Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Lady of logistics

Former deputy commissioner of transport Dorothy Chan has helped blaze a trail for women in the male-dominated sector of logistics

Not many women choose a career in the traditionally male-dominated field of transport and logistics. But Dr Dorothy Chan has not only embraced the sector, she has also climbed to the top of the industry’s highly competitive pile. Now, she is encouraging other women to consider a career in what she says is an exciting and flexible sector.

Chan retired in 2002 as the deputy commissioner for transport, and joined the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Professional and Continuing Education as deputy director and head of centre for logistics and transport.

She is also the international president of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) – where she gained her own professional qualifications – and a former president of the institute’s Hong Kong branch.

Chan holds academic titles in other universities and works with several agencies, including the Social Welfare Advisory Committee and the Advisory Council on Environment.

On the home front, she is married with two sons, now in their 20s. To de-stress and keep fit, she swims and works out at the gym, and to relax, she is a veteran knitting hobbyist.

It’s a busy life, and that’s exactly what Chan planned for herself as a young girl. With a housewife mother and lawyer father, the young Chan realised early on that the role of stay-at-home wife was not for her.

“I wanted to have a career, but I wanted to get married too,” she says.

Chan planned to follow in her sister’s footsteps and become a social worker, studying psychology and social work at the University of Hong Kong. But on graduating, there were no openings for social workers, so she sat and passed the government exam for executive officers, and waited to see where she would be sent. “Without any prior training, I was posted to the transport department. That’s how I began my career.”

The only woman in a team of four – and the first person to be recruited as a transport officer – Chan was determined to make a successful career for herself in what was then a new government department, which grew from four staff to 40, and then to 200.

Chan had her professional qualifications ready by the time promotion opportunities came knocking and, after eight years in the department, she was promoted to chief transport officer, a role that put her in charge of vehicle inspections and licensing, traffic arrangements, transport studies, and planning.

It was a hands-on role that included direct contact with bus and taxi drivers, many of whom used language that was a bit rough for bureaucratic ears. Nonplussed, Chan adjusted her communication style to suit.

‘“Let’s sit down – talk!’ they’d say, rather than using pleasantries,” she says. “Of course, I don’t use foul language, and they don’t use foul language in front of me, but we use very direct language and a lot of common jargon.”

She moved on to become deputy commissioner, beating three men to take on the top hands-on role in the department. Her proudest achievement was revamping the city’s bus service, a feat that took almost eight years to accomplish.

“I am the sort of mastermind behind replacing an old and underperforming bus company, that is, the China Motor Bus Company,” she says. “We re-tendered the network, and we now have New World and Citybus. So I introduced competition and the immediate impact was that the public-transport service quality has gone up very much.”

As international president of CILT, Chan has helped to promote education and professionalism in the field globally. She believes the sector has plenty to offer women. While 99 per cent of taxi drivers are male, Chan says it can be an attractive job for women because of the flexible hours, just as in logistics.

“Supply chain means you manage a product from production and delivery, to wholesale, return and even recycling. “[For supply-chain management] you need multiple skills, and women are sometimes more flexible in dealing with these things,” Chan says. “My feeling is, in logistics, women can do it because it is an round-the-clock [business], and sometimes can be home-based.”

Looking back on her career, Chan says the male-dominated environment has been largely irrelevant to her success.

“If you ask me how [I] can accept to work in a male-dominated environment, I think it’s because the Hong Kong government looks at qualifications, and so do others,” she says. “I don’t think they look at gender – it’s qualifications and experience. What has helped me is consistently good performance. I’m also more flexible and can communicate well.”

Chan hopes her success has paved the way for other women to follow in her footsteps.

“When I retired, the person who succeeded me as deputy commissioner was a female. The person who succeeded her was a female. Now we have the fourth woman deputy commissioner. I think I have set an example that women can do it,” she says.

It’s not a coincidence, she adds, with a twinkle in her eye. “All three of them, I recruited.”


Dr Dorothy Chan’s prescription to help you get your career really moving

The languages of success “Learn to speak multiple languages,” Chan says, explaining that her ability to adapt her way of communicating to different situations and to speak clearly and politely have served her well throughout her career.
Learning to move up “Gaining professional qualifications and training to progress in your chosen career are highly important.”
Step up and be counted “Ask yourself what you can mean for your company and always seek ways to contribute. This will help you stand out.”
The right think “To get ahead, women need to play to their strengths.” These include flexibility and solution-focused thinking, Chan says.
Good guidance “Find a mentor.” Chan credits her own ability to progress to the support she received through mentoring.