can help engineer innovative ideas and solutions that solve some of the world’s most challenging and pressing problems, impacting the lives of millions for the better.

Q How closely do you work with your HR head, and on what issues?

Working across the region with different cultural norms inadvertently gives rise to logistical and cultural barriers. These differences can sometimes result in conflicts and disrupted work processes. To mitigate this, I work with my HR director to implement strategies that are personalised to each country’s needs and working style, enabling them to complete their work effectively despite their cultural backgrounds. Together with our Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) committees and inclusion employee resource groups (iERGs), we craft initiatives which help each country manage the unique challenges and expectations they face.

More recently, I’ve also worked together with our HR team to ensure our employees’ well-being and enable them to perform well during these unprecedented times. Apart from practical support such as flexible working arrangements, we developed a range of resources to ensure our employees’ mental and emotional well-being. For example, we made a COVID-19 support helpline accessible to all staff, provided online resources on anxiety and stress management, and conducted training to help our managers lead effectively in the midst of uncertainty.

Q Describe your ideal CHRO.

Highly effective CHROs are characterised by strong emotional intelligence and an ability to understand and map HR strategies against business goals.

CHROs need to be able to discern and empathise with employee’s emotions, motivations and concerns in order to effectively support, engage, attract and retain talents across markets, business functions and levels.

It is also important for HR leaders to be aligned with the overall business strategy so that the company can sustain its growth. Only by understanding where and how the business aims to grow can CHROs ensure that the company possess the right talent in term of competency and values.

Q If not this career, what alternative career path would you have chosen?

Most likely a teacher as it is uniquely challenging yet rewarding. I can make an impact with my knowledge and be a lifelong learner at the same time.

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