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Breaking down walls: Women leaders recount career challenges

This last part of our International Women’s Day series showcases the challenges nine women leaders faced throughout their career and how they overcome them. The leaders also talk about the about the support system they think organisations can provide. After all, when it comes to the support women need in their career, who would know better than the women themselves?

The women in this part of the series come from multinationals of various industries including DBS Bank, Eastspring Investments, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, L'Oréal, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, Mutant Communications, Otis, TWG Tea, and Watsons.

Soh Siew Choo, managing director, technology and operations, DBS Bank

As long as you focus on doing what's best for the company, are not afraid of taking measured risks and bucking the trend, you’ll be able to make an impact at work.

Throughout my career in DBS and JP Morgan, I've been privileged to have been given multiple opportunities to lead major technology transformations to enable major business expansions. Some of these assignments were viewed as "mission impossible", where it involved building new technology capabilities from scratch across multiple geographies, delivering against tight timelines, establishing a new culture or partnering with the business units to deliver their strategies concurrently.

Willingness to drive these assignments and delivering on them were fundamental to my career progression. I chose not to view obstacles as challenges, I see them as opportunities to be innovative in the resolution, and having fun along the way!
Learning new skills, changing the mindset and culture of an organisation, are some of the pre-requisites for making a big transformational change in an organisation. Instead of sending teams for courses, we showed the teams how it's done, pairing the "teacher and the learner", and gamifying the process.

The critical success factors in tackling these challenges are conviction, a clear purpose, removing the fear of failure, and most importantly, communication and seeking feedback.

Being a woman in technology, where women are still significantly under-represented, never stopped me from achieving my goals. I chose to view challenges as an opportunities to differentiate one's self.

When it comes to organisational support, in an environment of equal opportunity, men or women will not require different or special support. Unfortunately, this is not the case for every organisation. For those in circumstances where biases exist, checks and interventions will need to be put in place.
I think it starts with setting the right tone from the top. Diversity and inclusivity should be an integral part of the organisation's culture and performance scorecard, along with equal opportunities, rewards, and recognition. Once these are in place, we can create an equal and fair playing field for everyone.

Virginie Maisonneuve, CIO, Eastspring Investments

What helped me get to where I am now are: passion, insatiable curiosity for the world, very hard work and always respecting my own moral compass and authenticity. Some of the key principles that I have found helpful throughout are my career are innovation, being open to opportunities, not being afraid to be yourself (be authentic) and always taking "the high road" (integrity).

In asset management, being creative and innovative is critical. After 30 years in the industry, it's tempting to stick with what you know. I work hard to keep an open mind for new ideas so I can recognise trends and identify opportunities. This applies to the markets we invest in across asset classes, the asset management firms themselves as well as to the management of teams with senior leaders.

I have over the years evaluated and sometimes taken opportunities and risks when they have presented themselves. When assessing new opportunities it is key to think about them in business and analytical terms but also to make sure that they "make sense" from a qualitative or "instinctive" perspective.

Another important point to me is to make sure I feel I am doing the right thing at all times. While our industry is a fast-moving field with a lot of exciting and sometimes uncertain phases, it is crucial to keep a long-term perspective on the business and one's path within that business. This means that it is essential that one's moral compass is always in check… even if it means giving up short-term political capital!

As a result, I've succeeded in an industry that allows me to learn about the world every day, meet and work with fascinating individuals, be creative yet use analytical skills. I also feel privileged to play a part in  helping investors and retirees with their financial needs. Helping people secure their financial needs tomorrow or dreams today is part of my quest. Every day is an exciting day at work. Needless to say, I have had a lot of fun doing what I do.

As a mother of two, one of my biggest challenges was to manage my time to meet the often competing demands of my different roles. I found it more acute when my children were young and work required substantial amounts of travel.

I got through those years through thoughtful planning and organisation, by having a strong and true partnership with my spouse and an effective support network "ecosystem", involving grandparents and nannies.
As my role evolved over the years, I have had to adapt to succeed in different corporate cultures while still upholding my core beliefs. This required reflection and self-confidence, as well as the flexibility to recognise that different cultures require different behaviors.

