When Sandra left high school at 15 years old, there was little career guidance to school-leavers and a stigma against leaving school early. It was presumed one would ‘amount to nothing’. With a loving family, incredible experiences under her belt, and a resumé beaming with accomplishment, Sandra doesn’t need reassuring that she has well and truly set fire to that stigma.
A jagged track
Sandra is the first to say it hasn’t been a smooth track to this point. When she picks up the phone to speak to us, we hear a warm voice that is as excited about the present, as it is tattooed with the past. Sandra presents as someone who has seen it all and has become stronger for it.
After working her way up from a personal secretary at 16 (“I have no idea how I landed that – I must have talked my way through it!”), Sandra dipped her toe into the world of HR. She had the opportunity to assist a manager drafting emergency plans – a project that would mark the beginning of her career in safety.
Sandra’s first safety appointment within the rail industry was at 25. “It’s been a really long and hard journey, but incredibly satisfying. Imagine a young woman providing direction to her older male colleagues on rail safety. I faced incredible challenges, I was young and paving the way, I didn’t complain.”
“When I joined, I was the first female safety person in my division. There weren’t even female toilets on the sites. During my interview, the manager was umming and ahhing about whether he would give me the job. Finally, he picked the hard hat off the ground, pushed it across the table and said, ‘If you can’t cut it with the men – you’ll need to leave. I don’t want to have to fire you’.”
Twenty years later, Sandra is still kicking goals in safety, continuing the incredibly diverse career she has had in rail, tunneling and construction across Australia.
Full steam ahead
Sandra is clearly excited about significant developments in the gender diversity and inclusion space across the rail sector.
“There’s been a massive culture shift in the rail industry. For example, today we have the Australian Rail Association ‘Women in Rail’ – a mentoring & networking program to help women connect and support one another. At Alstom we collaborate with UTS’ Women in Engineering & IT (WiEIT). Alstom is currently sponsoring three scholarships through this program as well as being a major supporter of the Lucy Mentoring Program, which connects women studying engineering or Technology at UTS to professionals for a one-to-one mentoring relationship.
Sandra’s working life at Alstom epitomises this cultural shift; one reflecting flexible arrangements to foster inclusion and diversity.
“We could all work anywhere – it’s a candidate’s market today. But what ties you to an organisation? For me, it’s values: diversity, inclusion and flexibility. I can work from home or do different hours, and have meetings via skype… One of my favourite things to do is to surprise my daughter by appearing in the car park after school, as she usually takes the bus. We cherish this time together. Alstom gives you the moments you can’t get back.”
Words of experience: Sandra’s advice to other young women chiselling the way in male-dominated industries
1. Uncover your values
For Sandra, identifying her values has been key to discovering purpose personally and professionally.
“It took me a long time to work out what I stand for and what really matters to me. Some time ago, I was asked, ‘What are your values? How do you live by them? How do you fail by them?’ I was struggling to answer… It set me on an important journey of self-reflection. Eventually, I discovered my most important ideal is ‘to make a difference.’ Now, whatever I do, I ask, ‘Does this match my core purpose?’”
Sandra says it can be surprisingly difficult not only to identify a value but to consistently measure your actions against it.
“Start with one ethic. Once you are comfortable measuring your actions against this, only then can you consider what your next one will be.”
2. Don’t apologise for the way you lead
Sandra says that as a leader, it’s important to embrace your own style.
“I don’t apologise for my leadership style; for being a woman and having emotions. I lead from the heart, with kindness and empathy. Women from my generation came from an era where we believed we had to be tough. But I hope we’ve made really big changes for up and coming women. It’s okay to have a cry and wear our hearts on our sleeves. I’m so proud of the work that we’ve done for young women – for the future, for our daughters.”
3. Be your own best critic – and best friend
Sandra highlights the importance of self-reflection – particularly as one progress further into their career.
“I’ve had moments I’m not proud of. An issue is never one-sided. It’s about looking in the mirror to ask, ‘What did I do to contribute to something going wrong?’ The more you progress in your career, the more important self-reflection becomes. At the same time, you should be kind to yourself. Embrace whatever bag of goodies you have on your shoulder and run with it. There is no magic button. We are never ‘there’ – it’s a continuous learning journey.”