So often we worry that our diversity holds us back. But what if we were to turn it on its head? What if we were to view it as an advantage, how would things change? Fiona McKay interviews Dr Fariba Alamdari, a seasoned leader in aerospace, renowned TEDx speaker and advocate for diversity, about her journey and the power of viewing your diversity through a different lens. From using the glass ceiling as something to fuel you, to mindset techniques to manage and re-direct your energy, Fiona and Fariba talk openly about how to transform the way we can view our diversity and what to make of the obstacles placed in our path
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Read the Show Notes Here: Turning Your Differences Into Your Competitive Advantage, with Dr. Fariba Alamdari
Welcome back everybody, we’re here for another episode of Leading Ladies! I’m so excited about today…our guest today is very special to me; I’ve had the good fortune to know her since I first moved to Seattle in 2013. Fariba Alamdari is a renowned TEDx speaker who spoke on the Seattle stage in 2018 on using the power of your diversity. She’s a strong advocate of diversity and speaks at many diversity forums. She’s also a recipient of several awards including Woman of the Year for Air Transport News in 2016, and a Leadership Award from the Center for Women and Democracy in 2015. Professionally, Fariba spent almost 14 years with Boeing, predominantly as a vice president of marketing. She joined Boeing from Cranfield University, which is from my home of the United Kingdom, where she served as Chair of the university’s Department of Air Transport and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Manufacturing and Science. She’s been published extensively on aviation related issues. Aside from all of her positions and accolades Fariba is a magnificent leader whose style is based on compassion. trust and respect for all. And for those of you who’ve been fortunate enough to meet her in person, you’ll have seen just how much she oozes those qualities. Welcome Fariba!
Thank you so much Fiona, for such a kind introduction!
So Fariba, your bio is rather impressive and what I love about you is that you are just so down to earth! I’ll never forget seeing you and your husband at the Rolls Royce Christmas party and you could see I was a little bit left out, and you guys looked after me and I just appreciated that so much. And I know that many, many people in Boeing and other companies feel the same about you. So thanks for being here.Wwhat are a few things that you would like people to know about you that I didn’t mention in your introduction?
Well I originally come from Iran. I was born in Tehran and then I went to England in pursuit of my education. I got my masters and PhD there, and also started working while at university and meanwhile got married. I have two children, one son and one daughter, and despite all the challenges that a woman faces in terms of balancing work and domestic life my children happen to be good people. I can put my hand on my heart and say there are good people and also they both achieved really in terms of their career. My daughter is a physician and my son is a Harvard trained biochemist. So as a mother I am proud, and I think that’s also another part of my life that I can be proud of
I couldn’t imagine any child of yours not being incredibly accomplished and incredibly loved!
And I must say that I have a very, very nice and supportive husband and that sometimes advice to my mentees or young females that have ambitions and they want to progress, I always say choose the right partner because you need good teamwork.
Yeah, absolutely, it’s come up many times in in my podcasts, where people have talked about the importance of having a partner that really champions what you want to go after. So as this show was started to talk about smashing the glass ceiling I’m curious what’s your experience of the glass ceiling. Do you think it still exists?
For sure it exists and we are seeing it every day in many industries and even in our politics. I am so surprised that in the US we still haven’t had a female president. In Europe we had a few leaders, especially Margaret Thatcher, and when I went to England from Iran she was the Prime Minister. And it was fascinating, it was a great role model, it was really good to see that women can look like a woman – as she dressed up, beautifully made up and all that – and still she was very strong. I’m surprised we haven’t had that opportunity for female presidents here, I mean that’s a really highest level. But yes it does exist in organizations, in society.
Was there a particular event or something that happened that made you realize that breaking that glass ceiling was important to you?
