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How leaders across Asia are taking responsibility to advocate a gender-balanced society

Balance is not a women's issue, it's a societal issue. As they say, “it takes two hands to clap”. To achieve the balance essential for economies and communities to thrive, every individual (both women and men) have to play a part.

In this third part of our 16-part International Women’s Day series, we ask top leaders: "In your personal capacity, what do you do (or don't do) in order to build a gender inclusive environment in all aspects of your life?"

Here, we present the responses from leaders in these 10 organisations: AdNovum, AIA, Diageo, DBS Bank, Essence, Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF), Integral Ad Science, Quest, Shopee, and Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).

As a bonus, also check out what the panellists from Standard Chartered Bank’s International Women’s Day breakfast event have shared - including an exclusive from Singapore's Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo.

Leonard Cheong, Managing Director, AdNovum Singapore

Promoting gender balance, diversity and equal opportunities in the workplace should be priorities for all business leaders. At AdNovum, we embrace diversity as part of our organisational DNA and promote the hiring of talents across different genders and backgrounds, including those with special needs. To ensure the success of inclusion initiatives, I believe that business leaders must take an active role in the recruitment and talent retention cycle.

For example:

I work with my hiring managers to ensure capability, job and culture fit in new hires first and foremost, concurrently with the commitment of building inclusivity.
With the IT and security industry being traditionally male-dominated, promoting female talent is definitely a challenge. However, I’m proud to say that at AdNovum our inclusion efforts have resulted in the local office’s female workforce doubling in the last two quarters, including at the management levels. This encompasses people of different generations, ethnic groups and religions, where the similarities and differences of individuals are valued. We will continue to grow our female talent pool in the years to come and enable them to thrive with our holistic HR policies that empower employees, promote flexible working hours, and emphasise skills development.

Ho Lee Yen, Chief Customer and Marketing Officer, AIA Singapore

Building a gender inclusive environment is essentially about seeing everyone as people and talents, and not as men or women.

Everyone has the capacity to succeed and it takes a wise leader to look beyond superficial traits that cannot be changed and place higher regard on qualities such as hard work and attitude.

I personally make the effort to offer guidance and advice to everyone in my team, regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. I find it a lot more rewarding when everybody is empowered, knows that they have a chance to excel, and strives to be the best version of themselves.
Walk the talk and others will follow.

Sam Fischer, President of Greater China and Asia Pacific, Diageo

At Diageo, we champion diversity both inside and outside of the workplace. In fact the very name of our company, ‘Diageo’, comes from the Latin word ‘dia’ and the Greek work ‘geo’ and gives us our purpose of “celebrating life everyday, everywhere”. That purpose is inclusive of everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual preference or religious beliefs. At our core, we believe that our culture gives us a competitive advantage and enables us to actively shape the future of our company, our partners, and the industry in which we operate. We draw upon our talented employees to unlock business opportunities – the fast-changing nature of trade and commerce means our employees are often the best assets we have to identify new and emerging trends.
I am also proud that our diversity targets are treated like financial ones, and they are regularly reviewed by senior management.
In Singapore, 60% of our employees are female and our graduate programme is made up of 56% females while 44% of our female employees are in leadership positions. Globally, we are also very well placed to achieve our 2020 diversity targets where 35% of leadership positions are held by women.

We’ve also taken a closer look at the construct of our organisation – moving to a flatter, more agile structure which encourage speeds, diversity of thinking and collaboration. It enables our people to be much closer to the decision makers, experience strategy and key messages and absorb from role models within Diageo.

While it absolutely comes from the top and our CEO Ivan Menezes, you cannot only build it from the top down. It needs to come from the middle and from the bottom - it has to come from everywhere around the organisation. Diversity and inclusion matters to our people. In Diageo in Asia-Pacific it’s not even really that it’s part of our agenda anymore – rather it is embedded firmly in our way of working, engrained within every fibre and a critical part of our DNA.

Soh Siew Choo, Managing Director and Head of Consumer Banking and Big Data Analytics Technology, DBS Bank

In order to build a gender inclusive environment, the most important thing is to start with the right mindset. Education plays a fundamental role in removing stereotypes and unconscious bias. Both men and women need to put in effort to make the right choices and do the right thing when it comes to recognising and avoiding gender stereotypes.
At work and in my personal life, I consistently make a conscious effort to ensure my choices and decisions are free from pre-conceived stereotypes.
Being an advocate of gender inclusivity involves creating greater awareness at the work place, in the communities we’re in and within our families. Grooming role models and other advocates to help drive the gender inclusivity is key to expanding one’s circle of influence. Participating in events supporting this agenda is another thing I try to do as much as possible. Mentoring the next generation of female leaders is an activity I enjoy.

Creating a network of support for women is my next goal. A network of support is important as it enables transfer of learning from one person to another, and it’s also a good form of support.

Haruna McWilliams, Senior Vice President, Strategy, APAC, Essence

Being a Japanese female, born in a country that ranks 110th out of 149 countries in terms of gender disparity, this is a topic that is very close to my heart.

