#GenderEqualityIs a Seat at the Front of the Room

By Thilma Komaling
March 8, 2018

Adapted from Thilma’s opening statement at the event “Investing in Women’s Leadership: The Promise of the Private Sector” on March 5, 2018 in New York City.

In late October last year, I orchestrated an impromptu pitch with the President of Indonesia in his presidential palace. As the Head of Government Relations at a tech start up in Indonesia that enables the public to report public service issues on their phones in real time, we push for a sustainable and safer city. We do this through geospatial-based reporting, which promotes government transparency and accountability. The pitch was to ask the President to expand our technology to 542 cities and regencies throughout the country. It was a big moment for us.  

Seventy-two hours after the pitch, a meeting was scheduled with the State Minister. I attended the meeting with three other male colleagues. I knew this was the start of something amazing, so I dressed in my best batik and tried to compose myself. Ten minutes before the State Minister entered the room, one colleague spoke to me with a very dismissive tone.

“Thilma, would you help us with the presentation material?” he asked.

I frowned and asked for a clarification. Apparently, he wanted me to sit at the back of the room and click through the slides while the three men presented our deck. 

I remember that moment vividly. 

My blood boiled. I was offended. Several scenarios on how to respond flashed through my head…but I finally walked to the back seat, opened the laptop, and projected the file. I sat in that chair for two minutes feeling angry at myself for not speaking up. The male colleague who made the request of me smiled from across the room with a nod. I felt demoted. 

Soon after, the high-ranking officials (all men) started coming in the room and shook the hands of the three men. Not one reached out to shake my hand. I looked around and counted. Out of almost 20 participants, I was the only female. Then entered the Minister. At that very moment, I raised my hand and asked if any of his officials could help us with the presentation. Seconds later, someone came and took over my seat. 

I walked confidently to greet the Minister and shook his hand. Then I sat down where I belonged, next to my three colleagues—equal with all the men. I took a deep breath and whispered to myself, “This is my spot and I am not going anywhere.”

This story would have had a different ending if I had never experienced the power of women’s leadership. I would have stayed in that back seat, clicking “enter” my whole life if I had not had mentors and a support system that always reminds me that I am worth it. 

Four years ago, I took a leap of faith. I left my three-month-old son for a month and traveled almost 10,000 miles away for a once-in-a-lifetime leadership training opportunity. 

The Global Women in Management Workshop (GWIM) at Plan International USA may only have lasted four weeks, but the impact has lasted for much longer. Those four weeks spent investing in myself have reaped ongoing rewards for the past four years. And I have no doubt they will continue to benefit me for the rest of my life. With the set of leadership skills and boosted confidence I gained, I came to understand that women’s empowerment is not a personal issue. It was, and needs to be, a global issue.

In Indonesia, we have 48 GWIM alumnae “working their magic,” making social change through their organizations, projects, families, and as role models and mentors to other women. A group of alumnae, including myself, have started organizing to make our dream of replicating GWIM workshops for local women leaders a reality. 

The opportunity came to us in 2017 with the help of ExxonMobil Indonesia. We were able to work with the first group of 17 women in their production area in Bojonegoro. The training included five modules on leadership and economic development, adapted from the GWIM curricula. It was followed by 12 weeks of coaching for the participants by the trainers.

I am happy to share with you that we have another opportunity to run a second women’s leadership training next month in the same region. 

Our goal is simple: we want to make sure that no woman should ever feel it’s her place to stay in that back seat.