Cracking the code for inclusivity in ASEAN’s IT industry

Cracking the code for inclusivity in ASEAN’s IT industry

Executives from ASEAN’s IT industry powerhouses discuss the role that technology plays in disrupting change for equality.

The toolkit for creating a gender equal future is ever expanding, from ensuring access to education and resources for the disenfranchised to increasing female representation in decision-making roles.

According to the organisers of this year’s International Women’s Day campaign, the theme ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’ calls for solutions that factor in the diverse lived experiences of individuals and communities, and curating services or policies based on their unique differences.

Embracing disruptive innovation and adding it into the fold is set to derive more equitable outcomes in organisations and lead to achieving the vision that this year’s theme challenges us to pursue.

Executives from some of ASEAN’s IT industry powerhouses shared with Channel Asia in a wide-ranging interview on the role that technology plays in disrupting change for equality as well as some personal insights into their career journeys and how they have endeavoured to help other women rise through the ranks.

As Channel Asia’s annual Women in ICT Awards (WIICTA) demonstrates each year, there is no shortage of incredible talent in Southeast Asia's IT and channel spheres. 

Kerri Lampard, managing director of partner and route to market sales for Asia Pacific, Japan and China (APJC) at Cisco, evaluated that innovation could “revolutionise” workplaces and in turn advance equality.

Similarly, FPT Software chairwoman Chu Thi Thanh Ha is a firm believer that technology can “improve not only work efficiency but also humanity” within organisations.

Creating a shared sense of humanity and equality is backed by a consensus that technology has evolved exponentially that it can be “life-enriching” and “overhaul systemic beliefs”.

That is according to Fiona Lee, managing director of Singapore at HP, who is actively involved as an executive sponsor in HP’s Women in Leadership Lab (WILL) – an eight-month leadership program aimed at providing women with exposure to management roles in the company’s business units and rotation opportunities across varied functions.

Positively changing the way consumers, businesses, or industries operate and behave through technology is not a pipedream, but something actually attainable.

Holding this hope is Jyotika Singh, senior director of transformation and chair of the Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Council at Tech Data, who valued technology for its potential to “bridge the equality divide”.

Tech for good

Collaboration and communication are the top expected outcomes from implementing the right technology to create equal and equitable opportunities in the workplace.

“Tech innovations provide everyone equal opportunity to learn, develop and collaborate,” said Ha. “In addition, technology has made it possible for companies to connect with their people worldwide. This is particularly important for global companies like FPT Corporation, as we have 60,000 people across the world.”

The IT services leader detailed efforts to equip its employees across 64 offices in 29 countries with basic work necessities, such as internet access and office spaces, that are “accessible and synchronised”, along with online training programs.

Levelling out the playing field in this manner proves to be foundational across the industry as Lampard and Singh echoed common sentiments that technology is important as a connectivity tool, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and even after the world has emerged from it.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology companies stepped up to provide services that helped its communities,” Singh observed.

She favoured the enablement that technology gave to not only businesses as they tried to “keep the lights on” but all aspects of our life, be it around supporting work from home, online-based learning or even virtual fitness classes, which positively impacted many segments of society.

“We have seen how workplace collaboration tools like Webex combined with artificial intelligence and automation can facilitate flexible work arrangements and minimise bias in recruitment and promotions,” added Lampard.

“Such technologies also create opportunities for people who were previously excluded from traditional office-based jobs. Digital platforms and social media further enhance visibility and networking opportunities for underrepresented groups such as women and people of different ethnicities.”

For Lee, who most recently served as HP’s managing director of Indonesia, technology was not just an equalising tool to help her manage and connect with her team remotely from Singapore during the pandemic when border restrictions were in place.

The vendor also utilised innovation to develop a virtual learning program – Semangat Guru – in partnership with the Indonesian government to help bridge the digital divide for millions of students who did not have access to proper learning tools.

“It was definitely an important lesson of unwavering leadership, where a shared vision, collaboration and empathy played a big role in building trust,” she added.

However, Singh cautioned that because technology requires human inputs to code, “unconscious or systemic biases” could be embedded in them.

Incomplete or skewed datasets, labelling and modelling techniques can result in the introduction of bias in machine learning (ML) models and artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

These “algorithmic biases”, as Singh defined, have been well-documented and infamous examples include a United Nations report criticising the natural language processing (NLP) present in AI voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri for reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. 

There is certainly still much work to be done to ensure that future innovations are bias-free and diversity in training datasets would be a key first step.

A journey of determination

The struggle to create a bias-free world is not novel to our panel of executives as they have had to navigate their careers in a male-dominated industry. Rising through the ranks to where they are now has been riddled with a mix of hard challenges but also opportunities.

Lee, who has been in the technology business for over two decades and spent majority of her time at HP, reminisced the “many learnings” she has experienced.

For example, in her early days at HP, she was tasked to lead the graphics solutions business in APJ but was challenged by the fact that she did not have much direct experience with graphics and had to manage her largest team yet.

“But I took a leap of faith, nonetheless, and felt I could contribute with my many years of people experience, bringing strong operational excellence and partner engagement, as well as an open mind to learn and grow in a very exciting area of the HP Print business,” she shared.

