How to Maintain Your Cool When Being Underestimated

Photographer: Chia Sue Hwa Sue

From her time working in the cutthroat world of law to working with asylum seekers and refugees at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Saran Mutang Tagal is no stranger to being looked down upon and treated differently because of her gender. Taking time out of her busy schedule, Saran spoke to MissMafia to tell us how she maintains her cool in the workplace and why she wants to help others find their creative spark.

How did you end up working for the UNHCR?

Before I started working for the UNHCR, I’ve always had an interest in human rights law. I studied international human rights law back in university. Before I started my legal pupillage, I actually applied to the UNHCR but I didn’t hear back from them until after I received an offer from the law firm. I ended up putting UNHCR on hold because I wanted to complete my legal journey and one needs to complete their pupillage before becoming a practising lawyer. The law firm I worked with was great, but I didn’t really see my purpose there in the long term and I couldn’t see why I was doing it. That’s when I thought about the UNHCR again and applied and eventually got in.

In your line of work, you meet people who are of different cultural backgrounds to your own. Have you ever faced any discrimination because you’re a woman?

There are definitely challenges to being a woman in this field, especially when you’re dealing with people of different cultural backgrounds. However, I’ve never actually experienced any stark gender discrimination. My boss has given me so many opportunities at work and he does not gender discriminate. Also, my own unit and particular department is majority women. Girl power!

How do you maintain that level of professionalism in those instances when you are treated a little differently because of your gender?

We’re trained not to take those types of things personally but ultimately though, I think the only way to remain professional is to just do your job as best as you can under those circumstances.

Have any of your past experiences influenced the way you handle yourself at work?

For sure. My time at the law firm taught me a lot because it’s not easy being a female lawyer in a male-dominated profession. I learnt how to be professional even in times when I felt I was being underestimated because of my gender. In those sorts of instances, I just learn to rise above it and focus on my own abilities. Also, I learnt to ask for help when I needed it – I was fortunate enough to have kind colleagues who were willing to share their knowledge. Kindness is a trait I really admire and try to incorporate in my professional life.

Working with the UNHCR, you’re very much on the frontlines of the humanitarian crisis. Do you ever get impacted by some of the stories that you hear?

Of course, you’re bound to get affected at some point because, how can you not? The stories of people fleeing war zones and leaving their homes are especially difficult to listen to. But we’re trained to listen to them and that’s what we try to do.

How do you relax and de-stress after a heavy day at work?

I chillout and maybe have some ice-cream and see friends. But generally, I like spending time just working with my hands. I like to DIY and that really helps to relax me.

Photographer: Agnes Leong

And was that the inspiration behind DIYKL?

The idea for DIYKL really started because we wanted to show people that they’re capable of making things using their own two hands. I think a lot of the times, people tend to underestimate their own creative capacity. We firstly started out with DIY kits with accompanying free tutorials on our website ( and soon we branched out into corporate events and DIY workshops. Through our workshops, we could show our students how to create things as well as incorporate more materials and advanced techniques. It’s always nice to see our students enjoy picking up a new skill.

How do juggle having a full-time job and running your own business on the side?

That is the million-dollar question! It’s not easy. Even though I’m really passionate about DIYKL, my work with the UNHCR comes first. Ultimately, it really just comes down to good time management and proper planning, which I’m still working on.

What has running your own business taught you about yourself?

It’s taught me to be a bit more fearless as well as having more confidence and belief in myself. When you have your own business, sometimes it feels like you’re always drowning. But at the same time, you’re more open to take risks because if you don’t try, then you’ll never know what might come out of it. I’m also grateful for the support we’ve received. Malaysians are truly supportive of one another and it’s been an amazing journey thus far. I have met so many interesting people from all walks of life, that I would never have met if I never turned my creative passion into something real. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to connect with a stranger over your shared passion for a craft.

What would you say to women who are looking to have their own businesses but perhaps lack that self-confidence to take risks?

I think it’s easier said than done but it’s important to just start. You can start small to test the waters and now there are so many avenues for you try like Instagram. What’s important is that you start somewhere and if it doesn’t work out, you can re-evaluate and look at the areas where you can improve on and start again. Ideas are just ideas until they become a reality. You need to sell that idea if you want it to become a reality – whether or not that idea comes to pass, you’ll never know because you’ve never tried.

About Hanna Halim

PR Executive by Day, Crazy Cat Lady by Night

I am a reluctant PR practitioner with an unhealthy affinity towards Pinterest and Topshop. I make up one fifth of the marcomm team at YTL Hotels and for the most part, I like what I do but I’m always hungry for more.

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