Women of the Arctic Council: Interview with Kathy Nghiem, Vice-Chair of EPPR

In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we spoke with some of the women who work with the Arctic Council to learn more about them, what it means to be a woman in their field and their advice for young women.

Kathy Nghiem is the incoming Chair of the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR). We spoke with Kathy about her career path that led her to the Canadian Coast Guard, embracing being different from peers, challenging the status-quo and her advice on keeping an open mind when it comes to careers.

Can briefly you tell us about yourself and how you’ve been involved with the Arctic Council?

I’m a first generation Canadian and I grew up in a small town just west of Toronto, Ontario. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology. I’ve worked for the Canadian public service for over 20 years. For the first 15 years I worked on various aspects related to the Government of Canada’s response to Indian Residential Schools. In 2015, I was ready for a new challenge, so I took a leap of faith and joined the Canadian Coast Guard to try something completely different. Much of my work with the Canadian Coast Guard has focused on forward planning and developing policy solutions for its emergency response programs, including search and rescue and environmental response. I started participating in the Arctic Council’s EPPR Working Group in 2019 as Canada’s Head of Delegation. This spring, I will be taking on the role of Chair of EPPR for 2021-23.

What motivated you to pursue a career in your field of work?

I first joined the Canadian public service through a work placement during my bachelor program. The job advertisement sounded interesting, but it was in an area that I knew nothing about. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I submitted my application anyway. Much to my delight, I was chosen from my written submission! This placement introduced me to the public service and I later decided to pursue a career in the Canadian public service because I was intrigued by the vast number of opportunities it presented. Admittedly, I was also looking for stability and predictability, both financially and professionally. And – to be honest – I didn’t really know where I could go with an education in sociology in the public service, but I was open to seeing where it could take me.

In my mind, the best solutions are ones that consider multiple facets of the problem and the best way to identify these elements is by inviting diverse perspectives to the conversation. One of the things I most appreciate about the Arctic Council is how it has woven this interdisciplinary approach into its DNA. Kathy Nghiem

What do you enjoy most about your work?

My favorite part about my work is tackling complex problems and then translating these ideas into pragmatic solutions. I really enjoy working with a team of diverse people to develop unique and innovative solutions. I’m a big advocate of working smarter not harder. Although I respect conventional modes are important and should be respected, I like to challenge the status-quo and continually move the yardstick forward. I really enjoy working in policy areas, whether in the public service or with the Arctic Council, because it allows me to work with a wide range of experts who bring very diverse perspectives to the table. In my mind, the best solutions are ones that consider multiple facets of the problem and the best way to identify these elements is by inviting diverse perspectives to the conversation. One of the things I most appreciate about the Arctic Council is how it has woven this interdisciplinary approach into its DNA.

What obstacles have you faced during your career? Do you believe any of these were specific to being a woman?

Not sure if it’s an obstacle but a number of times during my career, I’ve been told from people I trust and respect that “I am different” or they reflect on “how I approach my work differently than my peers”. At first, I really didn’t know what to make of this comment but in recent years, I’ve come to embrace this description and take it as a compliment and a strength. In reflecting on why I might be perceived as “different”, I think being a woman is certainly part of this but I don’t think it is the only reason. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s because I’ve always tried to bring my authentic self to my work. Even though at times, this might have made things harder for me, I don’t pretend to be someone I’m not - I am who I am, and I try to make the best of what I have to offer.

I think it’s important for women to advocate for themselves and each other. We shouldn’t just sit back and wait for everyone else to change the way they think. If we want to be considered for new opportunities, we need to vocalize our interest and overcome our reluctance to communicate our strengths and what we bring to the table. Kathy Nghiem

What do you think are current challenges and opportunities for women in your field of work?

Women are less inclined to self-promote when compared to men. Reports have confirmed that women often downplay their contributions when compared to male counterparts. I think this tendency negatively impacts women’s careers and their ability to advance in all kinds of fields, including the public service.

Related, there’s still a lot of unconscious bias in the public service and many other domains that negatively impacts women. I am proud that the Canadian public service has recognized that this is a barrier and is working towards identifying and removing opportunities for these biases to continue in its commitment to fostering more diverse and inclusive workplaces. I also appreciate this will take some time and we won’t see change overnight. With that in mind, I think it’s important for women to advocate for themselves and each other. We shouldn’t just sit back and wait for everyone else to change the way they think. If we want to be considered for new opportunities, we need to vocalize our interest and overcome our reluctance to communicate our strengths and what we bring to the table.

Who is your role model, and why?

Knowing this is an article about women, I am likely breaking some unspoken rule by confessing that my biggest role model has been my father. One of the most important lessons he taught me was to work hard for what I want. He was always my biggest cheerleader and I knew he was always in my corner. His unwavering confidence in me helped me develop an attitude and belief that I can do anything if I set my mind to it and put in the work to get there. And he taught me, if it didn’t work out the first time, to not give up but to learn from my experience and to keep trying. Now, as an adult, when the doubt starts to creep in, I think of what he used to say to me and remind myself, I am capable and I can do whatever I set my mind too.

What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a similar career?

My advice to young women is to keep an open mind when it comes to their career. There are so many opportunities out there that can lead to all kinds of wonderful and fascinating paths if we are open to them. Don’t be afraid to try something that wasn’t in your plan. I think it’s important to recognize that our priorities and goals will ebb and flow as we get older and it is perfectly alright to adapt and change our plans. Finally, I’d say everyone’s professional career is unique, and there’s no right or wrong approach so I encourage young women to give themselves the freedom to follow the path that is right for them.

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