Paying It Forward: Championing women in ICT across Southeast Asia

This exclusive Channel Asia roundtable, in association with Cisco, outlined how the industry can champion women in technology across Southeast Asia, sharing examples of positive initiatives and best practice

Within the thriving ecosystem of vendors, distributors and partners competing for customer buy-in and market share across Southeast Asia, one common goal unites the technology sector - diversity.

Whether CEO of a large multi-national, or starting out at a local solutions provider, the industry shares a collective responsibility to support women in technology, taking shared action to create diverse and inclusive teams. Yet change can be challenging, creating the need for female leaders to ‘Pay It Forward’ to ensure a long-lasting commitment to diversity.

“Diversity is about everyone; all backgrounds, ages, ethnicity, experience and gender,” observed Vicki Batka, vice president of Partner Organisation across Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) at Cisco. “When I think about diversity, I consciously think about how we should be inclusive to all and listen to all. At Cisco, we consider diversity to be very similar and our mantra even includes; ‘to build an inclusive future for all’.”

According to Batka - when addressing leading female executives during an exclusive Channel Asia virtual roundtable - ‘paying it forward’ is centred around the concept of championing women in technology, ensuring that knowledge and experiences are shared for the betterment of the wider industry.

“I have been very fortunate to have had many people contribute towards my long career in technology and I now think it’s important to carve time out to invest in others and support them as they build their own careers,” Batka added. “This requires time out for coaching, mentoring or just some basic career guidance through an informal conversation and sometimes even over a glass of bubbles or wine.

“At Cisco, in ASEAN, we recently ran a great internal program focussed on reverse mentoring. We are embracing learning from each other as we all need to adapt to the ‘now’ and not hold onto the past methods.”

Support and investment

In assessing how female leaders can help support and invest in fellow women within technology, Batka advised industry figures to “make the time to help someone”.

“Say yes more than you say no and start by helping just one person,” she advised. “Then go from there. You just need to start. For example, at Cisco, I sit in a chain of female managers - from two levels below me to two levels above - which I have never experienced before. So we effectively have female role models we can look up to and aspire to become, as we invest and nurture future female talent.”

Echoing Batka’s observations, Louise Co - regional alliance manager of Asia Pacific at NTT - acknowledged that the most valuable contribution from any leader is time.

“Having someone to talk to and relate to is powerful enough to eliminate the isolation and helplessness of fighting a difficult battle alone,” added Co, recently recognised as Highly Commended in the Rising Star (Region) category during the inaugural Channel Asia Women in ICT Awards.

“Knowing that there are people who experience and overcome the same challenges can be compelling for others to be brave and persevere themselves. Simply put, being available for someone can provide the strongest foundation for them to stand on so that they can reach their own heights.”

For Pei Lin Yeo - partner of Delaware Singapore - being open to sharing the “ups and downs” of the journey is equally important when encouraging the next generation of female leaders, in addition to those facing difficulties navigating the path ahead.

“Female leaders have experienced a lot to get to where they are and I’m pretty sure not all was rosy,” she said. “Therefore it’s important to put aside time to mentor or coach fellow women and generally be available to others.”

Delving deeper, the onus is also on individuals to communicate the need for flexibility, demonstrating to employees that they can balance both work and career ambitions with taking care of children or elderly parents.

“They also must lead by example and commit to building a human-centric workplace,” advised Marion Ryan, vice president of Channel across Asia Pacific at ServiceNow. “This has become even more urgent since the onset of the pandemic because women are nearly twice as likely as men to report that they will leave their workplace within the next year, and are 35 per cent more likely to report a significant negative experience during this time.”

Amplification is also mission-critical in creating a support framework for females, as outlined by Ween Sze Teoh, regional manager of Global PMO at World Wide Technology (WWT).

“Amplify a fellow woman in technology, amplify their ideas,” she said. “Speak their name and ensure their ideas and contributions are heard and credited for. Sharing stories is equally crucial - both good and bad - because learning through experiences and sharing is one of the best ways to make an impact.”

Meanwhile, Sala Muthukrishnan - chief solutions advisor at DXC - advocated for confidential advisory discussions within the business, advising female colleagues to form internal groups to discuss performance reviews and remuneration in a safe and supportive environment.

