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The road to gender balance in the workplace

The road to gender balance in the workplace

Ahead of the launch of Women in ICT Asia on 22 May in Singapore, Channel Asia profiles the leading female technology leaders across the region

Uma Thana Balasingam (VMware)

Uma Thana Balasingam (VMware)

Credit: VMware

When I was applying to local universities in Malaysia, my desire was to study Child Psychology, but out of the five subject choices I had to put down on the application form, I placed it second after Pharmacy to please my parents.

Growing up in a somewhat traditional Indian family, I was brought up to think the best career options were in Medicine, Law and Engineering.

Computer Science was a distant fifth choice and I included, simply because I had enjoyed sacrificing sleep to play online games while growing up and thought that it couldn’t be all that bad.

Who would have imagined that it would be the starting point of a career in IT?

Since then, it has been a challenging but rewarding journey working across a whole spectrum of technology companies, from IBM, Brocade, Dell EMC, Riverbed Technology to now joining VMware as the Asia Pacific Channel Chief.

This is especially an exciting time as technology has become the DNA of every successful company across every industry. At VMware our goal is to be the essential, ubiquitous digital infrastructure company powering our customers’ digital foundation with our partners.

Tech companies are in a unique position to enable transformation and be a force for good for society.

One of VMware’s inclusion initiatives that aims to help 15,000 women return to work is VMinclusion Taara - it gives women in India an opportunity to refresh their technology-related skills - all for free, and makes them employable in the IT sector.

The genesis of the program was inspired by a question raised by a woman in our India engineering team - how can you help the future generation in IT to stay in the workforce?

While the question was raised in a personal context - it triggered a sleepless night for Duncan Hewett, VMware’s APJ leader, and the outcome was the creation of a program that helps women in IT, who have quit the workforce for any reason to come back to work.

Considering the dropout rate of women in India in IT is close to 50 per cent, this directly hit a social issue that needs action. For me, this is an example of how individuals can start a movement with scalable, long-lasting impact, not just for an organisation, but for the entire community or society.

It makes me think of all the stories I’ve been privileged to hear of men and women stepping in to do their part to build a level playing field in the workplace. It is what inspired me to start Lean In Singapore and Women In Tech.

When it comes to female equality and empowerment, the rate at which we are progressing is not good enough.

According to the World Economic Forum, at the current rate of change, it will take another 202 years to achieve economic gender parity. In Asia Pacific, there is still only one female leader for every four men.

This is compounded by the fact that women earn 15 per cent less than men. We have made some significant progress in recent years, but we still have a long way to go.

One of the areas I’m most passionate about is the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace. The word bias can have a negative connotation to it, so it’s important to remember that everyone has it. It is not the reflection of our true beliefs, and there is no way to cure it – we just need to acknowledge it and be aware.

We rely on mental shortcuts to simplify the world around us. Gender stereotypes are one of these mental shortcuts, and they often lead us to make biased assumptions that disadvantage women at work.

For example, we may assume that men are strong, driven, ambitious leaders. We may assume that women are warm, supportive, nurturing caretakers.

When women act in ways that doesn’t match our assumptions, we’re often less accepting of them, and may even penalise them. All of us hold these biased assumptions in some way, but they are hard to acknowledge, which makes it difficult to take steps to counter them.

The more we understand about these biases and how they work, the better we’re able to address them. If you’d like to test yours, the Harvard implicit bias online test is a good one to take.

When most people think of an effective leader, what often springs to mind is someone who is assertive, competitive, and ambitious - stereotypically masculine qualities. But women are still expected to be nice, helpful, and modest - stereotypically feminine qualities.

As a result, women often find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as overly feminine, which makes them seem likeable, but not as competent, or overly masculine, which makes them seem competent but not well liked.

In order to get ahead, women need to be both competent and likeable, so this tension can disadvantage women’s careers.

Ask yourself, who would you rather hire: the man who is both competent and likeable, or the woman who is equally competent but just not that well liked? I call this ‘gender judo’.

I’m still learning to practice it by not conforming to what is the expected behaviour of me in a relatively biased male dominated industry. This means, striking a balance between your authentic self and taking charge with a more assertive personality when needed, vs. living up to the expectations of the boardroom and being penalised for being competent.