I soon found myself managing very talented people from highly diverse backgrounds. To get the best from my direct reports, I am collaborative and flexible in my leadership style and empower and support my teams. I always try to be first and foremost a partner to my teams, encouraging challenge and debate, but with a clear understanding of who retains the decision rights. One of the important principals here is transparency and fairness as well as not being afraid to address issues straight on when they arise, to be open and a good listener and not shying away from differences in views, and sometimes but rarely conflict.

Promoting diversity at all levels - especially executive leadership teams and boards - is absolutely critical for corporations. Research shows that diversity at board level leads to higher profitability, because group members coming from a diverse culture, background and ethnicity are more likely to challenge each other to spark new ideas and create a better work environment. Ultimately I see HR as a partner that helps leaders to implement alignment in the broad sense i.e. alignment of skills, cultural pillars, goals etc.

Talking specifically about gender diversity in asset management, it is clear that women's representation at senior levels is poor. While there are more women than men in the entry to mid-level roles in finance, fewer than 5% of CIOs are female CIOs.

A significant number of women tend to leave the workplace when they have children but fail to return afterwards because many don't feel welcome to come back to work after time away. This is a lose-lose situation for companies and these talented individuals. Having chaired the CFA-UK gender diversity network in the past, it is clear to me that supporting simple yet effective initiatives to help address this issue is key. These include returners programs, flexible work arrangements and effective mentoring. Creating awareness around unconscious biases in the corporate environment is also essential.

Men and women may have different management styles but ultimately they need similar support to excel as a leader: support initiatives, talent management, and training and development.
Everyone needs training to develop the leadership required to create open-minded and innovative organisations.

Paola Doebel, vice president and general manager, APAC hybrid IT sales and enterprise group global sales, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

I believe it is important to recognise that career development and progression is not a solo effort. It involves a combination of hard work, taking calculated risks, and having advocates and sponsors at key moments to help you move forward.

I tackled what was in my control by taking risks in my career which even included changing industries and moving across continents. I was always willing to assume a high pressured role.

I believe that my success came from embracing new challenges, doing the necessary hard work, being open to learning new things, and delivering results at the right time.
I also sought opportunities to work for and build relationships with highly-regarded leaders despite knowing the roles wouldn't be easy. I knew they would push me to be better and I worked very hard to deliver results for them. Some of those leaders became advocates and guides at critical moments in my career which helped propel me into new roles and promotions.

When it comes to support from organisations, I cannot overstate the importance of HR. HR needs to be at the centre of the effort to develop and track key talent in the organisation and plan role moves that ensure the next generation of female leaders are gaining the necessary experience to progress.

HR also plays an important role in mitigating subconscious bias through training leadership, ensuring there is a pipeline of female candidates to recruit for new roles, as well as working with current leaders to ensure performance reviews and ratings are free from the nuanced and biased language that can stifle the career of a potential female leader.

HR can also be a critical connector between potential female leaders and sponsors and advocates who play an important role in the promotion process.

Men have historically received support to ascend to senior management roles and women need to be offered that same support and consideration. To assess this, organisations need to determine if their female employees are developing, training and progressing at the same rate as their male peers.

Organisations need to be open and honest if they find that there is a gap in support and progression between their male and female team members. Transparency and an action plan is critical to resolve the issue.
There also needs to be additional and sustained focus on pipeline development for organisations with underrepresented female leadership.

Shawn Lim, director, Singapore advanced research, L'Oréal Singapore

I am quite lucky in that rather than facing many challenges in my career, I was given opportunities to grow and be exposed to a variety of situations and environments. This is a mutual relationship - one has to ask for the opportunities, and when given them, it is also important to make the most of each opportunity rather than to sit back and let them pass by.

For example, by choosing the more risky career option early on, or being willing to take on additional tasks that may be outside of the original job scope. I also believe self-confidence and teamwork plays a big role.

When it comes to support organisations can provide, I think mentorship is important, especially for women to be mentored by, and observe positive examples of, strong women leaders in senior management.
There are positive benefits to outreach events that bring together women leaders from different industries for networking and informal sharing sessions. There also has to be bottom-up cultural mindset changes in terms of how we perceive the desirable qualities in female senior management, because these preconceptions are often biased. On a positive note, L'Oreal as a company does have a very supportive environment for women. Again, this boils down to cultural changes that upper management can take the lead to initiate.