“Encourage women to become certified, initiate technology challenge programs and other learning and development initiatives at organisation and industry levels,” added Muthukrishnan, recently awarded Technical honours during the Women in ICT Awards.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, Caroline Gondokusumo - founder and CEO of D-Net - reinforced the belief that every person should share an equal right to succeed within the technology sector; “capabilities should determine success, not gender”.

“Studies show that diversity of all types increases an organisation’s productivity and innovation,” Gondokusumo outlined. “But many women still have a glass ceiling so we need to help one another to free ourselves from this belief. I consciously challenge myself to break free and rise higher.”

Speaking as head of Strategy and Operations across Southeast Asia at Google Cloud, Tiffany Choong advised leaders to become active in both the hiring and development aspects of talent development, fresh from taking home the Rising Star (Region) honours during the Women in ICT Awards.

“For hiring, building a strong pipeline is important to remove the variability of available candidates around the time of hire,” Choong said. “It's also important to give the market a consistent and up-to-date understanding of skills required and job scopes so it's great to stay open to do chats with potential candidates as a form of giving back.”

Building stronger networks

Unveiled to the market in October, the inaugural Women in ICT Awards recognised and celebrated female excellence within the ASEAN channel.

More than 160 individuals tuned in live to celebrate the achievements of a talented group of female front runners who have become influential technology figures across Southeast Asia, reflective of IDG’s increasing commitment to the region.

After receiving more than 150 nominations, 91 individuals made the final shortlist, spanning Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar, representing more than 40 unique organisations at partner, vendor and distributor levels.

“Forums that help facilitate women connecting across different functions and companies are very valuable, like the one hosted by IDG,” Choong of Google Cloud added.

“Flagging top of mind global content and trends for discussion, especially around flexible working arrangements and challenges faced by women entering the workforce, seeking jobs or changing careers during Covid-19 will help us better understand what is needed to support diversity. People love to rally around a cause, so once a common interest is raised, it's much easier to build an interest group or network around that.”

As outlined during the virtual ceremony, Women in ICT Awards was launched to represent more than an awards program, evolving into mentorship, alumnae gatherings and executive networking sessions - designed to continually shine a spotlight on diversity and inclusion irrespective of company or location across Southeast Asia.

Leading this charge in ASEAN is Cherry Yumul - Commercial Director of Channel across Asia Pacific at IDG - building on similar momentum in Australia and New Zealand.

“I am so personally thrilled to see IDG investing in Asia and specifically in recognising women in ICT in Asia,” Batka of Cisco said. “This is a huge step towards setting up a cohort of women and elevating the amazing work that so many females have done in our industry over the past few decades and certainly paving the way ahead to create a brighter future for all of us.

“We also need to support each other. I think it’s important to mentor people outside of your organisation as it also gives you an important lens, a ‘real view’ of what is happening around us.”

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In assessing more than 20 years of industry experience - dealing with many vendors and partners along the way - Gondokusumo of D-Net remains concerned that the number of female executives holding leadership positions across Southeast Asia continues to be alarmingly low.

“By building a community for women and networks such as this great initiative of Women in ICT Awards, this can be a great start,” she said. “And if done right, the community will expand in no time providing women with a special network to support one another. Also we can start early by inspiring and promoting young females who are still in education and interested in joining the technology industry.”

Building on Gondokusumo’s observations, Pei Lin of Delaware Singapore emphasised the need for diversity conversations to “start early” when building stronger female networks, rather than waiting until individuals join the workforce.

“There can be more storytelling and experience sharing targeting the different challenges that we face as females - such as discrimination and managing family demands - and creating a stronger coaching and mentoring network,” Pei Lin said.

“Up-skilling females in soft skills is also necessary to navigate the industry. Perhaps have various female leaders speak with students from a young age to spark an early interest in the industry and to empower them in their thinking? Beyond targeting females, creating awareness and educating the male community is equally important.”

To be successful in today’s work environment, leaders must be capable of maneuvering change and ambiguity, while attempting to excel in new dynamic environments at the same time.

“From my personal experience, I have mostly had male bosses who have supported and encouraged me to grow at the workplace,” Muthukrishnan of DXC added. “It’s important companies create an environment to enable all employees to reach their full potential by fostering a diverse and high-performing workforce. At the same time, it’s also an individual's responsibility to be open and explore opportunities that come their way, while tackling challenges and building strong capabilities.”

