Dr Troy Coyle is young, vegan, female and used to being told that she doesn't fit the mould of CEO in a male-dominated industry.
But the added scrutiny doesn't worry her - she accepts it as part of the parcel.
"I feel that our generation has to hold the discomfort of being accused of being given a role simply for gender balance so that the next generation can have a fair shot," she tells the Herald.
It isn't in Coyle's nature to shy away from uncomfortable circumstances.
A good case in point would be her trip to Japan several years back to protest the annual Taiji dolphin hunt made infamous in the 2009 film The Cove .
"It was pretty full-on," she recalls, explaining that there wasn't much separating the protesters from what was happening in the water. Added to this were the watchful eyes of the Japanese police, who had established an onsite station dedicated to monitoring protesters in the area. And despite being kept under a close eye all the way to the airport and facing a fair share of antagonism, she insists she has "no regrets" about getting involved in the cause. To her, it mattered enough to get stuck in.
While her dolphin-saving days might be in the past, her gutsy perseverance wasn't limited to this single event. It's proven useful throughout a career, which has seen her climb up the male-dominated corporate ladder in the heavy metals industry to eventually become the chief executive of the Heavy Engineering Research Association of New Zealand.
A core purpose of her current role is to promote a higher level of innovation in the steel industry to ensure it's not unexpectedly disrupted in the future.
"Our vision is to secure tomorrow's industry by innovating today," she says.
She explains the steel industry has been particularly vulnerable to boom and bust cycles, which follow the ebb and flow of market demand.
"When steel is hot it's hot, as we've seen with all the activity in Christchurch for example. But then as that falls back, how does the industry start to prepare to even out those cycles?" she says.
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The volatility in the steel market has been evident over the last three decades, with the monthly production fluctuating between a record high of 89,000 tonnes in August 1995 to a record low of 30,940 tonnes in October 2016. In more recent months, steel production has stayed above 50,000 tonnes, but this is always subject to change.
"Our industry either tends to be super busy and doesn't have time to think about innovation or it doesn't have the money in a bust cycle to invest in innovation. So the challenge is trying to get the industry to think of innovation as business as usual rather than only worrying about getting the next order out of the factory."
This is a classic innovator's dilemma. It's always difficult to pause and consider where the industry is going when deadline pressure keeps squeezing minutes out of the day. She says "nothing really transformational" has happened in steel for a long time, which sees the industry stuck in the low to medium tech space while also leaving the door ajar for disrupters keen to get a slice of a market dominated by steel.
While it has been slow going for the most part, Coyle notes that there are examples of local innovators adapting steel products capable of enduring the tough environmental and geographic conditions of New Zealand. The best example being the industry's work in the development of steel products resilient enough to withstand earthquakes.
Coyle says this is the type of thinking that can be exported to other countries to drive revenue, even when steel production hits a lower point in the lower market. The point here is that innovators need to think bigger than the small New Zealand market and look into how they could perhaps service the requirements of organisations abroad.
"It's really about changing the mentality," she says.
'I don't look like a leader'
Shifting this perception alone would be difficult enough, but Coyle faces another challenge in the very idea of what constitutes a leader in the heavy metals industry. As it turns out, 'young', 'female' and 'vegan' don't tick many of the standard boxes.
"There is a stereotype for what leadership looks and sounds like, and I definitely don't fit into it. I don't sound like a leader. I don't look like a leader," she says.
But the strong masculine leaning of the industry doesn't worry her.
"I'm used to it," she says.
"Even during my degree, it was male-dominated. It's been with me all the way through. It really isn't a shock to me anymore."
With women making up only 14 per cent of the engineers in New Zealand, Coyle believes this imbalance in the workforce won't be going away anytime soon. Although she's grown accustomed to this, the part that's been a little harder to become accustomed to is the added scrutiny at the top.
"It's almost as though the tall poppy syndrome is escalated in that any woman that puts herself out there really goes under the microscope. It's unfortunate that people are almost looking out for failures of women," she says.
"I definitely feel it. It's a bit like you're representing your gender and you have to be acutely aware of every move you make because it's going to be seen as a representation of women in leadership versus just you as a leader."
While progress is being made toward fair opportunities in the workplace, Coyle says there's still an undercurrent in society – particularly in male-dominated industries – that sees the promotion of a woman sometimes viewed as just another example of corporate tokenism.
But Coyle urges successful women not to be discouraged by the covert whispers that sometimes float around the workplace. She believes that tolerating that discomfort today makes a small step toward improving the workplace for the next generation of talented women.
Even the most uncomfortable circumstances don't last forever. Or at least, they shouldn't.