“That experience took a lot of courage and adjustment, but looking back, it taught me to never say, “never”, to opportunities outside of my comfort zone.”

Meanwhile, Ha celebrated her 30 years of service in FPT Corporation and described her journey as “enriching” as the obstacles she faced helped her develop “persistence and determination”.

Fortunately for her, FPT provided her with opportunities to explore a variety of roles in which she encountered growth. She recalled starting out doing door-to-door sales to becoming a team leader, followed by director, and now, chairwoman of the Vietnamese IT services giant.

“In 1997, when Vietnam gained access to the internet and FPT was one of four first internet providers, I was able to join FPT Telecom as one of the first members and witnessed the company’s evolution into a pioneering internet and television service provider,” she stated.

“After switching between other FPT subsidiaries like FPT Online, FPT Retail, etc., I joined FPT Software in 2020. This move allowed me to learn new things, tackle new challenges and travel to new places in the world to meet new people. It is a joy to observe my own growth alongside my company’s development.”

Being able to find the right environment to nurture and uplift yourself was also the case for Lampard. Her journey saw her take on new roles in different parts of Cisco and across different regions every three years which helped challenge her but also build up her skills and experiences at the same time.

“I have welcomed the challenges and opportunities of building a successful career in the tech industry. In this dynamic industry, my experience is there is no such thing as a five-year plan; you must learn and adapt continually,” she added.

“I am thankful that I work for a company that encourages me to have many careers while at the same company.”

She also acknowledged that women have had to wear many hats in life – from employees, employers, mentors to mothers, wives, and daughters.

“It can be challenging to juggle all these responsibilities, especially when you have young children and continue to develop and grow in your career. Find mentors and sponsors to guide and support you,” she advised.

In parallel, Singh identified with the need to seek out “role models, mentors and sponsors” who would support her growth and professional development, and doubled down that representation matters, especially in the male-dominated tech industry.

“As I navigate my career across different roles and companies, the biggest challenge I faced was making people believe that women can be successful in any role within the technology industry,” she said.

“As leadership positions are primarily male-dominated, we don’t hear enough stories of how leaders balance pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause while balancing career and family demands.”

According to Singh, the lack of female role models will perpetuate the perception that a career in technology is not suitable for women which leads to the issue of fewer women in STEM-related industries, while the gender pay gap is also an added layer to the other barriers women currently face in the industry.

Room for progress

Organisational cultures that empower women to succeed are paramount in creating an equitable workplace.

In line with Singh’s view, Lampard suggested that industries and organisations should focus on “recruiting and retaining diverse talent, especially in senior leadership positions, addressing pay and promotion disparities, as well as addressing systemic discrimination and biases within organisations”.

The pervasive nature of gender bias remains a primary reason for underrepresentation in the tech sector, explained Singh.

“The consequence is that women’s technical abilities can be unfairly misjudged, making women feel unnecessarily pressured to prove themselves. The more we do today in dispelling misconceptions in our communities and workplaces, the less future women in technology will have to,” she added.

Singh also viewed that allyship between the genders to call out negative behaviours and actions, and create an environment where positive interactions and open dialogue can thrive is vital to “heighten awareness of both conscious and unconscious biases” which can improve the experiences of female employees.

In agreement with this proposition, Ha valued education and communication in the attempt to drive improvements in equality and a “happier and more productive” workplace.

“It is important that we make concerted and ongoing efforts to promote equality and diversity,” she emphasised.

“When everyone in the company understands the importance of equality and inclusion, they are more likely to work collaboratively and support each other. And from that we can develop a stronger sense of community and a more positive working environment.”

Some examples of FPT supporting women who hold multiple responsibilities across their job and personal life include training courses and summer camps for employees’ children – dubbed FPT Small – so that their parents are given a helping hand in raising their children, as well as creating forums for female employees to come together to discuss either work or their lives.

In addition, leveraging technology to build a more equal world and future is an ambition that Ha and her team have undertaken. Part of their efforts to promote equality beyond just genders involves tech education for younger generations to prepare them with future-ready skills.

“FPT is supporting digital transformation in developing countries to create more jobs and to help these countries keep pace with the developed ones. This is also a way to promote equality and to reduce the gap between developed and developing nations,” she continued. “At FPT, we don’t fight for equality. Instead, we improve it.”

While organisational culture needs to be reshaped, individual women also need to be empowered to step up and out in the workplace, wherein Lee advocated for women to “brandish their capabilities”.

“Oftentimes, male-dominated meetings may leave a woman uncomfortable to voice their opinion, especially if she is the lone representation in the room,” she admitted.

“Speaking out takes a great deal of courage and intentionality, but it is a necessary action point to identify gaps and uncover assumptions.”

Top-down female empowerment

Female leaders who have risen above inequality or inequity somewhat have the profound responsibility of helping the younger generation of women to overcome these collective challenges.

“As a woman in tech, I believe in being a force multiplier by mentoring and sponsoring young women in the industry and hope others will do the same,” said Lampard.

“By providing guidance, advice, and support, we can help them overcome barriers and succeed in their careers. Additionally, creating networks and communities of women in tech can offer opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, and sharing of best practices, ultimately contributing to a more diverse and inclusive industry.”

