Think of an accountant and who comes to mind?  A dry, conservative, pale male nerd, perhaps? 

My Page 1 Woman, an accountant by profession, in no way fits the stereotype.  She’s definitely not dry or conservative and you would never call her a nerd.  She’s bubbly, out-going, funny and larger than life. Small in stature and with a voice that easily hits the high notes you’d be forgiven for mistaking her for someone 10 years younger. 

When Shirley Conran stated, ‘Maths is a feminist issue’ she probably had my Page 1 Woman in mind.  Because such traits, alongside her ethnicity and gender, have led to stereotyping and marginalization that have blocked her career progression and might have broken another person.  

Nilani Thavalingham

Even in the darkest of times, my Page 1 Woman didn’t give up. On the contrary, she has transcended the barriers of sexism and racism with persistence, drive, focus, hard work and a huge quantity of self-belief.

She’s frequently mistaken for a sales assistant or maybe a hairdresser - ‘People get confused when I tell them what I do,’ she says. And they say, "Are you leading me on?" and it's like, "Nope, that's what I do.”

Enthused by maths from an early age, my Page 1 Woman dreamt of being an accountant from the age of 7 and has been very strategic in pursuing her ambition.  Her razor sharp intelligence, shrewdness and perseverance have definitely worked in her favour.

Meet my Page 1 Woman, Nilani Thavalingham. And read about her in her own words.


Describe your work.

Nilani:  I’m a finance director, leading a team of finance, IT and office management professionals within an advertising agency.  

I remembered the day I decided to be an accountant. I was watching the TV news, aged 7, and they were talking about the accountancy bodies.  I remember saying ‘accountancy’ and I was excited that I could say this long word. And my dad said "They earn lots of money." "I'm going to be an accountancy." I declared. And he said, "You're going to be an accountant. You'll be good at it. You're good at maths." And I said, "So, I can do it?" and he said, "Yes, you can."

After that I was determined to become an accountant, and opted for work experience as an accounts assistant when I was 14. I absolutely loved working with numbers. I got such satisfaction when everything tallied and added up and it all balanced.

Even now, there’s nothing else I'd rather do. What do I love about it? Using the information to advise and lead the business. I feel I'm part of something special when I can add value and grow something. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning. And having got to finance director, I want to be the absolute best I can be.


What essential steps did you take to get to where you are now?

Nilani: Because I knew what I wanted to do from an early age, I had explored all my avenues by age 16. I talked to the career advisor, and family members who were accountants. Then I mapped out my career and how I would get there.  I considered my options; industry or practice? And I decided to do 3 years in practice, qualify and go straight into industry. However, life never works the way you plan it and I ended up taking the industry route.  This was fine because my plan was always to go into industry anyway, so I adapted the plan. Without a plan it’s hard to recognise opportunities when they arise or put yourself in a situation where opportunities will come up.


What was the most significant thing you did that got you into your current position?

Nilani:  I’ve always made sure that the decision makers know who I am. So when I join a company I immediately see who the bosses are, who the bosses’ bosses are and how to get to know them. And if there’s a social event I always approach them.

I don't talk about work. I have a chat and a laugh to put myself on their radar. And when we're in a more serious environment I might, if the opportunity presents itself, let them know that this is my ultimate goal so that when the role presents itself they’ll think of me.

Also when roles presented themselves I fought for them. I put myself forward and told them exactly why I was perfect for the role. When I went from management accountant to my first finance manager role I was going from having never managed to managing a team of ten.  So my manager would say, "You're not ready." And then he brought in a temp to cover the role whilst he was looking for a permanent person. And he said to me, "I need you to show them everything you do so that they can do it." And I just looked at him and said, "What do you mean? You’ve just told me I can do this job”. I held them accountable and got that promotion.

Gender inequality came up in my last company. Everyone knew I was good at my job. But it was irrelevant because I wasn't part of the old boys’ club.  Those men got all the promotions regardless of whether they were right for the role, or had the experience, or had been with the company long enough to know the business.

