Breaking the Bias - Silvia Wanigatunga

In Australia, only 22.3% of founders are women. However, Fabiola Campbell, Kate Austin and Silvia Wanigatunga defied the odds in order to launch successful businesses and non-profits respectively.

In recognition of International Women’s Day, we were honoured to host a panel led by these 3 incredible women to talk about breaking the bias to our team. Now, we’d like to share some of their insights and advice with you to inspire women to keep breaking the bias beyond International Women’s Day.

Meet Silvia Wanigatunga

Silvia Wanigatunga

World-traveller and CEO, Silvia Wanigatunga has personal experience in making her mark in male-dominated industries. After finishing her studies in Germany, she went on to work locally and internationally in the field of aerospace engineering quality management for over 15 years. During that time, she held several executive, senior and leadership positions in Austria, America & now Australia. She even became a founding member & Vice-President of Boeing Women in Leadership for Australia & New Zealand and served as the Chair of the Boeing Australia Diversity Council.

However, in 2020 Silvia decided to pursue her passion for real estate and started her own business — Haus Property Solutions. Since then, her company has continued to grow and expand.

You have a remarkable career spanning different countries and sectors. As a woman working in male-dominated industries, what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered and how have you overcome them?

It’s funny you ask that, because it’s only been in the past few years that I have realised how commonly I’ve faced challenges that my male colleagues didn’t have.

Some of my highlights include female workers at a supplier in Malaysia hiding from me (literally under tables), because they were suspicious & scared of the young female manager from Austria that their own (male) bosses were trying to please.

In Australia, I’ve been asked if wearing a pencil skirt in a manufacturing company is a safety hazard (in a place where men were allowed to wear shorts).

Most of the time, these situations take me by surprise, as I have never seen myself as anything different just because I’m female.

Luckily, I am rarely lost for words, so I ask questions to understand where they are coming from.

Once they realise it is a bias of sorts, I call it out for what it is – a stereotype or perceived behaviour that rarely fits me as a person.

It is quite powerful to call challenges & myths out for what they are and de-bunk them.

Afterwards, you rarely get the same questions from the same person again & you win an ally instead.

How has living abroad across different countries and continents changed your approach to work?

I have learnt to be quite adaptable and flexible. What is “normal” in Germany is not automatically acceptable in Australia – despite both of them being western first world countries.

My approach to work is very systematic, organised and planned – stereotypical German traits that I have learnt to use to the team’s advantage within mutually respectful environments.

The way I approach people & situations now is very different though and it is strongly influenced by who I am talking to.

I try to respect people’s culture & modus operandi and adjust my style accordingly.

There’s no right or wrong way – there’s just working together, appreciating each other’s strengths, to achieve a common goal.

As former Vice-President of Boeing Women in Leadership for Australia & New Zealand and Chair of the Boeing Australia Diversity Council, why are diverse viewpoints important to you, and how did you push for greater inclusivity in your respective roles?

When you work in Quality in Aviation and have people’s safety on your mind… you don’t want the same old ideas that have failed in the past. You want fresh, new ideas that have a chance of making the world a safer place to fly.

I have seen what ideas a room full of middle aged white men come up with – they are rarely completely outside of the box.

On the other hand, I have seen how the most innocent little question, raised by someone who doesn’t know much about the topic, can spark a flurry of ideas and lead to new solutions.

It doesn’t matter if it’s age, gender, skill level or heritage. The more diverse people are, the richer their combined ideas are. Why not include a finance expert in a manufacturing problem?

So throughout my career, I have always encouraged a truly diverse team and have challenged my employees to reach out across jobs & departments, to gain fresh insights, challenges, ideas and to make new connections.

In 2020, you established Haus Property Solutions. What is the story behind its founding and why should companies invest in female-led organisations?

I believe that passion is the most important ingredient to achieve success in anything in life.

When I realized I had become tired of doing the same job for 15 years, I asked myself what else I was passionate about.

The answer was simple – I love helping people and am passionate about quality & for real estate.

So I started my business in helping people make the right decisions when buying, building & renovating – “piloting their property journey” :-)

Why companies should invest in female-led organisations is a tricky one for me to answer…

I believe that we should all invest in organisations that do the right thing by the community & by themselves – no matter the gender of their employees, founders & leadership team.

Encouraging diverse business leaders in general, however, I’m all in for!

As I said before, the more diverse the inputs, the more amazing & innovative the solutions.

So if we want to be on the forefront of innovation, we need all the diversity we can get in our economy.

Given your experiences as a leader and founder, what measures would you put in place to create a more equal world?

I strongly believe that openness and transparency is key.

The more we openly share selection processes and decision paths, the easier it is to hold us all accountable to the highest standards.

If we all know the criteria for the next exciting opportunity, it will automatically make it harder for people to favour their “mates” and reject others based on biases.

And my personal favourite for a more equal world? Let your kids choose their own path!

Let the boys dance ballet and let your girls play with Lego if that’s what they want to do.

Buy your niece a birthday card with planes on it rather than unicorns – who knows - she might captain your next flight to Bali before you know it :-)