I don't really think women need different support to make it in senior management roles than men.

As mentioned, I think, culturally, organisations will have to evolve their mindset and ideas of what makes a successful leader. Not just to encourage more women leaders, but also to have more empowered employees, and to be able to successfully manage expectations of a workforce that has more Millennials, more people who are willing to challenge the status quo.

As a manager, I believe in leading by example, treating everyone with respect and being professional in all interactions - I think these are the best lessons that we can impart to our teams and to promising talents, and they are not specific to gender.

Nicole McMillan, VP portfolio and marketing acceleration, Mars Wrigley Confectionery Asia-Australia, Middle East & Africa (AMEA)

Back in the early days, there were even fewer women in senior leadership roles, and I had to work out for myself what type of leader I wanted to be. At times, I felt that women in senior leadership roles had to sacrifice some of their uniqueness as a woman to get there by overplaying their masculine side to 'mix it with the boys', which even got me questioning why I wanted a corporate career.
Being selective about working for supportive and inspiring line managers has been a key part of my career strategy. 
Line managers who value the success of their reports as high or more highly than their own success, and who help push you to be the best version of yourself have been the ones I have followed throughout my career and from whom I have learned the most.

Fostering ongoing relationships with past and present peers has also been key - being vulnerable enough to ask for help from those you know and trust can get you through any tough time.

We have made good progress at Mars Wrigley Confectionery in nurturing female leaders, who make up over half (7 out of 11) of our Developing Asia leadership team. One of the most important thing is to ensure they have a great line manager and / or mentor who is actively vested in helping them fulfill their aspirations. If they are part of the succession plan for senior management roles, we should make this visible to them and ensure they gain the experiences necessary to succeed in future roles.

All key talent in succession pipelines should have a development plan tailored to them specifically to ensure they gain the experiences needed to be successful in more senior roles. We need to look at individuals and their needs.
In addition, in order to have more diversity in senior management it is important for organisations to look at what barriers exist as to why women are not progressing through at the same rate as men.

Support may be something which needs to be addressed such as more flexible working policies, which is why one of our focuses is on building a culture of flexibility and work life integration.

However often the barriers may be more structural or systemic than that. It is important to ensure the feeder roles to senior management enable and encourage the participation of women.

The question should be what do we need to do differently to enable a more diverse senior management team. It may well be creating individual support plans for key talent or it could be as fundamental as changing the operating model or the recruitment practices that are working against inclusiveness. At Mars Wrigley Confectionery for example, we have mandated that female leadership team be included for panel interviews that assess candidates for promotion to leadership positions.

Rebecca Lewis, account director, Mutant Communications

I started my career in journalism, specifically newspapers, which could be a challenging environment for women at times. At Mutant Communications my position is a little different, given that my husband and I own the business, and we are both very aware of gender politics and diversity issues in the workplace.

I have actually been very fortunate to have risen up the ranks in my career without many of the hiccups and gender discrimination that many women face. Since moving back to Singapore seven years ago, I have held numerous senior leadership and management positions.

In saying that, I have experienced some discrimination along the way. The time that initially comes to mind was discovering a huge salary imbalance between myself and my now husband (then colleague) at a newspaper we worked at together in New Zealand. He had less experience than me but was offered a starting salary significantly higher than what I was being paid after having worked there for nearly two years. It was a bit of a slap in the face, but to overcome it I stood my ground.

It was mid-GFC and so asking for more money was difficult, but I went to my boss armed with facts and figures directly relating to how my work had benefitted the business financially. It ultimately didn't work because of a hiring and wage freeze, but I felt so much more empowered knowing that I had asked for what I deserved. It helped me make a big decision about the direction of my career, which got me to where I am today.

I think many of the challenges that women face in the workplace are similar to what men face - finding a solid work-life balance, parenting, managing long hours and multitasking their duties.

In saying that, the biggest differences are the gender wage gap - which we know exists - and sexual discrimination, which unfortunately is still a problem we are faced with.

