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Leading IT ladies

Leading IT ladies

Contrary to the declining trend of participation of women in the field of ICT in the West, women represent the thriving story of the female role in the technology industry in Asia.

It's early morning in Kuala Lumpur. Yasmin Mahmood starts her day with prayers, spends quality time with her family before sending her son to school. She then heads off to work, by car or sometimes by LRT, which she thinks is a clever mode of transport to beat the traffic jams. About the same time, across the causeway in Singapore, Jessica Tan starts her day by spending time with her teenage kids and sends them to school. By 8.00am she's in the office.

Joelle Woo, in Hong Kong, rises at 7.00am, along with her daughter, whom she accompanies to the school bus. By 9.00am she is also in office, at the head of a busy work day.

One morning. Three women in three major cities in Asia. What connects them is not just the bond of parenthood, but also the nature of their profession. All three women are high-ranking IT leaders in their countries.

While Yasmin is managing director of Microsoft Malaysia, Tan is managing director, Microsoft Singapore, and also a member of parliament. Woo heads the same company's HK office as managing director. Yasmin has received a Key Industry Leader Award from the Association of Computer and Multimedia Industry of Malaysia.

Contrary to the declining trend of participation of women in the field of Information Technology (IT) in the West, these women (and more that CIO Asia interviewed for this story) represent the thriving story of the female role in the technology industry (and of course, society in general) in Asia. As more and more women join the workforce in Asia, their participation in the IT industry is growing. And, whoever said there were not enough role models for women in IT should swallow their words, as there is ample proof to the contrary.

According to recent research, published in the Harvard Business Review, 52 per cent of the women in technical fields (science, engineering and IT) leave the industry-most of them during their mid-to late 30s.

"We are finding that attrition rates among women spike between ages 35 and 40-what we call the fight-or-flight moment," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, one of the authors of the HBR article, in an interview in Computerworld (June 16, 2008). "Women vote with their feet; they get out of these sectors. Not only are they leaving technology and science companies, many are leaving the field altogether."

The machismo factor

Why do women leave the IT field? Hewlett points many factors. "The most important antigen is the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments," she said. "Some 63 per cent of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment." Other factors, according to Hewlett, include the isolation many women cope with daily, their career paths not being well-mapped and the risky behaviour patterns that are rewarded (implying that men being able to take more risks become more successful than their female counterparts).

Surprisingly, the data behind this research is global-focus groups were done in Australia, Shanghai and Moscow.

The European Union's information society commissioner, Viviane Reding, wants to make up the shortfall of 300,000 skilled information and communication technology personnel in Europe, by encouraging more women to enter the industry. Women accounted for 58 per cent of all graduates in the EU in 2004, up from 55 per cent in 1998. However, the proportion of female computer science graduates fell by four per cent during the same period.

The Asian situation

Compared to the scenario in Europe and the US, the situation in Asia seems to be more positive for the fairer sex. Several years of economic boom in the region, led by China, India and the APEC countries, are helping in the expansion of the workforce, which means more women are entering the professions, including the technology sector.

In India, for example, women account for 26.4 per cent of the total India-based workforce in the IT industry (excluding business process organisations) in 2007, up from 24 per cent in 2005. In Malaysia, about 30 per cent of the 70,000 IT professionals are female. In Singapore, more women have joined the workforce since 1988-from 531,500 to 807,000 in 1998. The rate went up to 54 per cent in June 2007 . Out of the total workforce, 36.6 per cent were women employed in the information and communication sector.

"Asia has experienced an uptrend in women in IT as it becomes more and more widely accepted that women work after marriage or childbirth," said Yeo Gek Cheng, Director IT&T, Hudson Singapore. "Several technology firms have also led the way in providing strong family support via employee benefits and facilities such as childcare facilities, extensive medical coverage and insurance, flexible work hours, etc. This has helped in ensuring women have more and more reasons to stay in the IT workforce."

Many technology companies in the region corroborate what Yeo is saying. In Microsoft Malaysia, women account for almost half of the entire workforce. At Microsoft Singapore, women make up about 41 per cent of all employees. "With more than 70 per cent of our employees married, there was one baby born every seven days at Microsoft last year!" said Jessica Tan. According to Woo, Microsoft greater China's female recruiting rate has increased by 20 per cent compared with last year (FY07).

"In Thailand, I even saw the number increasing not only in IT, but in the top level like CEO and MD," said Ms Saipin Kittipornpimol, executive vice president, head of Information Technology Group at Thailand's TMB Bank. "IT careers are quite broad and open for both men and women to be able to select their preference path. So, I think the number of women in IT is changing naturally."

Commenting on the situation in Asia as compared to the west, Dr Marianne Broadbent, senior partner, EWK International (Australia), said: "It is probably about the same in Singapore. But in many places the initial entry level and at all levels, it is not declining as it never got anywhere.

"In Singapore the participation of women is relatively high at a senior level," she said. "In most other places it has not been. And last year I did a lot of workshops for one of the major service providers in Manila, Bangkok, Kulala Lumpur, Hong Kong, and Singapore and we had a mixed business and IT group in the first session, in the second, only CIOs. And probably only Singapore had a reasonable representation, of more than 10 per cent representation as women, which is not reasonable at all."

Gender discrimination - is there any?