Well two events. I must say one, as a child I didn’t think about it as a glass ceiling, I mentioned that my TED talk, and I learned that when I was born and my father was told that his newborn is a girl he wasn’t pleased about that. And later I asked him, when I was old enough to understand, what was on his mind. He said that, ‘I know our society is going to discriminate against women and I cannot see my own child being subject to such discrimination.’ And so I at that time I didn’t think ‘oh there’s a glass ceiling and I must break it,’ but in a way it fueled me that, ‘Oh, no, no, no. This is not going to happen to me.’ And I my parents have three children, I’m in the middle of two boys, so I learned how to live with men, and I always wanted to show that he should never have any regret for me being a girl. But I was doing it unconsciously. I wasn’t sitting there saying, ‘okay how can I do better than my brothers?’ But it kind of fueled me so that was my early on thinking, ‘I’m not having this, I will break this taboo,’ or disbelief that I’ll be discriminated against.
And then when I came to England and was studying, there were two positions that I went for, which was becoming a full professor, and the chair. So many colleagues, I knew they cared for me, but they didn’t want me to be disappointed. and one in particular – I never forget where we were and how it was said – asked, ‘haven’t you heard of the glass ceiling? And I thought to myself, ‘oh, is this a glass ceiling for me?’ The reason for it was that we didn’t have many female professors, in fact at that time there were two and they were both British, so for me having different ethnicity was another so-called disadvantage for this glass ceiling. And again, maybe it’ our personality, but rather than deter me from where I wanted to go it actually fueled me. I decided, ‘no, no, I’m going to do my best to achieve this goal,’ and I told them, ‘I shall rise from my ashes; if I don’t get it I will try again!’ And I was so open about it, and I must say there was some male colleagues who were very supportive. And they were encouraging me, so it wasn’t all bad. But how we react to what we are told, or what happens to us is very important. We can just move on, or we can say, ‘maybe there is element of truth.’ And there are all these barriers, and look at the statistics, look at the evidence. How can I do this? I choose usually, ‘no this is not going to happen to me,’ and I do my best, that’s all I can do.
One of the things that my early coaching training taught me was that criticism is just feedback. You can take it, you can ignore it, it’s your choice. And I feel that a lot of us take it to heart, but it’s a difference in opinion. And the belief in the glass ceiling for women might be widely held, but it’s no reason to be held back.
And for different people the glass ceiling has different shapes and forms. We should think is it really an unbreakable barrier, or is it an obstacle, that by listening by using my strategic thinking, by figuring out ways, by understanding, ‘what do I need to get to my goal.’ And be honest with ourselves, we cannot go to any organization or meeting and say, ‘well I am a woman, I have different ethnicity, embrace me,’ it won’t work. We know that, but what else do I need in terms of education or skills or attitude to help me to get there?
And I firmly believe that the glass ceiling is an obstacle, it is not unbreakable now. And you’re an example of somebody who’s broken through it. So I think this is a good point to turn to towards today’s topic which is turning your differences into your advantage. It relates strongly to your TED talk. How do you think that this topic relates to the glass ceiling?
For us to break the glass ceiling, or make sure there are no barriers, we have to change cultures at all levels. And when I say all levels its changing culture in our society, in our organizations, and ourselves as individuals. So there is not one aspect that would change the entire culture towards glass ceiling. I always try to influence the culture, whether in our society or in our organization, about understanding the value of diversity. But, I spent over my career, a period in time really focusing on my mindset too because I think I am really important in breaking the glass ceiling or achieving my goals or removing these barriers. And I mean, this is my personal belief, I can only influence the society or organization that we are part of, but I have full control over myself. Over time, I’m not saying one day I woke up and I all these were in my head. Overt time time I fully understood that I am the CEO of my career, I need to have the control of my career. Yes, obstacles come my way, there are people who will consciously and unconsciously discriminate against you. But I ask how much energy I want to spend on external factors impacting me as opposed to my own mindset, and how I react to things. I learned that I play a very, very important role in reaching my goal or breaking glass ceiling so that’s how could thinking of our diversity as an added advantage yes.
It’s almost like you have some mufflers on to drown out that noise, because you realize that the power is coming from within. But there must be times when you have got frustrated?
I always tell myself that we all have good times and bad times. When you have good times, you may like to make a note of that, or remember it’s just like having an account. An account of good and bad times.
I love that, I always kept an email inbox of good emails and I would go and read that when I was having a tough day at work. And now with my clients I ask them to actually keep a note of their accomplishments and compliments they’ve got from other people, because it is so easy to focus on the negatives. So, I love that you’re applying that here.
