Natascha Polderman, Group CIO, Control Risks

It’s the early 1990s. Natascha Polderman is majoring in psychology and doing a few jobs to help pay the bills. But she’s still struggling to make ends meet, so she takes on an additional job as a file clerk in an office within a maritime company. “It was the most boring, mind-numbing job in the world,” Polderman admits.

But the job serves a purpose, to the point where it actually starts to look like a more attractive option than continuing to study. Eventually, Polderman switches to a full-time role, expanding her responsibilities beyond filing to include receptionist, typing and admin duties. Then, one day in 1992, an engineer arrives at the office to install Microsoft Office. “I took an interest in what this guy was doing and asked him about Microsoft Access, and he said to me ‘Oh don’t worry, you won’t need to use that.’ You want to bet?”

I like challenges

“I like challenges,” says Polderman, elegantly eschewing the opportunity to focus on her experience of patronising behaviour in favour of accentuating her own solution to it, “so I went away, and I learned Microsoft Access on my own.”

In fact, Polderman quickly found out that she had a knack for IT. Despite this, it took her about three years to switch from an admin position to a full IT role: “I’d worked in an admin job, and that’s kind of where I think everyone thought all the women should sit.” But she kept pushing. “It took me working in quite a lot of different roles that weren’t related to IT, but also doing PC support on the side. I had to go above and beyond to get into that first IT role.”

My husband and I are equal partners in this and we try to balance it as best we can.

Still, unfair as it may be, the experience of having to do more than her male colleagues to make progress almost certainly hardened Polderman for the experiences that lay ahead. For instance, while she spent a lot of time and energy proving to others that she could cope with the workload and long hours, one of the realisations that hit her the hardest was that hard work alone wasn’t going to cut it. She had to network, to get noticed by senior people within her company, and around the region. She also had to understand company politics, something she had little idea about.

The lack of female role models in the IT industry at the time didn’t help either. “I was desperately searching for someone to give me some guidance about how to navigate through that world, and there just wasn’t anybody that stood out.”

What’s more, in those early years, gender challenges were compounded by age: Thinking back to her job at a maritime oil and gas company, Polderman suspects that she was passed over for a lot of roles for being a young woman. She recalls one incident when she was training a group of marine surveyors, and afterwards one of them asked her, “Can you re-book my flight for me?”

She has a clear message to those who make such assumptions: “I think that there was a perception that women couldn’t handle the challenges, and it was ridiculous because we were already handling the challenges. We were probably handling more because we had to face those barriers where we needed people to listen to us, and they didn’t even know who we were.”

I have a responsibility to make it work for working parents

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an effort to over-compensate, Polderman ended up doing what many women in the workplace do: she became a perfectionist. It’s a pursuit, according to Polderman, that often ends in feelings of inadequacy and a tendency to self-blame, which are particularly common among women.

And that also applies to family life: “There are days when my daughter says ‘Oh I really wish that you could pick me up from school every day,’ and it’s heartbreaking to hear that. There are days when I think, ‘Yeah, that’d be nice,’ and then there are other days where there is something really important going on at work, or something really exciting, and I think ‘No, no, no, this is right.’”

What has helped Polderman deal with this is to recognise that she cannot be perfect, and that she doesn’t have to be. There is no perfect work/life balance; there is no right answer. “My husband and I are equal partners in this and we try to balance it as best we can.”

Thankfully, Control Risks—where she works now—has also become a part of the solution: “I feel different, because I’ve always been in a male-dominated environment. I’ve moved around the world so I’ve never quite felt at home, but Control Risks said, ‘We like you because you’re different, you give us a different perspective.’ That’s amazing, I never would have heard that before.”

I think it’s important to tell women: ‘Look, you’re doing a great job. This is where you’re doing well.’ They need to hear that.

The firm also provides a lot of support that allows Polderman to be flexible. But she makes an incisive comment: “To be honest, I feel very lucky. But I shouldn’t feel that way. This is the way it should be for working parents, or people who need flexibility, and I think that’s the way the workforce needs to go in order for more working parents to have an opportunity. The 9-5 working culture increasingly feels a bit old-fashioned.”

It’s getting better though, she says: “There’s been a lot of change in the last few years. I think there has been a big push, both from the corporate world and the media, to get more women into roles that aren’t traditionally female. We have a lot of women in the programme area or the service management area, but to see someone in the engineering side and the development side is brilliant. I love that.”

Keeping that momentum going, and building the number of women in leadership positions, will be about confidence and encouragement more than anything else, Polderman tells us. “I may be generalising here, but what I’m seeing quite a lot—and I’ve felt this myself—is that when there is a job that comes up that’s been advertised, women look at the job spec and decide not to apply because they can’t do everything on the list. By contrast, the men look at the job and think ‘great, I’m going to apply,’ whether or not they actually have the skills to do it. It’s that level of confidence that isn’t quite there in women, because they think they need to be better than everyone else in order to get the job.”

In order to break this mental barrier, Polderman thinks women need to be encouraged to give it a try and see what happens. “It’s not always necessary for companies to look for the perfect candidate who meets all the job requirements; people bring different experiences, skills, and perspectives even though they may not tick all the boxes.”

Polderman has seen this first-hand: “Control Risks has put women into roles when some of the men have thought they’re not ready for it, but they’ve gone on to do a great job, even though they may not tick all the boxes.”

Polderman also recognises her own role in shifting the needle. Having had no female role models in the early days of her career, she has been quick to recognise—and take advantage of—the fact that she’s become a role model herself. Of her recent appointment to the Executive Committee, she says: “I think my view about joining the Executive Committee is that I have a responsibility to make it work for working parents, to show other working parents that they can do it. I really need to make sure that I use my voice well.”

Part of that is about addressing the problem of women feeling as though they have to play by the rules of a role because they worked so hard to get it, rather than demanding the changes that are needed to allow them to perform at their best without sacrificing other commitments.

Polderman has also created a group at Control Risks called the Tech Innovation & Strategy Group, which brainstorms and discusses tech innovation and business models, and has made sure that there are women with consulting expertise in the group. “I was very, very clear that this group had to have women from the consultancy side because we needed balance on the group, and I did not want to sit round the room with ten men and me.”

Finally, she’s supporting women by encouraging them to apply for awards. “We submitted about eight nominations for the Women In Tech Excellence Awards, and I wrote a few of them. I think it was really important for them to hear what they were good at, and how they’ve contributed to the success of this company. Doing little things like that really helps; just getting them around the table and acknowledging that it’s really hard to write something amazing about yourself and how you’ve done well. I think it was really motivational for the women we put forward.”

Indeed, for all the growing societal awareness of the challenges facing women in the workplace, you sense that it’s here, at the sharp end, that real change is happening. It’s about the work being done by real role models in positions of influence: “It’s okay to make mistakes. You don’t have to be perfect, you’re learning. That’s the message I keep telling everybody. I think it’s important to tell women: ‘Look, you’re doing a great job. This is where you’re doing well.’ They need to hear that.” Doubts still creep into Polderman’s mind from time to time. But her message is clear: “You’re here for a reason. You’re no less than anyone else.”