How IBM is driving diversity in Malaysia, from the top down

How IBM is driving diversity in Malaysia, from the top down

Recently honoured during the inaugural​ Women in ICT Awards in Southeast Asia, Catherine Lian shares career guidance for aspiring female leaders

Catherine Lian (IBM)

Catherine Lian (IBM)

Credit: IBM

Ask Catherine Lian for a quick-fire assessment on whether female technology leaders are adequately represented in Malaysia and the answer will be - without delay - a resounding no.

This represents an all too common response for a country housing more than 32 million citizens, of which approximately 16 million are female. Yet such a 50-50 split within the context of technology is more wishful thinking than refreshing reality, with women representing approximately 35 per cent of the technology workforce in Malaysia. Disappointedly - although unsurprisingly - that percentage point dwindles to single digits for executive level positions.

“Women IT leaders are scarce in both the Malaysian and international markets,” acknowledged Lian, speaking as managing director of Malaysia at IBM. “It is now irrefutable that more diverse teams produce better business results, leading many more companies to make diversity a formal business priority, as it should be.”

Yet IBM continues to buck the diversity trend in Malaysia and has been since starting local operations in 1961, hiring a woman as the company's first on-the-ground employee. Fast forward to the present day and women represent half of the vendor’s workforce with 30 per cent in leadership and management roles.

From a global standpoint, females have been making positive contributions for much longer, starting in the 1930s and building up to the modern-day with support for initiatives such as STEM for GirlsLet Girls Lean and Tech Re-Entry among many other diversity programs being rolled out across the world.

“It’s on all of us to create the world we want,” outlined Lian, when speaking exclusively to Channel Asia. “Let’s all take advantage of this moment to take action to create more diverse and inclusive teams.

“At IBM, women leadership has been proved as a business imperative in that it provides diversity and inspires innovation, both of which are essential for growth. Every year at IBM there are leadership learning programs and work-life integration initiatives to keep women in our pipeline and encouraged to lead. But above all else is a rather fundamental requirement that we have to have the aspiration to lead."

Aligned to the belief that every industry is fast evolving into a technology industry, Lian stated that innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud are "here to stay", a market shift which is continuing to augment human jobs and in turn, ensure that gender equality is no longer a female issue.

Furthermore, decreasing the gap of women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] now represents an economic imperative, added Lian, whether locally, regionally or globally.

“Always step out of your comfort zone and believe in your potential,” she advised. “My greatest career achievement was being able to be a role model for others. I encourage all the female leaders out there to break the glass ceiling and take bold steps to enhance your career paths in technology.

“We need to realise that we will make mistakes during our career journey but the most important thing is believing in our strength and values to bounce back stronger.”

For Lian - recently Highly Commended in the Achievement category of the inaugural Channel Asia Women in ICT Awards - success in a world dominated by technology requires more than deep expertise in technology, rather a more well-rounded approach to personal growth.

“Being resilient is crucial, especially in this trying time,” she stated. “We need to have the capability and ability to adapt and leap back when uncertainty happens.

“Staying up-to-date with technology is key. It is important to stay on the ball with industry challenges and trends. This can start with how we improve our products and services to the way we enhance our customer experience. We should never stop learning.

“Beyond keeping things fresh to sustain our professional creativity and passion, learning keeps us relevant in this ever-changing world. Nothing matters more than passion and a desire to grow. The desire to learn something new and do something innovative and creative together with the team is crucial to be successful in our organisation.”

Tech DNA

As managing director, Lian is responsible for the business growth and leadership of Big Blue in Malaysia, which includes sales and distribution and the vendor's fully-owned subsidiaries offering global delivery services such as IBM Client Innovation Centre. Appointed leader in April 2019, Lian is also responsible for all strategic and operational matters related to sales, marketing, services and delivery operations across the country.

“IT has always been in my DNA,” Lian said. “In my opinion, technology has the power to economically expand the impact of every single aspect of our life.

“Technology is promising a wide range of opportunities and is a rapidly evolving field. No matter what industry you’re looking into, most modern businesses need people with general skills and knowledge of how to support IT activities in the workplace.”

Drawing on more than 20 years of industry experience, Lian joined the business following over two decades at Dell Technologies spanning a variety of management roles across ASEAN and South Asia markets. Formerly managing director of Indonesia at Dell, Lian has worked across the core markets of Malaysia, South Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh, Indochina and Cambodia.

“I have always followed my passion to achieve my personal goals and personal values in my career,” Lian added. “Over the past two decades, it has been a linear career path for me in the IT industry and I have been blessed to be given the opportunities to lead and experience both regional and local markets.”

In looking ahead, Lian said plans are in place to help support customers not only navigate the uncertainty of a post-pandemic environment in Malaysia but to also drive enhanced levels of operational efficiency to kick-start recovery efforts.

“We want to help customers begin operating more efficiently, sustainably and more resilient by accelerating adoption of innovative technologies such as AI and cloud," she summarised. "My goal in 2021 is to provide a greater sense of security and knowledge sharing to empower people to live, work smarter and make better decisions through technology."

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