And when there are bad times – this is how I do, it I’m not saying everybody should do this – but when I’m upset and frustrated then I ask a few questions of myself, ‘okay you are human and you’re entitled to be frustrated and upset, but tell me how long you’re going to be upset about this, I mean how big is this issue? Is it worse a day of being upset, or a week or a month? But there is no way you can be upset forever because you have to stand up, you have to learn why this happened. And I don’t immediately jump into the conclusion, ‘of course, I am a woman, I have different ethnicity, that’s why this happened.’ Because this is the worst thing I can do to myself. It doesn’t allow me to see if there are issues that I need to correct. Once I allow myself to look at the situation and understand what happened, yes there could be some element of conscious or unconscious bias, but I cannot deprive myself from really fully understanding if there are issues that I need to correct. Is it my communication, is it the way I approach? I’m not saying blaming myself, but be honest with ourselves, get feedback…and if you hear one feedback over then I need to do something about it. Again, I don’t want people think that, ‘oh it always comes to women.’ But I want us to be clear about why certain things happen and what we need to do about it. It might be pure discrimination, and if it over and over happens do I need to stay there, do I need to be in that organization? I’m not going to be there forever and suffer, I can do other thing. So it’s just having that kind of conversation. And we always learn from frustration, bad times, that’s the only way we develop thicker skins, that’s the only way we acquire more experience. It’s not a waste, it is painful, but we learn so much. And sometimes it opens other opportunities that we wouldn’t have it if that situation didn’t happen. The minute you sit in your office or you come home and you completely lose your confidence and you blame yourself you have given control to outside to somebody else, to your organization. You need to keep control and say, ‘what do we need to do; I have to get feedback from someone who was in that meeting or that organization or colleague.’ And usually go to this source, don’t try to assume things and go to a hundred different people, but not to the source. And if we go with a kind of positive attitude that, ‘I’m really here to understand and find out the truth and correct me if I’m wrong.’ It may happen, I’m not saying there is a formula and all this is written in stone, of course it depends on the situation that you’re dealing with, but don’t lose control, that’s all.
So, turning your differences into your advantage. What do you think is the advantage of being diverse, of being different?
I think we need to look at our society where we work. The customers we have, the suppliers we have – we no longer live in a place that is not multicultural. Whether it is different ethnicity or whether it is generational or gender, in so many way we are different. And if you are different you can better speak the language. I think you’re more likely to bring together a diverse team, and there are huge amounts of research that talks about the advantages of diverse teams. Not necessarily how we look, but diversity of thought that comes from experience, or experiences that we have in different culture, or being in a different situation. So given where we are going as society, having cultural awareness is useful. And also as a woman there was a study, and there is a book, that many traits that are common amongst women, like teamwork, nurturing team, and being authentic or multitasking, many of these traits that naturally comes to most women are leadership traits that we need in the future.
We need them today! And it’s not a case of saying women or men are different, I mean we’re different in a complimentary way. And it’s actually scientifically proven. I don’t know if you’re aware of the work from the Gender Intelligence Group, but they’ve actually studied male and female brains and found that anatomically and chemically they’re different, and so there’s a reason why we show up with these different qualities. Now I’m not saying it’s black and white. Obviously it’s a continuum, it’s a bell curve, so some women will have more male traits and vice versa, but why not take advantage of biology here. And I love what you said about being different gives you an ability to build diverse teams, because I think some of the experiences you go through from being different leads you to have a different level of empathy. That struggle really helps you in the long run.
Absolutely, and when we talk about diversity is not excluding men. And in my own life my father my husband my son they are my close allies, and of course my daughter and my mother. We have the opportunity to work with great leaders supportive male leaders and supportive may female leaders. So diversity doesn’t exclude men, it’s just that we want to make sure the teams and corporations and organizations are truly diverse.
Yeah, bring us in and you’ll be even more successful! Aerospace, 25% percent are women, 25%! and I mean. And globally I was reading something that said 52% of the workforce are women, and at management it falls to about 14% and then at senior positions and C-suites it’s down to 4%. And I think about the different kind of decisions we would make if we had more women more people of color…just more diversity in those boardrooms.