In that company I couldn't break through. I fought until I had no energy left.  And finally, sexism and racism were so blatant that I had to leave.  And that's where I had to find my strength and decide I didn't want to be associated with a business like that. I made sure that I told the people that needed to know why I was leaving and how I'd been treated.  I moved to a new company, where they were going to see me for who I was rather than just my gender and colour.


What would you say was your greatest challenge?

Nilani: My greatest challenge throughout my career has been about being taken seriously. I'm not your stereotypical accountant. And one of the things I find difficult is that I'm always judged on first appearance. Whether it’s in interviews or starting a new job and trying to build relationships with people you’ve never met.

The reality is, I use my uniqueness to get the job done. A finance director once said to me, "You're not the stereotypical accountant, you don't behave like one, but you use everything that could be seen as a negative to your advantage. “It was only then that I realised I did exactly that. What could be considered your negative points don’t have to hold you back; they can help you stand out. But it can take time to find the people that can see and embrace that about you.


What was your greatest light bulb moment?

Nilani:  My greatest light bulb moment was realising that they're always going to judge me, the book, by its cover. So I always have to work twice as hard and be 10 times better than the next person to succeed.  I realised in my last job that it didn't matter how good I was or how much respect I’d gained, the person at the top didn't know me well enough. He was new and hadn’t worked with me, and he judged me immediately. I didn't have time to prove myself because there was someone else who was part of the old boys’ club who was pushed along.  

That revelation gave me peace and boosted my confidence. Because for a long time I thought maybe I'm not good enough. I realise now, I'm good at my job; I'm smart and it’s someone else's issue, not mine.


What key resource has been crucial to your success?

Nilani:  First, I had a strong role model in my gran.  She set me up on my journey from my start in life. She lived in a country where women were treated as 2nd class citizens. She was on her own with eight kids and was independent. Everyone was terrified of her. And I looked up to her.

More recently, I’ve had support from strong-minded people like Sepi Roshan, who’s fought the fight with me. When I had doubts, she was there saying, "You're right!" And that's all I needed, one person to believe in me and support me.

Courage was another resource. Courage to find what was going on in my last job, to walk away, to join a new company in a completely different industry and start over.


What do you understand by leadership?

Nilani: My idea of a leader is someone that can see both sides of an argument, is very decisive and can make difficult decisions.  A leader should be a role model for their staff and is respected by their peers.

There’s a woman leader I looked up to. She had charisma and commanded respect. She's not arrogant or aggressive and what she says always made sense. She's so intelligent and stands firm and true to her convictions and believes in what she says and does.  She’s clear on her decisions and accepts accountability for them.  Managers who make decisions and then cower away from them aren’t leaders.

When I'm mentoring my managers I often say, "This is a managers behaviour, but this is what a leader would do. And if you really want to be respected as a manager and you're ambitious then I want to see you being a leader.” And then, "What could you have done differently that would have made you a leader?"  This earns me a lot of respect from my team. All the things I've mentioned I try and stay true to.


What difference has it made being a woman leader?

Nilani:  I’d say that in 90% of board room meetings in my last company I was the only woman. Women bring a different perspective and approach.  Quite often a room can get testosterone filled. And having a woman present calms it down.  Where companies have their old boys’ club, they've all got the same mentality.   So I ensure that a different viewpoint is addressed when certain decisions are being made.


What are your top three tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?

Nilani: Have a career plan. Don't just think, "I want to be a doctor or an engineer." Think about the steps that you need to take to get there.  Plan it and when life throws you a curve ball you’re ready.  Your plan will help you progress down your career path. I wouldn't have got to director level, aged 38, without my plan.

If you're starting out or changing career, get work experience. It helps you understand whether you really want to do the job. It looks good on your CV and shows you’re ambitious.  And test different industries to find which is right for you. You can get into accountancy in every industry, but it’s different in each.  Don't be afraid to contact companies. They love people that contact them and say, "Can I work for you for free?"  

Finally, don’t take no for an answer.  People will say, "You're not going to make it”.  Don't listen. Believe in yourself; keep fighting; work hard; be ready for this. It's all worth it when you get to the other end.


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