Resonating with this mission, Lee directed female leaders to model the way by “taking that first step as an example for the next pipeline of female leaders”.

“We can also start by having regular sharing sessions to our younger employees through mentorship. This will foster an important support system for women, and I am proud to be an executive sponsor of such initiatives at HP, with one example being our WILL program,” she proposed.

Lee has ensured that she carves out time to contribute to the WILL program by sharing her experiences with younger female employees, listening to their concerns and providing advice through mentorship sessions organised by HP’s dedicated DE&I team.

She described it as a “great exercise” for collaborative dialogue to improve HP’s work environment and encourage growth, and she has seen benefits of the program culminate in the promotion of two managers from their first cohort, while another employee won the President’s Club – an awards concept that honours top-performing sales members – in 2021.

“It’s also critical to regularly recognise good work done by your team, as leaders,” she added. “This will improve relationships and boost morale, when employees know that their hard work does not go unnoticed.”

“A positive team culture will encourage not only women, but all staff, to excel. I’ve been in their place before, and having a dependable support system at HP is the engine that propels me and my team onward.”

On one hand, for some organisations, a culture of DE&I is simply a given and not an option. Ha took pride in her organisation recognising women for their hard work and talent, and offering “plenty of opportunities” for career progression.

“The share of women at FPT Software is 31%, which is three percentage points higher than the global average for women in tech. One-third of managers at FPT Software are female,” she disclosed.

On top of that, the IT services provider has also launched campaigns in the workplace to develop an environment where its employees can “not only develop to their fullest potential, but also be able to feel happy”.

“I had the opportunity to participate in Harvard Business School’s Women on Boards – an education program specifically for top female executives. From that, I got to meet and learn a lot from my peers, and I look forward to replicating that program for FPT Software’s women in the future,” Ha affirmed.

Forging ahead with similar aspirations, Singh outlined key initiatives aimed at elevating Tech Data’s female employees.

These include mentoring programs targeted at the company’s female leaders who will be attached to a mentor and receive career advice or be given a push to explore new areas in their profession.

For female co-workers more broadly, Tech Data’s DE&I Executive Council for APJ has also introduced “Listening Circles” – a platform designed as a safe space for them to share personal and professional challenges, as well as receive advice.

“I strongly encourage women in all stages of their careers to grow their network,” said Singh.

“In a male-dominated industry, it is easy to experience imposter syndrome and develop self-doubt. Meeting other women in the industry and having a community can be a very empowering solution – from feeling inspired, to having peers for knowledge exchange, support and career advice.”

On the other hand, driving equal opportunities is not just a social need but a business imperative as well.

Lee indicated that DE&I values have been baked into HP’s DNA and alluded to a BCG survey which showed firms where 30% of its leaders are female have a 15% increase in profitability. 

“Progress is driven from the top – which is why we are heartened to see female leaders rising across the HP ecosystem worldwide, and we have set goals to achieve 50/50 gender equality across our leadership by 2025, as well as having more than 30% women in technical and engineering roles by 2030,” she continued.

Singh also affirmed that diversity is a “key competitive advantage” in today’s economy as it leads to outcomes like “building better products, catering to a broader customer base and recruiting from an increasingly larger and diverse pool of talents”.

“The understanding of these benefits in boardrooms and [among] C-suites across the technology industry is needed to drive change and overcome barriers for our future women leaders,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, Lampard, who participates in mentoring programs outside of Cisco and has helped to form a Women in IT group in Singapore, also noted the talent gap, especially in the cyber security sector, and the need to increase diversity.

This constitutes prioritising and recognising people with different worldviews such that the company is able to “reflect the world we live in”.

“At Cisco, we are committed to empowering and supporting women in cyber security by providing them with the necessary tools and resources to advance their careers. Our program is designed to give women a boost in this field by offering mentorship, training, and networking opportunities,” she added.

“We recognise the importance of diversity in cyber security and are dedicated to creating a more inclusive environment that values and promotes the contributions of women. Our goal is to help women succeed in this field and to increase their representation in cyber security roles.”

A hopeful future

The combination of technological innovation and reforming culture is likely to remain in the arsenal to advance the movement towards equity.

“The technology sector is evolving and becoming more inclusive, equal and equitable,” said Singh. “But it is key for all women is to be confident and believe that we can make it happen.”

Armed with a positive attitude, Lampard reassured women that they will find the solutions to their problems.

“Don't be afraid to seek help or support; you’ll be surprised by those who will go the extra mile for you. At the end of the day, no matter what difficult situation you may be facing, it will eventually pass.”

While Lee has accepted that there is much work to be done to create meaningful progress, she also reaffirmed her commitment to “sustaining a culture that nurtures diverse talent and produces the most innovative technological solutions that have the power to change lives”.

Empowering women to put their best foot forward and also live out their best lives is ultimately the reason we celebrate this annual global event.

“I hope our female colleagues can ensure that they have found a good place not only to advance in their career but also to live happier, just like how I have felt for the past 30 years,” concluded Ha.

Tags HPciscotech dataFPT Software

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