It wasn’t so long ago that when I was interviewing for a strategy director role in Japan, the HR Director flat out told me, “I understand you’ve worked overseas and all - but you are a 30-year-old woman, so we can only pay you this much.” And while working on a beauty brand in my previous role, I learnt that 70% of working women leave the workforce when they have their first child. How is this being reflected in the Japanese economy? The average annual income for Japanese women in their 20s is US$29k while the same for men is US$35k, reflecting a ratio of 10:9.

That gap dramatically widens as women get older - in their 30s, the ratio becomes 10:8, and it deteriorates much further to 10:6 in their 50s. In other words, women in Japan are not able to maintain and grow their economic contribution as they become older. This problem extends beyond the corporate world, with over half of single mothers in Japan living in poverty mainly due to the lack of career paths and development for women, especially post childbirth.

So I have taken a very conscious decision:

For me, building a gender inclusive environment starts with me being present and living by example.
Being present in the workforce, being present in boardrooms, and being present as a leader. Being present when younger Japanese women look around and wonder: “Will I still be doing this in 10 years’ time?”

To enable greater gender balance in work-life settings, Japanese men in particular need to understand that working long hours is not better. Japan has the lowest productivity amongst the G7, and its economy has been stagnant for over two decades. By being present, I hope to encourage senior male leaders, in particular, to play an active role and have an earnest conversation about our progress towards gender parity.

Wan Yon Shahima binti Wan Othman, Chief Customer Officer, Human Resources Development Fund

In my personal capacity, the balancing act extends to my family, work and the people I interact with every day.
Through my interactions in these instances and by not subscribing to traditional gender norms, I push the boundaries for not only what women can do but also men.
At home, I’ve raised my boys to never question performing household chores as exclusively a woman’s job. I strongly believe that the environment a child grows up in contributes tremendously to their mental health and well-being. At home, watching my husband and I taking on equal responsibility towards household matters have shaped the manner in which my sons view gender roles.

At work, I am the only woman in a C-suite position in my organisation and what I’ve realised in my journey to get here is that the further up the ladder you climb, the more apparent the glass ceiling is. It is undeniable that in Malaysia, more men are in higher positions and the not-so-invisible “boys club” still exists.

As an enthusiast of women leadership, I believe in actively providing deserving women the due recognition and opportunities that will help them go further professionally.

Women should be given certain opportunities to make up for the chances they are trailing due to a lack of gender diversity at work.
Furthermore, what also matters are the little things that contribute to an inclusive environment. Policies such as a flexi work hours, for example, for some might just mean sneaking in an extra 30 minutes of sleep inthe morning before work but to others, it can make all the difference between continuing with their job or having no choice but to quit.

In whichever way I can, I make sure to bring up conversations on matters such as this with my superiors as incremental changes to matters such as these can immensely impact the gender balance across all aspects of life, which is a tough balance to achieve.

Maria Pousa, CMO, Integral Ad Science

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about gender-balanced society is that it only benefits women, but the McKinsey Global Institute report finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality and participation. Greater women participation in the workforce can make a greater impact on the economy and society.

Now that numbers make the case for closing the gap, it’s also our responsibility as employers and governments to provide female employees with flexible workplace arrangements, child care facilities and other support groups needed so that they are able to find the balance and don’t drop off mid-way, citing family reasons.

To me, gender inclusivity is also about valuing diverse experiences, embracing the voices and ideas of all members of my team or family, regardless of gender, and incorporating those perspectives into the fabric of my decision making.
In my experience, this has always translated to a win-win"

Vivien Li, Director, Human Resources,  Quest Technology Systems Singapore

I’m working on being a mentor to female employees at work and in the community particularly on not being afraid of asking for fair and equal treatment that men enjoy.
For instance, women should not be concerned about negotiating for a fair pay package before accepting a job role. I also strive to raise awareness for gender equity so that all would take conscious steps towards supporting a gender-inclusive workplace and a gender-inclusive community.

Note:Quest Technology Systems Singapore is an adopter of the Tripartite Standard on Recruitment PracticesTripartite Standard on Employment of Term Contract EmployeesTripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements, and Tripartite Standard on Grievance Handling.

Zhou Junjie, Chief Commercial Officer, Shopee

I believe that equality is the way forward, and the onus is on business leaders to set the tone at the workplace. As the saying goes, “change starts from the top”.
I take it upon myself to set an example by ensuring that equal opportunities are the norm through fostering an inclusive, open and dynamic environment in the workplace.
This openness is extended at Shopee, where we try to facilitate collaboration amongst our employees, through the design of their workstations and creating a collaborative working environment. Diversity and inclusion is embedded into our culture, and every employee - from the highest levels of senior management down to our new hires - embraces it.

Our recruiters and hiring managers take a zero tolerance approach to all forms of discrimination, and every job applicant is given a fair opportunity to interview, no matter the gender. At Shopee, employees will get equal chances to grow and develop, and will have equal access to opportunities. Additionally, all employees, regardless of department or seniority, work together in a shared open-concept space, which encourages cross-department discussion and interaction.