From an HR perspective, providing strong mentorship for female leadership talent and allowing for flexibility are key to ensure women can reach their senior management goals.
So many businesses still see mothers as a weak spot in their organisations - someone they have to manage, rather than someone that provides an opportunity.

In my experience, it's hard to find talent more driven and organised than a mother - they want to do their job, and do it well. They want to be recognised alongside their peers but also get home in time to put their kids to bed. It's a powerful motivator. Most working mothers I know (including myself) stay up after their kids have gone to bed to continue working. I have been fortunate enough to have strong female role models as well as strong male leaders who have supported me to do this. This flexibility has been a key part of Mutant's HR policy, and it has really worked in our favour.

Men and women work side-by-side, dealing with the same workloads and meetings - but they often experience very different workplaces. Research has shown time and time again that men have easier access to top leaders, win more promotions, and they feel more confident that their hard work is going to result in reward.

Women have a much harder path to the top, navigating sexism and gender issues that affect them getting promotions and career advancements. The imbalance can be hard to fix because it starts at the entry level, and carries on throughout both men and women’s careers. Although this is slowly changing, women still hold far fewer senior leadership positions and C-suite roles.

In order for women to feel visible in the workplace and believe they are capable of holding top positions, employers need to do more to effect real change. This has to start from the top and permeate through every level and segment of the business.
While a CEO might say they support diversity, employees need to witness this - from diverse recruitment practices, to adhered-to parental leave policies, fully-supported flexible working arrangements, and even making a point of confronting and acknowledging gender imbalance on a daily basis. Leadership programmes are a necessity, and should have a track designed for high potential female talent. There are so many facets to changing this mindset, but it has to start from the top.

Erika Goldstein, senior director, field operations, Otis EMEA

I started my journey 14 years ago as a maintenance supervisor with Otis in Atlanta, Georgia. Simply put, I have gotten to where I am today because I said "yes" and raised my hand whenever a new opportunity presented itself, or when asked by my manager if I was interested in a new role. Of course, there are still challenges that may come along the way and I am always willing to take them on.

When I moved to Mumbai as the director of a major construction project, I had already managed several large-scale projects and had also received specialised project management training. While the knowledge and experience was helpful for my onboarding, I had to reinvent and adapt what I knew for application in India. I spent most of my time at the project site, meeting with members of our team as well as the customer. Through my observations and discussions with them, I gained a deeper understanding of the processes and learnt about the cultural differences within a relatively short period of time. India still holds a very special place in my heart. It was a great experience.

There are many ways that organisations can help support women. Here at Otis, we started an Employee Resource Group (ERG) called FORWARD in 2017.
Dot Mynahan, senior field operations director at Americas, and I realised at that time that we were the only two female leaders in regional field operations roles. We set a long-term goal to grow our network and provide mentoring, development and networking to women within the organisation. What started as our commitment to mentor 30 women became a global ERG with more than 500 members and growing.
I think until women are equally represented in senior management roles, the way we engage with them will be different from men.
During my time in Asia, I received strong support from my management team and my manager which inspired me to achieve further excellence in my work and become a member of the senior management team. I am grateful for this experience and am always conscious to see how I can in turn help others succeed and excel in their professional careers.
Today, Goldstein is based in London, United Kingdom, as senior director, Field for EMEA since 2017. She has been with UTC since January 2004 and has held domestic and international roles within the company. Goldstein oversees an international team with direct reports in Madrid and Paris. Her market is comprised of 43 countries with varying levels of experience and maturity, creating a complex and diverse landscape. In her role, being observant, decisive and strategic are critical factors to success. "Not everything works the same way," she noted.

Joanne Chew, senior human resources manager, TWG Tea (Head of HR at TWG Tea)

When I started at TWG Tea nearly 11 years ago, I wore 2 hats in back end operations support and running the HR department. This provided me with my first taste of talent management as I gained an understanding of the intricacies of managing talent to ensure business success and brand consistency throughout our concepts. It became apparent to me that people are the most important asset at TWG Tea.
The turning point in my career came when I returned from my first maternity leave. When I was given an opportunity by management to lead and head the HR department, I jumped at the opportunity.
With a degree in engineering and without any prior experience in HR, I had never imagined a career in it prior to joining TWG Tea. I could not have achieved this complete career change alone. I was fortunate to have done it in an environment that provided plenty of learning and advancement opportunities.

