Looking back on 40 years of rewriting the rulebook

I started Resource International Inc. in 1973. I quickly discovered there were two sets of rules in business: one for men and another for women. I had a choice — I could resign myself to failure in the face of rules and practices that were stacked against me, or I could break them. I chose the latter.

Even in 2014, only 12.1 percent of civil engineers were women, although women make up 47 percent of the entire U.S. workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 25 percent of people in science, engineering, technology and math occupations are women.

Chart new territory

Some men find it challenging to work with strong women, and that attitude widens the gender gap. But, I’ve watched women miss out on opportunities by changing their career course in the face of gender adversity and because of a lack of female role models and mentors in STEM-related industries.

Women must not be afraid to demonstrate their strength, talent and assertiveness, even when antiquated social norms frown on them doing so.

It was disappointing to find out in the 1970s that even in the U.S., many skeptics questioned whether I could “handle it as a woman.” As I overcame obstacles, often transforming adversaries into supporters, I was determined to expand to the Middle East, a region rich with engineering opportunities but known for gender disparity.

Surprisingly, in Saudi Arabia, where a female CEO was unheard of, they accepted me faster than in the U.S. In uncharted territory, I could create my own set of rules.

In 1978, I joined the International Road Federation. As a woman, I had no voice, but I insisted on being an active, contributing member. When I decided to run for the board of directors, IRF leadership changed the rules to forbid women serving on the board.

Once again, I found myself working twice as hard as my male counterparts to demand a seat at the table. In due course, I became the vice chairwoman of the IRF and chairwoman of the International Road Education Foundation.

Championing equality

I’ve learned to always think two steps ahead of the men with whom I work, just to remain shoulder-to-shoulder with them. As a female CEO, I’ve also learned how essential it is to ensure that all of our employees, regardless of gender, race, religion, age or sexual orientation, are treated equally and judged solely on their qualifications and performance. This is vital to create effective teams.

I’m proud to say that most of our employees have a tenure of more than 10 years and some as long as 35 years. Furthermore, clients have witnessed our effectiveness as a team and as contributors to their teams, because we respect and learn from one another’s differences.

It’s critical that leaders realize closing this gender gap by championing equality in the workplace is not simply an ethical practice; it is vital to the success of your business.

 

I’ve faced challenges, but many other women will face even greater challenges, particularly in STEM-related fields. As women in business, it is our duty to break rules, shatter glass ceilings, mentor one another and continue to pave paths for the women who will follow.

Ultimately, it’s just smart business, as much as it is the right thing to do.

 

Farah B. Majidzadeh is the CEO and chairwoman of the board of Resource International Inc. Farah has received numerous awards for her 43 years in business, including 15 years as an unprecedented chairwoman of an International Joint Venture (Highway Maintenance Associates) in Saudi Arabia.