The results are in: companies with the highest percentage of women executives and board members tend to enjoy higher returns on assets and equity — 74% to be exact. And while the number of female CEOs among major US corporations remain at just 5%, the representation of women in C-suite roles have increased from 17% to 21% since 2015. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Asia Pacific as well, where the number of women in management positions has climbed to 19% — second only to the US and ahead of Europe.
As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia. In this story, we speak to Irene Buhrfeindt, Vice President of Tronox, a US-based producer of titanium dioxide and inorganic chemicals. From being the only woman working on a lumberyard to mentoring others in work and life, this is Irene’s journey as a leading woman.
From being the only woman working on a lumberyard to mentoring others in work and life, this is Irene’s journey as a leading woman.
Q: What lessons and experiences can you share as a female leader?
I was, at one point, living in Canada, and it was my first time going out into the field to resolve an issue as a technical service personnel. Not many women were there because it’s a lumber yard, and it’s a very male-dominated workspace. I also spent a lot of time in Canada when I was much younger. So the most important thing for me is femininity. That’s who we are as women and it is one of our strengths.
Q: Throughout your career, who were your biggest inspirations?
There are two sides to the coin when I think about inspirational figures: those that inspire me and those that do not. People who inspire me are the ones who are authentic. They are genuine in who they are, who they want to be and they help you along the process. On the other hand, it’s disappointing to see people who behave in certain ways or adopt certain tendencies just to ‘fit in’ and ‘act like a man’, just because they feel that that is how they break into a man’s world.
Q: As a leader in your business, how do you set the tone for the team?
I am a very open person. I am very direct. That’s my character. So whenever I work with my team, it’s not about me being the supervisor — it’s about us. I believe that when it is about us, then we can start to see how things would work as a team. Once everyone believes in the ‘we’, everything sort of works, like clockwork. That’s what I share with the entire team, even though most of mine are men.
Q: Over the years, have you encountered any barriers to your success or growth as a female leader?
There are always going to be barriers, be it intentional or unintentional. And it is not just in my career, but everyday life as well. Ultimately, after so many years in the working world, the real barrier is actually me, because there’s so much emotion about where you want to go, they actually cloud your judgment. I’ve learnt that, instead of trying so hard to knock down barriers, you could find a better way by walking around it. I’ve done a lot of that in my life and I’ve started to learn.
Q: What are some of the traits that you admire the most amongst the leaders you’ve worked with?
I’ve been very fortunate to see an array of leaders. Tronox is a mining organisation and the leader built a set of core values around taking care of its people. Whether it’s from a safety perspective or grooming individuals through their career paths. Ultimately, it is easy to create core values and stick them on walls. But it does not mean that it’s going to be lived throughout the entire organisation. It takes time to build this culture, and I believe that culture has been embedded in Tronox for some time now.
As for specific traits, aside from authenticity, simplicity is often underrated. Sometimes, as women, we overthink, and part of that is because of who we are. I often go back to the facts and the logic behind certain decisions, and I realise that it’s actually not that complicated. So simplicity, too, is a characteristic that I do admire very much.
Q: Was it always part of your plan to become a leader?
I’ve always wondered what it was like to sit on the top of the totem pole. I wanted to see how I could fit and help others grow into that role and, over the years, I just sort of moved into this position. Partly it has got to do with my character. When I was very young, I lived in Malaysia, where boys were often considered to be more important than the girls. So when I entered the workforce, I wanted to be no different from my male counterparts. I wanted to be treated as an equal.
Q: What’s helped you build confidence?
I was very shy as a teenager, and I was very uncomfortable because I was taller than most women. Even in my 20s, I was still awkward around people. But I realised that, in order to gain confidence, I needed to practise. Eventually I became a trained chemist, and I have been in this profession for 30 years. I realised that a lot of people came to me with technical questions, and I started to spend a lot of time presenting at conferences. In the early 90s, there were four or five conferences around Asia Pacific, and we would then do roadshows. I started to build confidence by pure repetition, repeating the same presentation and figuring out what I could do better.
Q: What advice would you give to women who want to be a mentor?
‘Mentor’ is a word that sometimes overwhelms me. It’s a big word, and it’s a big ask. I’ve been mentoring individuals, men and women, and I think the most important thing is that we, as mentors, reach out to as many people as we can every day. Here’s something interesting: my latest mentor-mentee activity is actually with a man. He has a little girl and, on top of working on his approach to work, he also asks me about how he should manage his child. It’s also about bringing up those little ones, right? It’s about having that mental change for the father, because he sees me as someone whom he wants his daughter to be like when she grows up and joins the workforce.
Q: What’s the greatest risk you’ve undertaken?
As a trained chemist, I started off as a technical person, but I knew early on that I will be better off in the commercial world. I wanted to spend time with people rather than being cooped up in laboratories. However, I soon learnt that the transition was not that easy. Moving to a commercial role takes at least 10–15 years, and it is difficult for companies and leaders to hire you, especially when you only have technical skills to show for.
What changed for me was an unexpected opportunity. In the early 2000s, I was approached by a big multinational Dutch company based in China, where they were operating a polymer plant. It was a curious job offer because, at the time, the company was in the middle of a divestment. Obviously, not many people wanted to go into a situation like that, but I took up the role anyway because it allowed me to move into a more commercial role. So I packed up, moved to China, showed up at the plant in Suzhou and spent the next four years there. It completely uprooted me from a technical role to a commercial one overnight. So I guess it’s about taking the opportunity when it presents itself.