If you go to the United Nations’ website and search on gender equality, you will be greeted with the headline: “The unfinished business of our time”. The write-up notes that while women and girls account for half of the world’s population, and therefore half of its potential, “there is still a long way to go to achieve full equality of rights and opportunities between men and women,” warns UN Women.
According to UN Women, worldwide women only made 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. “As a result, there’s a lifetime of income inequality between men and women and more women are retiring into poverty.”
But we can choose to be optimistic about the future. In a world that is increasingly capitalistic – driven to create wealth and live the ‘good life’ – gender bias remains a threat to future potential that people choose to ignore.
The video above illustrates this bias very well. As part of International Women’s Day 2021, CXOCIETY and FutureCIO are interviewing women who have proven it is possible to have a successful career without sacrificing fulfilment, equality or recognition.
Just to be clear, the equal pay issue is just one outcome of a larger misguided way-of-life perpetuated over centuries of cultural evolution. The good news is that if digital transformation has taught us anything – people can, and are willing to, change faster given the right incentives.
One such executive is Aziza Sheerin, managing director – Asia, General Assembly. A relatively young newcomer to the Singapore workforce, she has proven you can be successful early in your career.
How has technology and digital transformation changed the role of women in leadership positions?
Aziza Sheerin: With technology becoming a cornerstone of almost every business and many social functions (everything from shopping to eating and transport to communication), there is growing demand for professionals with technical skills and those with experience leveraging technology to accomplish business objectives.
This has opened new career pathways and created new senior management roles in organizations, which presents an opportunity for all professionals - including women.
Diversity – including gender diversity – is a critical component of a company’s talent strategy if they expect to meet the demands of the modern business environment. Technology adoption and digital transformation is similarly driven by a need to maintain relevance, stay competitive and keep ahead of the pace of change.
With more women (and more people of other races, cultural backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and other gender identities) involved in managing these shifts and driving decision making, businesses are better able to prepare for the future not only in their own organizations but also reflect the diversity of their customer and partner base.
At General Assembly, we’ve developed a number of initiatives, including scholarships and career counselling, to encourage women to break into tech and to provide them with a support structure that gives them the tools to be successful in a variety of roles in the tech industry.
Given the near-term issues around pandemic containment and the return to the next normal, is this diverting from the importance of recognising and promoting women leaders in technology and transformation?
Aziza Sheerin: The pandemic situation certainly shifted many organizations into survival mode, requiring them to focus only on maintaining critical day to day operations to stay in business, however overall, organizations that have already committed to diversifying their leadership have not lost sight of its importance.
Given that the pandemic is a novel scenario for most leaders, diverse leadership that includes women helps ensure the right decision-making inputs are available for organizations to navigate the way forward.
Many organizations have seen significant behavioural shifts within their customer base in terms of how customers discover and use their products and have been required to focus heavily on digital-first operations.
These organizations often see the value in having women in leadership roles, particularly when they recognize that beyond moral and ethical arguments, there is a strong business case for more women in leadership due to the demographics of online consumers, and the increasing spending power of women.
At General Assembly, we are working closely with our corporate partners and students to increase the representation of women in tech and will be holding a series of inspiring talks from women who have achieved leadership roles across a variety of industries in our How We Got There event for IWD.
What qualities stand out when it comes to women technology leaders?
Aziza Sheerin: Good leadership shouldn’t be gendered. It’s about gathering your teams to work together to reach a common goal while enabling each individual to leverage their strengths. However, the unfortunate reality is that society does tend to apply gendered norms when it comes to leadership traits.
According to many studies, qualities that are perceived as positive traits in male leaders are often seen in a negative light in women leaders. For example, when being assertive, male leaders may be seen as visionary or confident, while women leaders may be described as pushy or overbearing.
Many women leaders find themselves having to balance the dichotomy of being seen as a competent leader that galvanizes the employee base while also being perceived as nice and approachable while doing it.
We know that women often have to work harder to reach senior ranks within a business, particularly in tech roles where there tends to be gender imbalances at both the junior and senior levels of the workforce.
Strong women technology leaders demonstrate vision and fortitude as much as any other leader and can also have a positive impact on company culture by demonstrating approachability and a willingness to be open about their journey to the top – to inspire and inform others.
What qualifications are needed to set your path towards a leadership role?
Aziza Sheerin: I’d say that it’s more about qualities than about qualifications. For anyone looking to get into a tech leadership role - a track record of delivering business results, technical depth of expertise, ability to lead a technical team, and work cross-functionally is important.
An HBR study on the subject of women leaders found that there was another quality that was a critical consideration when promoting women into leadership positions – visibility.
In order to identify and grow potential women leaders, companies need to equalize access to high-visibility, stretch assignments that build skills, track record, and appreciation from influential stakeholders from across the organization.
Who, in your mind, best exemplify a woman technology leader and why?
Aziza Sheerin: It’s hard to pick one person, and my answer would be the same if the question was just about tech leaders I admire regardless of gender.
I admire leaders who have been able to define a north star and motivate their organizations to reach new heights; those who’ve questioned the status quo and broken barriers; and those who have navigated the complexities of large and complicated problems by developing innovative solutions.
Closer to home, I admire women whom I’ve come to know through General Assembly-facilitated events like Aliza Knox (former head of APAC at Cloudflare and Twitter), Rosaline Khoo (founder of CXA), Sunitha Kannan (Data & AI Lead at Microsoft), and Céline Heissat Le Cotonnec (Chief Data Innovation Officer at Bank of Singapore).
On a day-to-day basis, I work with two incredible leaders – Divya Venkatraman (Data Science Lead Instructor at GA) and Wei Liao (UX Design Lead Instructor at GA), and they’re impressive both in their tech skills and their ability to guide people who are aspiring to enter tech.