Catherine Mijares

Philippines

Head of HR Operations Asia – Manulife

Catherine began her corporate career almost two decades ago and has actively used her influence and knowledge to drive positive change within business. She is motivated by creating a world where her daughters to do not face the same barriers in business as she did and works to ensure a business world where women are empowered and able to succeed.

In a nutshell, please tell us a little about your career journey until this point.

First and foremost, I am a Mum of four wonderful children – three daughters and a son. Career-wise, I’ve been in the corporate world for nearly two decades, starting from the grassroots as a member of a call centre here in the Philippines, building up to where I am today.

Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace has been a passion of mine since I began my career, but I began to make real progress around seven years ago. This shift came from my own experiences in the workplace, but also from becoming a Mum. I faced numerous struggles and the hurdles I needed to jump were incredibly high.

As a mum to daughters, I made it my mission to ensure that they didn’t face the same barriers I did, and that they will have the same opportunities as my son. This really pushed me to work with organisations that empowered women, and upheld Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) at the core of their values.

This goal also led me to co-found and build the Women’s Inter-Industry Network (WIN). From there, I became connected with so many other multinational organisations in the Philippines and learned an incredible amount from other women who were forging a similar path. I’m now with Manulife, continuing to build a strong legacy for women in business.

“I had to create the change I wanted to see for other women”

Who is your role model and why?

There are so many to mention! But I would have to start with my Mum, who lost her own Mum at a very young age and had no choice but to step up. She was remarkably resilient and started working at the age of 13 to make sure that that both her and her sister were supported. This strength continued all the way through her life. When I was very young, she went to work overseas to ensure that she could make ends meet and left me in the capable hands of my nine siblings!

And I certainly can’t skip the fact that my siblings were, and still are, role models to me. When I was younger and being looked after by my six sisters, I was convinced it was the worst thing in the world. But, looking back on it, I was so lucky to have six wonderfully strong women around me. Because of them, I learned to be generous, kind, strong and powerful. And all these qualities are integral to leadership, so it’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I’m very easily inspired and motivated, and I watched a lot of my siblings entering the medical field as I grew up. So, for a long time, I wanted to be a doctor. Despite that, one aspiration that really stuck with me was wanting to become an astronaut, and I spent a lot of time pretending that I was in outer space! I realise now that this dream quickly faded because there were no Filipino or female astronauts to be seen. There were plenty of men, but no one for me to look up to in that respect.

What’s your greatest career achievement?

Seeing my children excel and become champions for DE&I themselves. They created an organisation called Youth Uprising which was established in 2017. Very quickly, they became recognised around the world and were chosen to partner with Mattel and Barbie in celebration of International Day of the Girl. Every October, they put together an event called You Can Do Anything where they invite successful women from a vast array of industries to talk to students about their experiences.

Last October, the event spanned three days. They had so many brilliant women who wanted to share their stories and show children that they really can be whatever they want to be. There were pilots, police officers, women from top levels of the Air Force, all of whom were Filipino. It was crucial to my children that the people they were engaging with were not only breaking barriers for women in the workplace, but also reflected the audience they were engaging with.

“Whoever you are and whatever you do, having an allyship mentality is crucial if we are all to truly tackle DE&I issues in the workplace.”

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

I pivoted my career path very early on and that was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. As I mentioned, for a long time I wanted to be in the medical field to follow in my sibling’s footsteps. At school, I studied and graduated as an Occupational Therapist. But soon after, an opportunity came up in a call centre and I went for that instead. I was concerned how I would be viewed for seemingly disregarding six years of study and going into something that was completely alien.

But nothing will ever convince me that it was the wrong decision to make – I am very pleased I listened to my gut. I knew that if I wanted to be successful, I’d have to prove to myself that I was capable of being thrown into the deep end. The lessons I have learned from that risk have given me the tools I needed to be the leader I am today.

What would you tell your 18-year-old self if they could see you now?

Just keep moving forward. It’s not going to be easy, but you’ll get through it.

How have your lived experiences helped you in your industry today?

I won’t sugar coat it, there are still times when I feel discriminated against. Even now, I still receive microaggressions. For example, some people don’t give me eye contact when I am speaking to them.

But even within this negativity, I make sure I learn and navigate my way through. I always make sure I escalate these behaviours and make them known to the appropriate people. I also take the time to talk to those who make me feel unseen and explain how their actions affect me. 99 per cent of the time, these actions aren’t malicious, but still, even if it’s unconscious, we must make it conscious. If we don’t, things won’t ever change.

“I knew that if I wanted to be successful, I’d have to prove to myself that I was capable of being thrown into the deep end.”

How has connecting globally with people in other countries influenced your thinking or approach?

Being on a journey with others around the world puts you into a growth mindset. It makes you realise that you don’t know everything and that it’s crucial to listen to the experiences of others. If you don’t have diverse discussions and debates, you run the risk of thinking in a very narrow-minded way, not just personally, but professionally too. Whether it’s running a team or driving innovation, nothing will ever reach its full potential without diversity.

How do you think driving inclusion in your region differs from other parts of the world? Are there unique challenges or opportunities?

The Philippines economy is run largely on outsourcing, and a lot of the work that is undertaken here comes from outside of the country. So, this way of working doesn’t just bring business, it brings diversity.

We’re a very traditional, patriarchal country and for a long time, it was hard to recognise that some of our societal structures weren’t right. However, because of many of these organisations coming in, we have been able to uncover problem areas and build new strategies which support DE&I.

In the seven years I have been working in the private sector here in the Philippines, the scale of change has been enormous. When we started the Women’s Inter-Industry Network, there were only five organisations in 2015. Today, we have an incredible number of big businesses working with us. These organisations helped us bring awareness to the issue of women in leadership and help us drive action.

Of course, there’s still work to be done. We’re working on holding people accountable for their actions and ensuring that allyship is at the forefront of businesses and employers’ minds. Whoever you are and whatever you do, having an allyship mentality is crucial if we are all to truly tackle DE&I issues in the workplace.

We often reflect on you can’t be what you can’t see, how far does this resonate with you and your own experiences?

Representation is so important. From around age five, children are already absorbing their surroundings and beginning to develop ingrained gender stereotypes, especially in relation to occupation. If what they see at home and in the media sits within the very traditional understanding of gender roles, how can we expect to break the cycle?

This doesn’t just apply to children. There was a point in my life, during my time in middle management, where I didn’t see a lot of women in the C-Suite. And because of this, I never pushed myself to ask for that promotion or pay rise.

This is where a lot of my work stems from. I very much had to be my own role model – I had to create the change I wanted to see for other women. I took charge of encouraging others to ask for that next step on the career ladder. I wanted to show them that they deserved respect and that they needed to believe in themselves.

“As a mum to daughters, I made it my mission to ensure that they didn’t face the same barriers I did, and that they will have the same opportunities as my son.”