Because our customers are diverse, our suppliers are diverse, this is something – even if we don’t want to do it because it’s the right thing – to think about the bottom line, to think about the financial performance. There are a huge number of studies, more diverse team produce better products and services, you see more innovations and at the end hopefully the margins are bigger. Fiona you talked about the statistics…I want to tell you a short story. I was invited to speak at a forum about diversity in aerospace and engineering and that forum was very interesting, they invited seven women all from different history from medical to law and art. And I was the last speaker, and everybody in every industry came – and these are ladies that achieved so much and broke the glass ceilings – and they talked about the statistics and it was more or less the same that everywhere, where in the hierarchy you went up you saw less women. My presentation was about to show the statistics of aerospace and engineering. In the audience were a lot of young women and one leader after the other going and talking about statistics to them, they must be thinking, ‘what hope I have to get up there in the hierarchy of my organization?’ So so I decided to change my presentation there and then. I said okay while all these statistics are true, what I want you to do every one of you say is, ‘I want to be part of that 20 percent, I am going for that 20 percent.’ I know the statistics are bad, but I am going to figure out what is needed to get there.’ And if we all do that and don’t be discouraged by these statistics, they change, the statistics will change. So we have to be careful. It’s true that the barriers are there and we are not there yet, but as individuals let’s decide that, ‘I am going to figure out what is needed to be part of that smaller percent.’
Yeah! Don’t let the numbers scare you off because it’s the only way it’s gonna change. Yes, I love that, what a great story! Imagine, a few years from now I might have some of those young women on this podcast. So you mentioned that the women on the stage were all women that had broken through the glass ceiling. At what point in your career did you realize that you had broken through the glass ceiling?
Well it was that situation when I actually successfully not only became the full professor, one of the three women in the university at the time…and also I was offered to be the chair of the department so I was given both positions in the company. And there were applicants from outside and internal, and the interview boards were large, from internal and external, and I felt that, ‘yes I will break the glass ceiling.’ It’s all relative, where you are and what you see.
Fantastic ! And then since then, what did you commit to yourself in terms of, ‘how am I going to reach back through that glass ceiling and pull other women with me?’
I believe that whether we have broken glass ceiling or not, at every point in our life, even when we are very young, we can be useful to others. So I never waited to reach the glass ceiling and then be useful to others. I remember even as a PhD student they were younger girls doing Masters, and they had family and they wanted to do PhD. And because I had my children when I was doing my PhD, they would come to me and say, ‘how are you doing this?’ And I was giving them advice, how to organize your time. We can always help and reach out at any point in our lives we don’t need to wait to break the glass ceiling.
And how does somebody like you, who I imagine a lot of women aspire to be like and look to for mentoring now, how do you how do you manage that, those demands on your time when there’s so many women wanting your support?
It’s amazing how much capacity we have when we focus, and we decide where we want to spend our energy. I get really happy when I hear from someone who I talked with and they said, ‘you said something and it changed my mind,’ or, ‘I did something different.’ It’s just so satisfying; and true happiness for me is to be useful to somebody else, especially if they kind of change a little bit in direction. I’m not saying that all people, because I talk to them, they just completely change, but if you can influence positively in other people it is very, very satisfying. And then managing time, I’m kind of good at it, because as I said I worked and studied with kids in a foreign country with no support from my extended family. So I learned how to manage my time and do what I am passionate about.
And what about when you hear those painful stories from other women about what they’re going through? That’s one of the things that I find a challenge, when I hear some of these things it weighs heavy on my heart. How do you listen and not have it weigh on your heart?
