I lost my father a few months after I joined the Australian Federal Police (AFP). I was in the academy when I got word that he’d had a sudden heart attack. I was only 21, and he was only 53. My mum also died relatively young—she was 63 when she passed away. My parents had given me and my siblings an idyllic childhood, one of long summers, beaches, fishing, and sport; losing them so early in life left a profound imprint on me. It gave me a, “Life is too short, I’ve gotta live it” approach.
I grew up in a working class environment, and it wasn’t the norm to go straight into university after secondary school. But a few years into my career in law enforcement, I got the opportunity to go to university, and I took it. I was halfway through completing my law degree when I realized that being a lawyer wasn’t my calling. Still, I pushed through, determined to finish what I’d started. I remember being very proud (and very relieved) to be the first in my family to graduate from university.
I couldn’t hear a single word
While in law school, I remember I had a panicked moment where suddenly I realized I couldn’t hear a single word. I was sitting in a small seminar where everyone was taking notes except for me. Turns out, the professor was speaking, but I hadn’t noticed. As a child, I underwent the first of many surgeries, having tubes placed in my eardrums. The doctors and my parents believed that the surgery was a success, and so did I until that moment in class.
That experience triggered a series of surgeries, and I finally learned the underlying cause of my hearing loss: eustachian tube dysfunction. That’s a condition that prevents your eustachian tubes from opening properly, impacting the equalization of pressure in the middle ear, in my case causing chronic infections resulting in a collapsed eardrum, otosclerosis (an abnormal bone growth), and hearing loss.
Several years later, I had surgery to place a titanium implant into the mastoid bone behind my ear. Over time the implant integrates with the bone and a sound processor can then be connected. This enables me to hear through a bone-anchored hearing aid. I thought my ear troubles were behind me, but more debilitating ear infections led to more surgeries and even a stint in the ICU, where doctors discovered that I had a cholesteatoma (a cyst-like growth) that had begun to move into my brain cavity.
The right moves
In the midst of my diagnosis and subsequent surgeries, I’d left a rocky marriage—one that had built up some deep insecurities in me that I was still working to get over. Professionally, I was at the level where leadership roles were within my reach, but I had this nagging feeling that there might be a different path out there for me. So, I took some time off from working and went backpacking through Europe. I might’ve been one of the older backpackers there. Life has a funny way of surprising you; it was during this time that I met my now-husband. At the time, I thought, “This is never going to work.” He was much younger than I was. I lived in Australia; he lived in England. But we wanted to make it work.
I left the AFP, made the move to England, and took the plunge into consulting for forensic practices at Andersen and Deloitte. In 2001, we were married. Work was going well, and my husband and I decided to try and start a family. I was approaching 40 and very healthy but could not get pregnant. In exploring our options, we learned there were very long delays for fertility treatments through the NHS (National Health Service) in England.
Around this time, I got the opportunity to work for Cisco Systems, first as an investigator and then managing their global team and ethics program. That was my intro into the tech world. My husband and I moved to California, where we learned that fertility treatments weren’t covered through my ex-pat contract. I remember writing to the head of HR and saying, “You know, if you’re serious about women in management and leadership positions, you need to think about including health-care coverage for the expat contracts.” They responded straight away and connected us with some fantastic fertility physicians.
Thanks to the change in assistance and medical coverage, we were able to have all the necessary medical tests, which revealed that I had no viable eggs. It was then that we learned about egg donors, and after a couple of attempts, we found our donor. At 44 and a half, I gave birth to our daughter. I like to say, she was “made in California.” She’s 15 now and has grown to be an amazing kid.
In some ways, I’m glad I waited to have a child in my 40s. I had financial stability and a stronger sense of self. On the flip side, parenting a child was hard without my parents. We had moved back to England to be closer to my husband’s family when our daughter was born, but we had only been back in England for three years when along came an opportunity at Microsoft. So once again, we moved, this time to the Pacific Northwest. So apart from those few years early on, we don’t have any form of extended family nearby. There’s only really been the three of us all the time, and we’re a pretty tight unit.