Roslyn Ten, General Manager, TAFEP

Gender diversity is vital to any workplace. It is not simply about hiring a certain number of female employees.
To be truly gender-inclusive, there must be mindset change and steps taken to reduce gender bias in the workplace. This gender-inclusive mindset must be communicated to everyone in the organisation so that everyone is aware and contributes towards a gender-inclusive workforce.
And employers have an important role. They must provide an environment where all employees are treated fairly and given equal opportunities for advancement based on merit and skills, rather than gender or any other non-job related consideration like age.

Note:Employers who need guidance to implement diversity policies can refer to TAFEP’s “Creating an Inclusive Workplace: A Start-Up Kit” for more details.

Bonus: Inputs from Standard Chartered Bank’s International Women’s Day breakfast event

Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower, Republic of Singapore

While there will be prejudice everywhere you go, the vast majority of people are fair-minded. The vast majority of people will respond to feedback and they will respond to observation.

I like to ask questions. I think that as a result of this question, people will be put into the position to do something - not just by responding to my request to do so, but they will also internalise it and then apply it on many other occasions where they have the opportunity to influence the outcome. 
I think everyone (not just ministers) is capable of great change. The change can be within your family, and who knows, who within the family is going to bring about great change in the society.

It is necessary to be humble about it and yet not be so humble about it. We shouldn't overthink the impact that we make, yet also not underestimate the difference that we can make in the respective roles we are in.

You don't know to what extent you will affect people by just asking a simple question and giving them a sense of confidence so that they too can make a change in their lives and they will have the opportunity. In every single way possible, if we offer help and hope, I think that change can result from every single one of us.

Ayesha Khanna, Co-Founder and CEO, ADDO AI

From my experience, I notice that you do have to make more effort, at least in technology where women aren't equally represented.

For example, to my clients, it is often assumed that my co-founder is the techie and I'm just the business person - they are often surprised when I start to talk about algorithms. Then I start to call out the women who are quiet (ask for their opinon) and they gain more confidence.

I think that women have to encourage other women to to talk more.
In the tech sector there has been this history of thinking that ladies aren't as good as men as software engineers. But that's not true. Our best young recruit is a 25 year old girl, and she is better than everyone. She is an incredible data scientist and engineer. What she needed was the opportunity and because I'm there, I said let's put her on the project.

Deborah Ho, Head of Southeast Asia, BlackRock

We're talking about gender today, but it's really about inclusion and including everybody.

Personally, life presented me with inclusion. I have a couple of special needs kids in my family and because I have to deal with these differences, I have to be an advocate for inclusion. That really transformed my life. It has shaped the decisions that I've made and more importantly, it has shaped how I view other people.

The first thing that comes to my mind is don't judge them, instead, enable them.
Simon Cooper, Chief Executive, Corporate, Commercial & Institutional Banking, Standard Chartered Bank

At home, I try to encourage my daughter and tell her that she has every right to succeed in any role - be it as a scientist or artist. I tell her to go out and do what she can.

At work, I find more opportunities to create more diverse platforms, bringing women into more male-dominated roles.
In doing that actively, we can see the results and the results transmit into a better workplace. I think we are inclusive and the work we do will go into how we can empower more disadvantaged girls to build confidence.

Group photo at Standard Chartered Bank's IWD breakfast event From L-R: Patrick Lee, Chief Executive Officer, Singapore, Standard Chartered Bank; Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower, Republic of Singapore; Manisha Tank, award-winning journalist, CNN; Simon Cooper, Chief Executive, Corporate, Commercial & Institutional Banking, Standard Chartered Bank; Deborah Ho, Managing Director and Head of South East Asia, BlackRock; Ayesha Khanna, Co-Founder and CEO, ADDO AI. Photo by Standard Chartered Bank.

This is just the third article in our 16-part series focusing on women leadership, and bridging the gap in gender diversity in organisations. Stay tuned for more!

Part 1: Pearls of wisdom: Career advice from women leaders to their younger selves

Part 2: IWD2019 special: How CDL, Mars Inc, Standard Chartered Bank, and more are building balanced workplaces

Part 4: Advice from 12 women leaders on overcoming career challenges

Part 5: 10 D&I initiatives that some of Asia’s most successful employers do

Part 6: If you could meet your younger self, what career advice would you give?

Part 7: ‘Don’t be afraid to be different’: Career advice from leaders across Asia

Part 8: 13 ways leaders like yourself can make an impact on gender equality

Part 9: How-To: 10 ideas you can adopt to help #BalanceForBetter

Part 10: Take a leaf out of these 10 women leaders’ career diary

Part 11: Action for change: How leaders from BASF, Emirates, Henkel, and more are taking responsibility for D&I

Part 12: Interviews with AXA Insurance, Cisco, HP, Roland Berger, and more on D&I issues

Part 13: #BalanceForBetter: Equal pay for equal work, meritocracy approach, and more

Part 14: Building diversity isn’t an HR role: How leaders across the board invest time into it

Part 15: [Watch] Nuggets of wisdom: 10 women leaders share career advice to their younger selves

Part 16: Be fearless and fight for your right: Tips for overcoming career challenges

Lead photo / 123RF

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