I participated in TWG Tea's training initiatives that helped me to explore my HR interests, advance professionally, and overcome career challenges. I especially benefited from the mentorship from senior management and observing our own co-founder Maranda Barnes, who encouraged me to participate in networking opportunities and achieve my set career goals.

Today, I am grateful for the opportunity to give back and personally groom all HR employees under my charge, as well as to grow my department to be able to handle all HR needs in Singapore and the region.

I believe it is essential to cultivate an environment that provides opportunities and support for their employees from the absolute beginning of their journeys with us. Inclusion and diversity should be understood at all levels of the organisation and instilled into the company culture.

It is crucial to respond to high-performing employees with the right support to aid them in their journey towards becoming future leaders.

For instance, we designed the TWG Tea Institute - the brand's international talent development centre - with programs to train and support our employees with the relevant competencies for their career advancement.

The TWG Tea Institute has been conceived to facilitate training locally and regionally, across all departments from operations to corporate communications, developing aspiring women and men towards senior management roles. We recognise manpower planning and ongoing career advancement is critical to sustaining brand growth - the kind of brand growth that TWG has experienced over the past 10 years. That was one of the reasons we received HR Excellence Awards' Excellence in Learning & Development Award in 2016.

What we all need is for the workplace to recognise the fundamental issues and gender biases at all levels of the organisation, and for the workplace to embrace inclusivity.
Each employee, male of female, have the same potential to be strong leaders and role models, and make it into senior management positions, but they must be presented with the same opportunities to get there.

The development of the TWG Tea Institute spearheaded by Maranda Barnes is a demonstration of our clear commitment to presenting equal opportunities to all our colleagues for their career advancement. Our extensive offering of bespoke and targeted training modules cater to employees of all backgrounds, in all stages of their career trajectory. We emphasise ongoing grooming and buildable knowledge as means for employees to advance to senior management roles.

Irene Lau, chief operating officer, Watsons Singapore

I took opportunities that threw me out of my comfort zone to gain maximum exposure. Diving into the business development role at my parents' printing business as a fresh graduate was one of them. At that time the business was catered to smaller companies but when I entered I made it a goal to reach out and secure MNCs to expand the base. Phones were slammed on me but I pushed on. Most of my early clients were marketers and that was an eye-opening experience that led me into marketing.

Another was jumping at the opportunity to helm the marketing department in Watsons Taiwan. It meant moving to a new country, managing a much bigger market, conversing in my second language (Mandarin) which I had not used much of the past 16 years. All these were very daunting initial concerns but I had confidence in myself to succeed.

Women are sometimes more predisposed to shy away from challenges when they do not feel adequately equipped or simply worrying too much.

When caught between a rock and a hard place, I intend to fall back on Richard Branson's quote of grabbing the opportunity first and then figuring out how to do it later.
Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And of course sheer hard work - go beyond your job scope to learn new skills, participate in projects, and keep your eyes on what's happening around the world not just Singapore.

Empowerment and strong mentors are very important. When the organisation gives aspiring employees the opportunities to shine and the right support system, they can step up and excel. Organisations should also first look inwards whenever there are any opportunities for senior management roles. Lastly, organisations should look at what employees bring to the table and not judge by age or gender.

I don't feel women need different support - it only further stereotypes that women have different needs and are of the inferior sex. I believe just as long as equal opportunities are given, equal rewards are given, women and men will find their uniquely different ways to achieving those goals. Outside of the biological facts that women bear children, once they are born, it is the responsibility of both sexes to raise and nurture.

Part one: IWD2018 special: How CapitaLand, DBS, P&G and more are pressing for progress

Part two: Pearls of wisdom: Women leaders share powerful tips on career success

Part three: #PressForProgress: How 3M, Mastercard, TWG Tea, and more are pushing for gender inclusivity

Part four: Journey to the top: Women leaders recount challenges throughout their career

Part five: Wise words from 15 women leaders on career success

Part six: Challenges women face when climbing the corporate ladder

Part seven: Closing the gap: How Henkel, Mondeléz, and more advocate for gender inclusivity

Photo / 123RF

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