Good question actually. I told you my daughter is a physician. Often I say, ‘how do you see these patients in this situation and then you come home?’ And I remember, when she was doing her residency, sometimes she was very upset seeing what happened. But once you can help and you think you’re being helpful that sort of balances that pain. Because there are people who you talk with and sometimes to them is a big issue, but for you to look at it from outside, you sometimes break it and you pinpoint what is the root cause and that aha moment. It lifts them up and it lifts you up and you think, ‘oh together we kind of found the root cause of this situation,’ or you suggest a few ideas and then they write back to you and say, ‘I’m actually doing this and it’s working.’ I believe there is there are solutions. We are not prisoners anymore. We have voices, the only thing that sometimes stops us is fear of failure. We have to be courageous, to get out of our comfort zone, to take calculated risk. Again, an example for me is that I was so happy in England with the job I had, but then the opportunity at Boeing came through a recruiter. Well, it’s very scary when you are in university, you have tenure and you feel you broke your last ceiling, and now to come to another country, to corporate America, where people say, ‘oh in corporate America it’s first come, first gp out, or hire and fire, and culture differences. But I knew I had to experience this new path, so I took a risk; but I wanted to take this risk. And this time it was a bigger risk because if I failed my family would suffer too. Again, having a supportive family helped. But we do face opportunities sometimes, and we need to drastically change, but we are fearful.
So it sounds like you’re a woman not held back by fear, that’s willing to take risks. And seeing other women take those risks and heels your heart. So do you have any examples of where you have used your differences to your advantage and – in a in a constructive way?
Because we work in a male-dominated industry any meetings I went to, or any conferences I went and spoke at, people remembered me. That’s good! Once they learned my name for some reason they remembered it, so that in itself is an advantage. And I really tried to use my traits – I mean you were kind to say down to earth, open, respectful – I really try to apply that in everyday work yeah. It’s not enough that we believe in that, we have to practice and practice and know our values and apply them in everything we do. And some of them came from my cultural awareness and some came from being a woman. And I applied those and I believed in them, because if I don’t believe in myself why should I expect you to believe in me? How does this work that deep down you don’t value your whole diversity, deep down you see your diversity as a liability, but you expect others to value it and to embrace you? It won’t work. You have to start from within and practice and practice that, ‘I in addition to my technical knowledge or skills I have one more advantage, and that is my diversity because, as we said we understand what it means, we have that compassion and empathy towards others, and it’s helpful in leadership especially.
Yes, especially living over here, you and I being from other countries and meeting other people. I’m always wanting to make friends with anybody who’s moved here from abroad.
And people who are from here who want to go abroad, or have been abroad, you have so much in common to talk about. And sometimes people are curious about you, to better understand what you do, how you do it, even what you eat, what type of food. So many things that interest people in you.
So if nothing else people will always be curious about you and people will always remember you if you’re different! So Fariba, if you only had one piece of advice to give to a young woman – perhaps you daughter, niece, somebody from high school that wants to go into aerospace – if you could give them one piece of advice about breaking the glass ceiling what would it be?
Be courageous. Don’t let fear dictate your path. Be courageous.
Be courageous. Beautiful. Well, Fariba, thank you so much for joining us today, I so appreciate your wisdom and your presence and just being here to share this with us. I think you’re just fabulous and I’m really glad that you’ve you stayed in Seattle and you are here supporting women locally. We’re really lucky to have you.
Thank you so much, you’re very, very kind. And thank you for including me in this great series of podcasts, I would love to listen to other ladies and learn.
I couldn’t imagine it without you! And so for our listeners, if you go to the website you can see the show notes from today, some of the topics we’ve talked about, there will be a link to Fariba’s TED talk…so please, go there, give us your feedback, tell us about future speakers you want to hear from. We’re here to serve you, and we really appreciate you taking the 40 minutes to be with us today!
Fariba Alamdari is a former Vice president of Marketing at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
In 2006, she joined Boeing from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, where she served as chair of the university’s Department of Air Transport, and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Manufacturing and Science. She has published extensively on aviation-related issues.
Fariba is a strong advocate of diversity and is a speaker at diversity forums. She believes in a compassionate leadership style focused on achieving results based on trust and respect for all. She has served on the board of directors of many non-profit organizations including Neighborcare Health, British American Business Council, and University of Washington Bothell.
She is recipient of several awards including: “Woman of the Year” by Air Transport News in 2016, “Ellis Island Medal of Honor” from The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) in 2016, “Leadership Award” from the Centre for Women & Democracy in 2015, the “Professional Award” from Career Communication Group, Inc in 2011, “Professional Practice Recognition Award” from State University of New York Institute of Technology, School of Business in 2010.
Fariba received a PhD and a Master degree from Cranfield University in the UK. She is married, and has a son and a daughter.