In this article

Let’s kick it off with some data.

Statistics have shown that while 30% of SMEs are run by women, only 5% from Fortune 500 companies have women founders and only 3% of all Venture Capital funding amounting to USD1.46 billion was allocated to women-backed startups last year in America.

Although the entrepreneurial scene itself is said to be blooming, women still face prejudice that puts them at a disadvantage. Even if past years have shown that their involvement in entrepreneurship is at an all time high, “female-owned businesses in general still start smaller and stay smaller“.

During Wild Digital 2017, a forum was held to discuss ‘Transforming The Norm – Women in Leadership and Tech’. The panel consisted of Dato’ Ng Wan Peng (COO, MDEC), Grace Xia (Senior Director of Corporate Strategy & Investment, Tencent), Aliza Knox (COO, Unlockd), Shannon Kalayanamitr (Co-founder, Orami), Tracey Fellows (CEO, REA Group), and moderated by Sarah Chen (Co-founder, Lean In Malaysia).

The Fundamental Problem

Though women do make up a significant portion of the workforce, once you take a look at senior management positions then the numbers are quite telling.

Even when the numbers look right, such as in Thailand where they have a comparatively high percentage of women in management, there are still a lot of norms that reduce females to more of a secondary role while men hold higher positions.

“In Thailand, family businesses will see the son being CEO and the daughter usually being CFO or COO. We’re not listened to and face a lack of respect. This is the truth. The numbers are there but the mindset needs to change,” said Shannon.

In terms of the tech scene, Tracey talked about her past experience in Microsoft. Being the only woman in a team of 15 men, she found herself changing her behaviour, such as not speaking up during a meeting because she found that the men would just talk over her, interrupt her and in general make her feel like her opinion was not valid. For the first time, she found herself leaning back rather than leaning in.

“At REA group, I’m fortunate to be part of the board and make my own decisions. We do have a goal to increase diversity across all areas. Right now, 45% of our total employee base is female and 40% are senior leaders,” said Tracey.

Shannon talked about her experience going around for funding while pregnant. She noticed when pitching and talking to VCs, their eyes told her enough of how they were skeptical if she could run a company whilst raising a child.

“I noticed they would see how I dress during management meetings with VCs and other male colleagues. They then talk to my male colleagues and direct the conversation more to them. It’s a shame because how I may appear doesn’t reflect my capabilities,” said Shannon.

However, they’re not implying that all men look down on women. Dato’ Wan said that most of the opportunities she received in MDEC were from her male superiors. Her male colleagues on the other hand could be a different story.

“They see you differently and can sometimes doubt your capability. When I was offered my current position, I thought for a long time before accepting it. I was 99% sure I could do it but that 1% in my mind was doubting if I could manage or handle it well. Many men in the same position wanted that job even though I knew I was better than them. I think we women need to have more confidence in ourselves,” said Dato’ Wan.

There was also talk about the different gaps in terms of pay where even in Malaysia, there have been statistics showing how women get paid significantly lesser than their male colleagues.

Is A Quota Necessary?

Many debates around gender quota at the workplace have been going around for years since its first soft introduction in 2012. Some see the efficiency of it whilst others argue that it simply does not bring in enough change to become a norm.

Dato’ Wan shared her experience in MDEC where the top 3 positions, including the CEO role, are held by women. However, that wasn’t because they were chasing a quota; they saw it more as setting targets.

“Depending on the industry you’re in, some don’t have big issues about gender quota. Traditional businesses may see it more of an issue compared to newer corporations. I think a quota would be good to set because at least it creates awareness among people and decision makers and drives attention,” said Dato’ Wan.

Aliza comments that it’s more the threat of a quota that works in corporates. This is where the government would have to suggest the idea of a quota but not have to do it.

“Everybody says they don’t want to be the token woman but I think it’s important, even if you are there for quota reasons in addition to your other skills. You can go in to show that women can do this and then the need for quota becomes less,” said Aliza during the panel.

Moving Forward

It’s clear that that discrimination still exists, so what can be done to combat it?

Aliza believes strong role models are key to helping women build confidence. Women tend to not put themselves out in the open particularly when voicing out their wants for career progression. Having women in senior roles to look up to can help.

“There are also small changes that can be made. From observation, women get interrupted more than men. You see it in meetings all the time. What you can do is speak up and mention they were interrupting. Just paying attention to some of these behaviourial issues can help a lot,” said Aliza.

For Grace, she believes it all boils down to early education through parents. In China, most women in workplace hold management positions but it’s the outside society that needs a change in perception.

“A lot of pressure comes from our family and community. They believe women should get married at a certain age, raise kids and quit their job. So parents should play a role in educating the daughters when young and remind them they’re equal with other men in the world. They need to make sure there is equal opportunities to get education so they can feel confident in the workplace,” said Grace.

Tracey boiled it down to culture. Her company, REA group, invests into mentoring; women will talk to a mentor before they leave to see if they can help in career planning.

Aliza spoke of a group of women in Silicon Valley from big companies who created an angel fund specifically for women founders due to the higher rate of difficulties they face in receiving funding.

Following UN Women’s step in having guidelines at the workplace, Shannon said that although some startups may be too busy, it’s imminent for them to put in some structure during their 2nd to 4th year.

“Before we get to a point when bad stuff like sexual harassment happens, UN Women is working with bigger organisations or anybody with guidelines to share with other companies. It’s easy to replicate it,” said Shannon.

It shouldn’t just be the women who have to change and stand up for themselves. The men too have to get on board and purposefully self-educate, especially when it comes to setting the right culture in the workplace. But that’s a whole other article in itself.

Feature Image Credit: Wild Digital 

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