As Hewlett pointed out about the sexual harassment and related issues at the workplace in her research, we wanted to see if the same was true in the Asian circumstances.

"I experienced very little discrimination in Singapore, as I've had the benefit of working in environments where the focus has been on the competency for the role, rather than the gender," said Tan. "Most of the discrimination that I've heard of is with regards to the stereotypes of women's roles rather than on their capabilities. There are well meaning managers who may feel they are doing women a favour by making certain assumptions based on stereotypes and not pushing the limits for women. Women today should be given the ability to make their own choices."

"I have not been discriminated in any way and diversity is a key driver of our success," said Serena Yong, general manager, HP Singapore, personal systems group. "I owe a great deal of my success to my mentor who was both my former manager and now my current manager. He demonstrated a deep concern for me. There was a point in my career when I did not exercise any work-life balance and it was causing problems for my family. At that time I was working on my MBA and had been offered a promotional opportunity which I declined because I felt it would create more stress in my life. My manager listened to my problems, and said "What can I do for you?" He helped me understand and sort through what was going on. After that I was able to travel less and devote more time to my family. I even managed to clinch the promotion as well."

"No, not at all," says Patama Chantaruck, managing director of Microsoft Thailand on the question of having ever faced discrimination in her distinguished career. "People are judged on their professional capabilities and skills-not their gender, age, colour, race, disability, or national origin."

But Yasmin admits that things for women were not so convenient in the past, "because they were finding their way and coming into their own in the workplace, especially in the IT industry," she said. "I think female veterans like us were not perturbed by these gender issues. At the very least we brushed them aside or tried to work harder to prove ourselves capable on the job."

"Women leave IT because they can"

In the debate that started in the wake of Hewlett's interview, one of the themes noted by Don Tennant, Computerworld's editorial director, was that many male readers suggested that women leave IT because they can and that men typically don't have that option because they tend to be the primary breadwinners.

Therefore, tied to the gender issue is this question-in dual income families, who puts food on the table? Most IT leaders suggested that a male dominated society is also undergoing transformation in this regard.

"Socially and culturally, men have been tagged as the 'external' driving force while women, the 'internal'," said Yeo Gek Cheng. "External means building a career and bringing in the dough, internal refers to the family or being a wife or mother above all else. This has transformed in Asia over the last 10 years and will continue to keep moving forward on the long path of equality-sharing the burden at work and at home."

"I think this could be applied to any industry," said Patama. "More importantly, there is no clear rule these days that states that men have to be the primary breadwinners. It is common for both men and women in Thailand to support their families and to also give financial support to their parents and elder relatives."

Gender diversity and competitive edge

All IT leaders emphasise the increased participation of women in the technological professions. "Diversity is always a good thing," said Jessica Tan. "In a tight labour market though, we need all the talent we can get, regardless of gender, race, education or specialisation."

But she also cautions. "Hiring just to fulfill gender diversity requirements should not be the end result," she said. "The focus should be on the talent and impact that gender diversity brings to the business."

"Most companies or individuals do not see how gender diversity can bring a competitive edge to IT companies," said Yeo. "Creating the need for gender diversity should be seen as creating a better environment by having a more female-friendly workforce, which in turn increases the chances of women excelling and climbing up the corporate ladder over time."

But is gender diversity effective enough by itself? "No," said Patama. "Speaking from my experience at Microsoft, the competitive edge comes from establishing a healthy atmosphere in the workplace that will encourage all staff to surpass company targets. If female employees ever feel that they are under pressure to outperform their male colleagues, I would say that they can use this to their advantage as it may give them that extra push to further themselves and their careers."

"Men and women are equal in principle," said Saipin. "There may be some advantages or disadvantages relevant to gender, but this is like a jigsaw puzzle, if we can fit in the pieces, we will get a beautiful picture."

Challenges

Organisations in Asia, however, face many challenges in attracting more women to the IT industry as there is a huge demand for female employees in other sectors of the economy. In this context, there are many challenges in recruiting, retaining and managing female employees.

According to Joelle Woo, the key challenges are to increase metrics in the following three categories: The overall female representation rate, technical female representation rate and management level female representation rate.

"There is no real need to put in place special policies to retain women. However, we must acknowledge that their needs and lifestyle require a little more work flexibility" said Yasmin. "By giving them that flexibility and support, we help them to maximise their productivity, enable a healthy integration between work-life balance and ultimately, encourage more women to join and stay in the IT industry. This would enable them to better achieve their career aspirations and to realise their potential."

"Perception is reality," said Yeo. "Discrimination is rampant. These are the challenges of recruitment, retaining and managing women employees."

Windows in the glass ceiling

"There are always windows in the glass ceiling, so it does not have to be shattered into pieces to break through," says Yasmin. "My advice to women: the world is your playground-there is nothing that you cannot achieve if you set your heart and mind to it. Being a woman doesn't take away from who and what you are, in fact, it adds a whole dimension to the person and the way she handle issues and challenges."

It's this go-getter attitude in Asian women that is seeing them participate in the workforce, including the technology sector. And there's proof of this: According to an Accenture report (March 2008), 68 per cent of female professionals in India and 61 per cent in China feel well equipped to compete in the business economy of the future. The global average for this is just 43 per cent. Clearly, the future for women in IT in Asia is full of potential.

Fairfax Business Media

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