All throughout this period of career shifts and becoming a mother, I continued to struggle with my hearing. I had another surgery on my left ear to clear and clean everything out, remove my eardrum, and seal my ear canal with a skin graft. There’s no ear canal, and I hear through the bone-anchored hearing aid that’s attached to my skull. Then came more issues with a growth in my nasal cavity which impacted my right ear—my good ear—and that caused moderate to severe hearing loss that has required an additional hearing aid.
‘Little d’ deaf
Today, I have zero hearing in my left ear and moderate to severe hearing loss in my right ear. I refer to myself as “little d” deaf. What that essentially means to me is that I didn’t grow up in the Deaf community. I’m not a part of Deaf culture, and I don’t sign.
I have conductive hearing loss rather than nerve hearing loss, so I function mostly through my bone conduction headphones for video calls and with my hearing aids for in-person conversation. Without my hearing aids, there’s no conversation or communication unless I’m looking directly at the person speaking, and that’s had a real emotional impact on me over the years. It’s caused me significant anxiety and stress. I’ve felt socially excluded a lot of times.
But rather than wallow in self pity, I realized that I needed to convert those feelings into the energy to drive change for myself and for others. For starters, I began asking for accommodations at work, like reserved seats and captions at meetings and events. These are things that help put me on the same playing field as everyone else.
When I began to advocate for myself, that’s when work and social situations improved for me. People often don’t know what you need if you don’t inform them. What I need is different from what another deaf person needs. I had to get to a point of understanding that if I don’t speak up and say something, none of us can learn and grow.
I’m part of a deaf and hard of hearing community at Microsoft known as HUDDLE. It’s a group where everyone’s been very willing to help each other out. We can come together, for instance, to ask questions about the latest hearing aid technology or get help finding a specialist for our individual conditions.
As part of HUDDLE, our community and the other disability communities at Microsoft often have the opportunity to import our user feedback into the development of Microsoft products. I’m not an engineer, but I try to raise my hand as much as possible as a member of the deaf and hard of hearing community. For example, one specific area of input is the location of captions and speech bubbles. Being able to influence Microsoft’s ongoing product development has given me and others in our group a feeling of being truly seen and heard.
Leading with empathy
The team I manage at Microsoft is a 24-hour team, and they’re spread all over the world. Our role in the company is to investigate allegations of fraud, business misconduct, conflicts of interest, and other ethical issues that may involve employees or vendors. We gather data, review documents, and interview people involved in the investigation. Our role is not to prove or disprove anything; it’s to gather facts. It’s equally important to show that somebody didn’t do something wrong as it is to show that they did do something wrong.
Communication skills are key to the work we do, but more than that, empathy is a skill we lead with. If you’re an employee and you’ve received a notice that you may be interviewed by the investigations team, that can be a scary moment. If people are feeling afraid, they’re not going to open up. It’s an understandably vulnerable position to be in.
The power of vulnerability
It took me a long time to understand that there’s a power in being vulnerable. People are dealing with things at work, but they may be reluctant to share. I believe in sharing things that I’m facing, and I think that empowers my team to share when they’re having challenges.
Back when I was in law enforcement and junior in my career, I felt it was important to be able to mix in with my team without burdening them with what could be perceived as vulnerabilities. But my grandmother always said a problem shared is a problem halved, and that has started ringing true for me.
Recently, I’d been having strong emotional reactions and bouts of anger, and couldn’t figure out why. I’d get agitated at work and be in tears after meetings. I made an appointment with Microsoft Cares, a company-wide mental health service and met with a therapist. Halfway through my second session, the therapist asked if I’d ever been diagnosed with ADHD. After a psychiatric evaluation confirmed the diagnosis, I started medication, and it’s been absolutely life changing. When I shared with my manager that I’d been struggling and finally received an ADHD diagnosis, her first response was, “You know, you should be so proud of yourself. That you’ve come this far without knowing about your ADHD, and all along you’ve still been thriving.”
Now whenever I get the opportunity or platform to share about my hearing disability or my ADHD, I do it because it might be that through sharing, one person hears me and decides to seek out the help or support they need. Through that support you might just learn that you can still function, and you can be successful. Yes, you will still face some challenges, but perhaps those challenges are going to open up your world a bit more.