BEING FEMALE IN MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRIES: Levelling the playing field (Opinion)

Written by Rita Irina Abd Wahab, Vice President Of Public Affairs And Communications, Huawei Technologies (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd.

Although more women are dominating the headlines, they are still largely underrepresented in many fields, be it in Malaysia or across the globe. Despite efforts to encourage more women to enter Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines, and retain these female talents, the number of men in STEM fields remains much higher. 

The tech industry has seen explosive growth. There is so much more opportunity, competition, and urgency to fill technical roles. However, being in the industry and having had vast opportunities to meet many people from the industry, I realise that gender diversity in tech is nowhere near where it should be. 

According to the Graduate Statistics 2020, the graduate labour force participation rate of female graduates (Kadar Penyertaan Tenaga Buruh Siswazah – KPTBS 2020) recorded an increase of 2.2 percentage points from 79.8% (2019) to 82.0% (2020). This is higher than male graduates which saw an increase of 0.8 percentage points, from 87.7% (2019) to 88.5% (2020). While the percentage of women in the workforce in Malaysia stands at 55.1 per cent, women make up only 35 per cent of the digital economy. Additionally, despite men and women being on the same level in positions in the tech field, men are more likely to receive a higher salary 60% of the time.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BreakTheBias, highlighting that gender bias isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. The main focus is to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

I personally believe that there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to equal opportunities for career development in tech. Today, creativity and innovation are essential, and women can and should be major contributors to new ideas and businesses. 

The best place to start this is within your own organisation. At Huawei Malaysia, we believe that what we do within our own organisation in terms of developing women talents can serve as a great example for other companies. 

Build a culture that supports women

It is predicted that economic growth and wealth creation in this country are primarily going to come from the tech industry in the future as the ASEAN region is one of the fastest growing digital economies in the world. Equal access to digital technology and participation in professional activities are key to an inclusive post-pandemic recovery. This means there must be provisions of equal opportunities to compete, thrive and access leadership positions. A level playing field is crucial to address this aspect.

Additionally, women entering the workplace already have a major factor working against them due to an assumption of an interest in childbearing. Often known as “the motherhood penalty”, this extends to more than just mothers, though they do get hit by it the hardest. Married women too are often never hired, in fear that they will quit to have children. 

A Catalyst-CNBC survey last year revealed 41% of working mothers felt the need to hide their caregiving struggles from their employer for fear of being penalised or fired.

Research too has found that for women to rise in power in any sphere, political or otherwise, the climb is steeper, the judgment harsher and the barriers higher than for men. 

Leaders are not born, they are made. If the tech industry is to get brighter as it goes along, we have to get a lot better at making the right decisions. If ‘gender-blindness’ is being practised during a decision-making process involving hiring, promotions, roles or project allocations, women will still have the shorter end of the stick as they are held to a higher bar..

The future of tech is female. We must recognise this, embrace this and not miss out on this.

The way forward

Women should not be wary of technology. I believe we need to spread the message about the perks of technology careers. In the technology industry (technical roles), women have access to multiple job opportunities. These roles often come with increased flexibility from working remotely and having more control over their schedules.

To ensure that there is a critical mass supply of women leaders in tech, we must improve education, champion more role models, challenge negative stereotypes and strengthen networking and mentoring opportunities. Furnishing women with the digital knowledge and skills they need to address existing skills gaps will enable them to be active participants in the digital world.

For women to be empowered with digital knowledge and skills, other factors must be addressed to lay the foundation for equal participation. These prerequisites include equal digital access, equal ability to utilise technologies in beneficial ways, and equal ability to gain the requisite basic and advanced digital skills for their marks to be felt in the digital economy.

Huawei has always been an advocate for women in the tech industry. We have pledged to support women with digital technology and hope to grow a mobile tree of digital technology in Malaysia as well as other parts of the world. 

Today, Huawei’s efforts are focused on three initiatives:

a. Providing digital technology and connectivity to narrow the gender gap in the digital domain, to help more women succeed in the digital era.

b. Encouraging more women to participate in the tech industry through activities such as Huawei’s Seeds for the Future, Tech Women’s Award, Huawei Women’s Development Programme and Huawei Spark, where we help women realise their full potential and act as role models. 

c. Huawei has also worked with governments, schools and other organisations around the world to empower women by providing them with ICT training. The digital programmes are already driving local economic growth and talent development. In 2021, Huawei signed a MoU with Malaysia’s Women Leadership Foundation (WLF) to train 2,500 female experts in business analytics, big data, AI and blockchain. There is also a Sarawak Women of Tomorrow (SWOT) Bootcamp being organised by Huawei and WLF from March 19 to March 21, which aims to provide women leaders an understanding of the importance of sustainability, digitilisation and its benefits as well as insights into government policies in Sarawak.

Only about 8.2 per cent of Fortune Global 500 CEOs are women. We must increase this number. We must recognise the immense potential of female talent and empower them to lead the tech revolution.

Budget 2022 provided that Malaysia’s public listed companies must have at least one woman director on their boards from Sept this year, while other listed companies will have to do so by June 1, 2023, as the government seeks to ensure more female oversight in the running of companies. This has been a long time coming and is a welcome move. I also feel that there must be more than just one woman director on the boards as women do make up almost half of the population. Not having our voices heard is akin to not listening to half of the population. However, there must be layers in place to ensure that these are not “token” directors but capable women who can and will bring a difference to their organisations.

There are a lot of codes and policies that promote gender equality, but these are not compulsory. Only when something is made mandatory by legislation do corporations incorporate it. 

Technology should be an enabler, not a barrier. We need to change the mindsets of employers to “want” to hire women, instead of being “forced” to hire them based on compulsion or legislations. 

We also need policies in place by the Government and companies that promote gender diversity. Men must also be part of this conversation. Most decision makers in companies are still men, so if men do not play a part in speaking out for women, then they play a part in the voices of women not being heard.

Being tech-savvy will help women inch closer towards achieving gender digital equality and in levelling the playing field for them. For a level playing field, the opportunities of today must include women, for the jobs of tomorrow to be held by them. We should focus on getting the right people and getting the people right. This is the path to digital inclusivity.

Building a better tomorrow

Huawei Malaysia will continue to be a force of change in this area, one initiative at a time. With our strategic objectives to support and empower the stage for women development, expand their participation and in enhancing their societal positions, we hope to build a better tomorrow for the women of today. Together and collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.

Digital female leaders are still a rarity and we should aim for more women leaders in technology to not be the “only” but to be the “among” many others.

If we want to see a better tomorrow, we need to be the agents of change today. Let us use our voices to be the catalyst of this change

Happy International Women’s Day!


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