I used to work for a female CEO who said that in her organization, “the powder room is the power room”. It’s been a while since I heard that statement, yet such an environment is still far from the truth for many companies. Women are still underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field and more so in leadership positions. According to reports, the gender pay gap is estimated to be 23% globally, which translates to a US$6 trillion loss of income. 

With many organizations in Asia Pacific recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion, why is progress towards gender parity still slow? Last Friday, Cloudera sponsored an International Women’s Day webinar where I had the privilege to learn from three distinguished leaders on what it takes for women to smash glass ceilings and how leaders can build diverse teams poised for better business growth. 

Here are my key takeaways:

Be daring and aspirational

Women tend to shy away from asking for greater responsibility or a raise, and often feel like they should be grateful for a promotion instead of deserving it. Recounting her experience, Yessie D. Yosetya, CIO, XL Axiata, shared she was initially hesitant to take on her first leadership position as she wasn’t certain that she could fulfill the role well. However, her supportive supervisors advised her to be bold and have a go at it than to never try at all. Also, staying on the sidelines would not have enabled her to make a significant impact to the business (or the industry at large) as her voice may not be heard. 

Her courage in taking risks has gotten her to where she is now, which is why she hopes to see more women having self-confidence and proactively asking for growth and promotion opportunities. After all, the worst case scenario is getting rejected or failing, which shouldn’t stop us from picking ourselves back up and trying again – it’s a natural part of growth.

Take action and pay it forward 

The progress we’ve made in achieving gender parity is the result of the century-long movement by female leaders and activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sarah J. Tompkins Garnet, Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice Paul and Malala Yousafzai. As Maria Francesca Montes (Sasa), VP, Head of AI & Data Policy, Data Protection Officer, Union Bank of the Philippines, pointed out, women today can share their opinions freely and experience equal standing because those inspirational, daring and determined leaders have enabled us to do so.

Equalizing the playing field is a long journey that still requires a continuous stream of action to drive change for the women to come. Sasa reminded us that everyone needs to play a role in building a better environment for women, such as ensuring that the STEM field is accessible to everyone. Walking the talk, she started a women in tech group in the Philippines that allows members to actively share their knowledge and experience, uplifting and inspiring others to pursue a career in tech. 

Echoing Sasa’s point, Yessi encouraged female leaders to pay it forward by mentoring female colleagues or professionals in the field and empowering them to rise up the ladder. Both speakers shared how mentors and role models are key to instill confidence among other women, showing what possibilities lie ahead. Without a pipeline of aspiring female leaders, achieving gender parity will remain a lofty ideal despite strong diversity and inclusion policies and programs. There will simply never be enough talent to close the gender gap. 

Practise allyship

Addressing gender inequality isn’t the responsibility of a single person or department. It requires a collective effort, embedded in the culture of an organisation. This is why Mark Micallef, Vice President, Cloudera APJ, highlighted the importance of allyship in providing equitable opportunities to support women seeking greater leadership responsibility and achieve their full potential. He advised leaders to provide an environment where the underrepresented feel comfortable enough to speak up and participate in ideation and decision-making, and recognize their good work to give them visibility. Leaders should also make a deliberate effort to eliminate unconscious bias from the hiring process all the way to promotions to ensure fairness regardless of gender and background, what employees look like and where they’re from.

Having a diverse workforce and leadership can help ensure that discussions are richer and the decision-making process is better. There isn’t a surefire way of closing the gender gap but the efforts that each of us make today – as individuals or leaders – can help get us there. Read this blog post if you’re keen to learn what else we can do to build a more equitable future.

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