I have to admit that on a few days this can seem a bit exhausting but unconscious bias is here to stay, and as women, we all need to be aware of the biases that are imposed on us and find our own ways to navigate them.

Some of my personal career lessons include:

Ask and you shall (most likely) receive

Desperate to sleep in my own bed, I negotiated a 29 per cent salary increase during my first job interview successfully. It served as a big lesson for me to continue to ask for the rest of my career. We are often great negotiators for others at our work responsibilities but not for ourselves.

When women advocate for themselves, they have to navigate more than a higher salary: they're managing their reputation, too. Women worry that pushing for more money will damage their image. Research shows they're right to be concerned: both male and female managers are less likely to want to work with women who negotiate during a job interview.

In the book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes negotiating pay for women as "trying to cross a minefield backwards in heels". Her advice to combine niceness with insistence and negotiate by showing concern for the common good can help bring desirable outcomes in negotiations.

Saying 'I deserve this,' [women should explain] that, 'This is important for [my] performance,' and 'This will make [me] more effective as a team member. It's an approach called "negotiate communally".


Look for role models; become one yourself

When I was starting out in my career, I didn’t see many female role models and I didn’t look hard enough to seek them out. I appreciate this now more than ever - that having peer to peer mentorship (like Lean In Circles) and female role models are critical.

Women feel more supported when mentored by other women. If you’re just starting out in your career, you can help mentor a student. There is always a woman coming up behind you that can benefit from your experience. We all have a role to play to help her advance faster and hopefully a little easier.

One of the most popular questions I get is on securing mentors. The best advice I have, that has worked for me, is when you’ve found someone you look up to and respect and you’d like to develop a mentoring relationship with - start by asking for one specific advice.

As human beings, we naturally gravitate to want to help another person. Do your homework and go back to this person to share your progress - everyone appreciates when someone takes action from their advice - it makes them feel good to know that they’ve helped you. Then ask for another advice, and soon you’ll develop a mentoring relationship.


HeforShe - become an ally

The concept of men as allies has become a focal point of gender diversity initiatives today, and rightfully so as they’re at least 50 per cent of the solution. All men who work with women impact the day-to-day experience of female employees and affect how women shape their career trajectories.

As workplace allies, men can advocate and amplify. They can actively engage in recognising and eliminating bias and ensure women are valued, supported, and promoted. Your actions also have the potential to make a discernible difference in your personal life, your work environment, and your company’s overall success.

I have recently seen more leaders advocating to have at least one female candidate in the talent pool for any interview.

Research from Harvard Business Review shows this will not have any impact, and that having at the minimum two female candidates can the help improve a woman’s chances of securing the job by 50 per cent. This slight nuance is important to note for people in leadership as this can dramatically help the rate of change we want to see.

Besides being positive influencers in the hiring process, here are some qualities that I have witnessed and admired in the male colleagues and leaders I know:

  • They are open and curious to learn how unconscious bias disrupts objective decision-making around hiring and promotions. One senior male leader at a bank, during a performance and merit review of his team together with all his peers’ teams noticed that every single name on the list for promotion and pay increase was that of a man. He called it out respectfully which made the team relook at setting clear, measurable and objective criteria. As a result they had six women included in the list.
  • They advocate for female colleagues, through mentoring and sponsorship
  • They get their team to explain why they’ve chosen a particular candidate. Research shows that when you have to explain your decision to someone e.g. why they preferred “Bob" over “Sally”, they would more carefully scrutinise their own decision, and not go with hunches or mask it with the ‘cultural fit’ statement. They have to tell you what they cared about when making the decision. When we deliberate and think through the decision making process, we break the tendency of stereotypes.
  • They are unafraid to call out inappropriate behaviour.  

Gender equality has come a long way, but it has not come far enough. The gender gap is still unconscionably wide.

It will not close until women’s work is recognised as equal work, caregiving is acknowledged as the labour it is, and unfriendly workplaces are held accountable for their actions.

Uma Thana Balasingam is vice president of Partner Business across Asia Pacific and Japan at VMware; co-founder of Lean In Singapore; founder of Lean In Women In Tech Singapore and Lean In Women In Tech Asia.

For more information regarding Women in ICT Asia, click here


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