Who run the world?
October is a special month. Among the various fall festivities, we’re celebrating the history of an unstoppable force of nature: women. The journey women have endured through history has been a challenging one to say the least, and sadly, some of those challenges have transcended time and are still very much present today. But here’s the thing about women: they are resilient beyond belief, and chances are, there’s at least one who has influenced you at some point in your life, no matter who you are.
I had the chance to speak with Anna Wong, a director within the Office of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS). With Rosie the Riveter, and other classic wartime posters behind her in her part-time laundry room, part-time office, she told me about her career, her journey, and shared some words of wisdom to fellow women who are navigating their own careers in the Government of Canada (GC).
From policy to digital
“ It’s not digital government, it’s just government, and we’re just working.”
Anna’s career in the GC thus far has been colourful; she’s had a wide range of experiences. It all began with her background in policy—the subject she studied in school. Anna has a passion for working on programs that directly impact people. “Policies can have a huge effect on people’s lives,” she tells me. Coming from an immigrant family, she notes that government policies have had a direct impact on her. That’s what prompted her move from Vancouver to Ottawa, to pursue a job in the public service, “it was a very intentional move for me because—of all the sectors out there—the public sector has the biggest reach. If you change a law, policy, or program, you can affect a lot, if not all Canadians.” It wasn’t until she met an influential executive along her journey, that she took a leap of faith, and pivoted from policy to focus in the digital space, specifically on learning and development. She moved to the Canada School of Public Service to help start the Digital Academy and has since returned to TBS with her new skillset. Though she now takes pride in working in the tech space, she notes that the proudest moment in her career so far was contributing to the re-settling of 40,000 Syrian refugees, work she had done in policy at Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada.
Living in a digital world
“Technology will change in a heartbeat, and the rate of change will continue to accelerate, so it’s not so much about keeping up with the hard skills, it’s the ability to learn and adapt that will allow us to embrace change as it comes.”
When asked about where she sees “digital” going within the GC in the future, Anna responds, “I hope we can start dropping the word ‘digital’ altogether.” To her, digital simply means modernising the way in which we work, something she recognizes will continuously adapt through time, and so “it’s not digital government, it’s just government, and we’re just working,” she laughs. The idea of continuous improvement is the mindset we all need to take on to be able to keep up with what’s advancing in our society. Anna strongly believes that investing more in our people is what will get us there, “technology will change in a heartbeat, and the rate of change will continue to accelerate, so it’s not so much about keeping up with the hard skills, it’s the ability to learn and adapt that will allow us to embrace change as it comes.”
“If there is a lack of representation at the table, it’s hard to ensure the decisions that are made are inclusive, and encompass the best interests of diverse groups. And at the same time, subtle behavioural cues are perpetuated.”
Anna is a director in information management and information technology, a field that is predominantly made up of men. As a woman of colour, Anna acknowledges that she has been very privileged to never have faced overt racism and discrimination, though she has colleagues who have. However, Anna does note that there are subtle things that occur within her environment in a systemic way, such as disproportionate representation at meetings she attends, including at management tables and CIO tables. Anna specifies that it’s not like any of those who are in attendance are ill-intentioned, but she makes a pivotal point, “if there is a lack of representation at the table, it’s hard to ensure the decisions that are made are inclusive, and encompass the best interests of diverse groups. And at the same time, subtle behavioural cues are perpetuated.”
Space is subjective
“If I want something, I will go for it, but I often think if I weren’t so adamant and pushy about what I’m trying to accomplish, what would happen?”
Anna acknowledges that she is a go-getter, and refers to herself as a little “bossy,” though, I’d say she’s just a boss. “If I want something, I will go for it, but I often think if I weren’t so adamant and pushy about what I’m trying to accomplish, what would happen?” she asks. She thinks of her more soft-spoken colleagues, who might not necessarily like to take up a lot of space, “that’s all natural because everyone’s different, and it doesn’t speak to someone’s ability” she says, “but to progress in your career, we are basically saying you need to take on specific characteristics and roles, which are typically more masculine and Western.” She emphasizes that nobody should have to be the token spokesperson representing their diverse group, “it’s like wearing this heavy thing accumulated over centuries on your shoulders; we should never put people in that position.”
Iron sharpens iron
Before we conclude our chat, Anna shares some advice for others navigating their careers, “as cliché as it sounds, find your tribe,” she says. Anna believes we all need to find our support people along the way; we need people who will advocate for us, and people who are in the same realm as us, growing with us. She shares a hilarious anecdote about cornering a seasoned executive in the bathroom and asking if they would be her mentor at a time when she needed guidance, “I valued a lot of qualities in that person and learned so much from them—we still talk from time to time today.” The GC is big, but it’s also a small place; I’ve seen it throughout my own career. Having a strong network can really pave the way. Supporting each other is what makes us stronger, or as Anna puts it, “iron sharpens iron.”
I ask Anna for an up-close look at the posters behind her, a collection of wartime paraphernalia she has gathered from around the world. One reads, “Gee! I wish I were a man; I’d join the navy. Be a man and do it.” Though we can laugh at these now, they are a reminder of ideologies that were once very real, and sometimes still prevail today. Anna zooms out with her camera to give me the full tour of her laundry room/office with the display of posters. “Isn’t the irony just amazing,” she laughs.
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