To achieve such aspirations, businesses must create a culture and internal framework capable of supporting diversity, and for Ween Sze of WWT, that “starts at the top”.

“Leaders must be actively involved and invest in making the decision to create company culture,” she said.

Ensuring that individuals understand that talking about diversity and inclusion is a positive and healthy experience represents another strong step in enhancing support levels in the pursuit of equality within technology.

“Sometimes, speaking about it is good enough,” acknowledged Co of NTT. “This leads to creating a culture that is supportive and promotes respect, openness, acceptance and inclusion. The more people talk about it, the more people will realise its significance and the faster it will become the norm. It’s everyone’s duty of care to ensure that everyone feels that they matter - that all views, opinions and preferences are respected.”

Building on this discussion thread, Ryan of ServiceNow noted the importance of ensuring “great inclusion” to build stronger networks.

“That means having a deliberate strategy to support diversity of views and by including a diverse range of people,” she said. “Whether it’s having a diverse mix of prospective employees you are looking to recruit or ensuring the panel of speakers and attendees are diverse at your next event.

“Many women I’ve mentored have said they don’t feel comfortable in traditional networking but I encourage women to volunteer to speak on areas of their expertise at an event. This provides more natural opportunities to network via live or virtual events by engaging with others who share a common interest or area of expertise. For example, our recent Channel Asia virtual roundtable revealed the connections made over shared experiences we all had.”

Advice and guidance

Vicki Batka (Cisco):

  • Your manager is not a mind-reader - only you can be in charge of your career. Don’t wait for them to ask you about your career. Make the time and have a proactive conversation of what you might be interested in
  • Find someone you respect and ask for help; start with a coffee or chat and explain what you would like to do in your career and have some ideas of paths you would like to explore. That will give the person some idea of how to help you get started

Pei Lin Yeo (Delaware Singapore):

  • Be confident, work with your strengths and accept that we are (mostly) wired differently from the guys and make that our advantage
  • Don’t be afraid of learning or exploring the uncomfortable. Only with the right mindset can we achieve the right outcomes

Tiffany Choong (Google Cloud):

  • Don't undersell yourself based on role qualifications. If you break down your current job into building blocks you will definitely find transferable skills, and more importantly, skills you feel passionate about using that you can talk to

Louise Co (NTT):

  • Recognise that you are good enough. As women, we tend to discount ourselves because we don’t believe that our skills are good enough for a role or task. This could be because we are realistic about not knowing everything and wanting to ensure that the right expectations are met. However, we must realise that we already contain the skills and the attitude to conquer whatever challenges that will come
  • Don’t disqualify yourself from opportunities and give others the chance to appreciate your greatness. Believe and be brave because you might not realise it yourself yet, but you are already great

Marion Ryan (ServiceNow):

  • Definitely do it. Technology has such an impact on life today - both in our personal and our work lives. And without the female perspective in development there is a disconnect with how technology can improve lives. In business we see more and more women in leadership roles, they expect to see themselves reflected in the leadership teams of those companies they choose to do business with

Sala Muthukrishnan (DXC):

  • Have clear aspiration, identity and create a signature for yourself
  • Be self-motivated, be open to other views but make your own decisions
  • Spend time in learning the latest technologies to be technically stronger, without stagnating
  • From personal experience, be solution focused rather focusing on the challenges at hand
  • Become a strong believer of ‘knowledge is power’, use this power and follow a 360-degree approach to grow individually

Ween Sze, Teoh (WWT):

  • Get inspired and follow the leaders
  • Speak up, you are worth listening to, technology is not gender bias
  • Be comfortable in embracing the uncomfortable
  • Invest in yourself, invite feedback and seek and make time for mentorship

Caroline Gondokusumo (D-Net):

  • Start with ‘I’ and be aware of the way you think
  • We can be mentors to other women, offer guidance on how to have perspectives
  • Lead by example - we can step up and inspire other women to build business or professional careers in technology

This exclusive Channel Asia virtual roundtable, in association with Cisco, outlined how the industry can champion women in technology across Southeast Asia, sharing examples of positive initiatives and best practice.