Beating self-doubt and gender bias

Ma Sandy Aung left a promising career in marketing in Singapore, where she had graduated from university, and braved the disapproval of her family to start her own firm, Forte Global, in Yangon five years ago.

“Our aim is to help people working in organisations think, learn and do things differently, and as a result, perform better in their roles. With this goal, we also managed to open a well-recognised learning and development centre in Yangon last December,” Ma Sandy said in an interview.

That’s a milestone for Forte Global, which started as a corporate learning and development firm in 2014. “During the first three years, my family barely saw me and I had no time for myself as I was running from Hlaing Tharyar to Bago to conduct training courses for clients,” she said.

One wonders why Ma Sandy would give up life in Singapore and defy her family’s wishes by taking the entrepreneurial route. The way she tells it, the impetus to return to Yangon came in 2012.

“In those days, I came back from Singapore every 4 or 5 months to teach free English lessons in Myanmar. During one of my trips, when I visited my family’s office, I saw 5 people fixing a printer. It took practically a whole village to take a jammed paper out, which just annoyed me and got me thinking about finding a better way.

“The office manager told me that such things take time and there were a lot of people around to help anyway. That kind of thinking and inefficiency frustrated me. So instead of working in Singapore, I put all my energy into coming back and making the best of it. At that time, the country was also opening up and businesses were coming in, so I thought why not help my own people?” she said.

Ma Sandy has recently noticed another problem with local corporate culture: a prevailing bias against female employees. “In Myanmar, even women are biased against their own gender. It is quite surprising that only 4 out of 10 women prefer to have a female manager; the majority prefer to have a male manager,” she said.

“Women employees have the perception that female managers tend to be more emotional, which is not always true. There are also emotional male managers, but they are more easily forgiven. Male managers tend to get away with a lot of things they say or do,” Ma Sandy said.

“The punishment by society and the workplace is a lot harsher when you are a female. There is no logical reason for women to prefer a male manager,” she added.

In fact, she herself has been a victim of gender bias in Myanmar.

In the interview, Ma Sandy spoke about the challenges of starting out as a young female entrepreneur and gives advice to today’s Myanmar woman:

What has been your greatest challenge as a female entrepreneur?

The challenge was overcoming biases that society often places upon a young woman leading a start-up. They come from parents who try to protect you because they don’t believe you’re capable of facing potential hardships, and from clients who doubt your ability to deliver results based on your age, gender, identity, and even physical aspects like your height.

When people hear the word entrepreneur, they see a mental image of masculinity, a suit and a tie. The images we see in the media today associate the word entrepreneur with masculine figures, so it’s hard to get it out of our heads.

The reality is, as a female, I have to work ten times harder than men to get my clients’ attention. I put in more effort to gain my clients’ trust. I put in more hours to deliver quality programmes to an audience who would pick on the slightest flaw in what I wear, where I stand, what I look like and how I speak, none of which would be that big of a deal with a male trainer.

How do you deal with self-doubt and uncertainties?

I deal with self doubt by talking to myself. A lot of women have these little talks with themselves. For example, when I am about to enter a room full of executives who are probably 20 years ahead of me, I have butterflies. What-if questions queue in my head, like, “What if they don’t like me?” “What if I am wrong about myself?” or “What if I don’t have the confidence I thought I have?”

Although it is difficult to control these thoughts, I try to counter them with questions like, “What can go wrong?” “How bad could it be?” and “If I screw this up, then what?” Finally, I ask myself, “So what?” These are the questions that I feel a lot of female entrepreneurs should ask themselves.

I think it is more important to be yourself than to think of these things constantly that become self doubts. It is normal to have these doubts, but instead of talking yourself out of good opportunities, talk yourself into taking challenges.

How do you think pregnancy and marriage will affect a career?

That is a very valid question that most women entrepreneurs have. For example: Can I still do business when I get married? How will it work?

I think it takes two hands to clap. Before you decide, you need to talk about it with your partner. It is all about using negotiating skills with your family, parents and partner. There has to be give and take, just like in business. If he is cooking, then I will clean the dishes. If he is cleaning the house, I will be mopping. The fact that the responsibilities need to be shared has to be made known and agreed.

But babies, on the other hand, are difficult, which is why I decided that I didn’t want a kid. Not because I don’t like kids. I love kids, but I don’t think I’ll be ready for that sort of responsibility or sacrifice for the next 5 years. My priorities are work and marriage. I think it is about knowing own priorities. If you are 100pc into having kids, then you can really make time for it.

Do you have a role model or a particular female entrepreneur whom you look up to?

My mother is an entrepreneur and my sister-in-law is too. They are empowered in their own way. They can pick up the kids, send them to school, come back to work and give 110 percent. Indirectly and directly they taught me to look at things strategically from different angles. They taught me to question myself even though I think I am right. Every step of the way in my career, these role models have been strong and supportive and super resilient. So I follow the example of these role models. I have mentioned before about biases and that my family didn’t like me starting a business. But it was because they faced hardships as women entrepreneurs and they wanted to protect me from them.

What three pieces of advice would you give to young female entrepreneurs?

1. Never be afraid to negotiate. My biggest weakness is negotiation, and I lost a lot of opportunities be cause I didn’t negotiate hard enough.

2. Do not feel guilty about giving yourself better opportunities or me-time. A lot of people feel guilty about this. I see a lot of my friends feeling so guilty about taking a rest. I don’t any more.

3. Talk yourself out of self-doubts. Only you can do this for yourself, no one else.

The Myanmar Entrepreneurs Network organises a monthly networking event at the Signature Restaurant in Yangon on every first Tuesday of the month at 6:30pm.


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