Women in tech – a solid business agenda

  • Quotas may be a good transitional measure for equal opportunity
  • Societal change is required for true gender equality


Women in tech – a solid business agenda


“DIVERSITY is not just an isolated issue. It’s a business agenda and a valid one,” said Lean In Malaysia co-founder Sarah Chen, who moderated the Transforming the Norm – Women in Leadership & Tech panel at the recent Wild Digital conference in Kuala Lumpur.

On the panel were Orami co-founder and group chief marketing officer Shannon Kalayanamitr, REA Group chief operating officer Tracey Fellows, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation chief operating officer Ng Wan Peng, Tencent senior director of corporate strategy and investment Grace Xia, and Unlockd chief operating officer Aliza Knox.

Chen pointed out that though opportunities for women have increased tremendously there is still a lot more space for women to fill. In the current ecosystem, only 30% of ecosystems and 5% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women.

Of the US$1.5 billion of funding that went to startups last year, only 3% was allocated to women-backed startups.

Shannon added that in her experience in Thailand, women who are in leadership positions are not listened to or respected as their male counterparts are. Though Thailand has the highest number of women in management in the world, this is due to the fact that women often inherit positions in the family business, which Shannon suggested has something to do with this phenomenon.

However, all is not lost; Chen put forth that the situation can be remedied if everyone in the tech ecosystem works together in getting women into leadership.

Quota or not?

While Shannon stated that the reason for gender diversity in a company should not be pinned down to just meeting a quota, as there is real business value in having diverse views, Ng said that in some circumstances a target is required, especially in more traditionally male-dominated industries.

“A quota or target will start to address the diversity issue and at the very least bring awareness to the fact that there is an issue to be addressed,” she said, adding that a policy or regulation would work to create as much equality as possible until such a time when it can or will happen organically.

“In the digital world, it’s not about physical strength but about brain power. So I hope people will be more open-minded and I’m looking forward to the day when a target will not be needed.”

Drawing on her previous experience on the boards of several large public and private corporations, Knox said that what she has seen really work is the threat of a quota.

“If you are there for a quota reason, it is important that you show you can do your job well,” she advised.

Men in the room

Xia referred to the ‘leftover women’ phenomenon in China that came to worldwide attention through a clever beauty product advertisement to illustrate the opposing ways women are treated in and out of the workplace. ‘Leftover women’ is a derogatory term that refers to women who remain unmarried in their late twenties and beyond.

Xia said that while Chinese culture believes that women hold up half the sky and are thus well respected at the workplace and occupy top management positions in both big and small businesses, many of these smart and capable women face a lot of pressure outside the workplace from family and communities to comply with or submit to gendered role expectations, such as getting married and quitting their jobs to have children.

To initiate change to this culture, Xia advocated parents teaching their daughters from a young age that they are equal to any male, providing them with equal opportunities for formal education, and making them believe they can achieve great things.

Chen referred to the 2014 Hewlett Packard report that stated that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications but women apply only if they meet 100% of them to illustrate how the two genders are different in terms of self-confidence.

“Women also need to change our own mindsets, be confident and ask for what we deserve. Confidence in yourself will make people around you support you,” Xia said in reply to this.

Fellows stated that having a good mentor in the company or industry helps women gain confidence and believe in themselves. This was seconded by Knox, who cited the example of developmental programmes she has seen within certain corporations that support women with role models who help women in gaining confidence and putting themselves forward.

“To have these conversations [be successful], the single most important thing is to have men in the room,” she noted. Ng added that while it is great that male bosses support women in moving up the ladder, women also need the support of their peers – male colleagues – to be truly successful.

“It takes the whole society working together to change,” said Xia.

Nuances in change

The panel agreed that in the chaotic tech startup environment, where there is not a lot of time to think specifically about diversity when everyone is rushing around growing the business and seeking funding, the fundamental culture of the business plays a crucial role in determining equal opportunities and treatment for everyone.

“The leader of the startup sets the tone. You must be clear on the values of the company, make sure your people know about them and that they matter,” said Fellows.

Knox pointed out an interesting phenomenon that she has noticed in the companies she has worked in: women do not notice a difference in the way they are treated or their progression until they are in their 30s – at the age or phase when they are transitioning into upper management roles.

“Things have definitely changed over the generations but there are still issues; the issues are far more nuanced now.”

To cater to the needs of the current workforce – the millennials – Ng suggested that the office environment address the needs of each individual and not just look at employees as women or men.

“Giving them the right support is important but of course they have to deserve it. Pay can be based on what the employee is capable of doing,” she said.

“Change is happening but we all need to step up the pace and do more.”


Related stories:

Holding up half the sky

Are women at risk in the 4th Industrial Revolution?

Women need to focus on digital fluency, career strategy, and tech immersion: Accenture


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