While many technology companies are making considerable efforts to increase women's participation in the industry, the talent pipeline for women continues to lag behind and even to “leak”. And this means companies have to be all the more intentional about their policies and programs to build diversity, says Sowjanya Reddy, Head of HR for HP Greater Asia.
People Matters asked her to share some of the issues she has observed over her years in the industry, and the initiatives that work to tackle them. Here's what she told us.
This year, International Women's Day is themed around challenging bias and inequity where we see it. What do you personally see as the main biases and inequities that hold women back in the tech industry?
Women remain underrepresented in the tech industry for a variety of reasons, from uneven representation in universities and polytechnics, to not having enough role models, to inadequate support at the workplace.
In Asia, women often carry the additional weight of shouldering the larger share of caregiving responsibilities at home. Because they are often the primary caregiver, not only of their children but often parents, many have had to de-prioritize their careers. And unfortunately, there is still a “leaky pipeline” for women going into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. A 2021 Nanyang Technological University study found that only 58 percent of women with STEM qualifications work in related jobs, compared with 70 percent of men.
On the bright side, participation of women in technology across Southeast Asia is slightly higher than global averages. According to a 2021 study by Boston Consulting Group, “Boosting Women in Technology in SE Asia”, women account for 32 percent of the region’s tech sector, compared with 23 percent globally.
That said, the industry needs to band together to move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion. We still have a long way to go.
At HP, where 32 percent of our leadership are women, we believe that DEI is a business imperative, not just a “nice to have”.
Diverse teams are more innovative, and businesses with diverse leadership teams are more successful. We believe that diverse teams create transformative solutions that better serve our customers and advance how the world works and lives.
We believe that this has to happen at the start of the hiring process. We work closely with our Talent Acquisition team to ensure qualified female candidates are considered for all technical roles and we make sure that our leadership bench and succession pipelines comprises diverse candidates.
What are some of the more successful initiatives that have worked to get women into the leadership at HP?
In the Greater Asia market, we have a range of programs that help accelerate women in leadership. HP’s Women in Leadership Lab (WILL), a 7-month leadership program, aims at providing women with exposure to P&L roles in our business units as well as rotations in our functions. This foundation better prepares them for leadership roles.
In addition, the global Catalyst @ HP program matches women employees with sponsors. This sponsorship model has helped to build trust and advocacy among employees and has contributed to an increase in participants’ engagement and career development. As of 2020, 37 percent of participants have been promoted or are currently performing a new role.
Our Women’s Impact Networks (WIN), built by employees for employees, provide women, and men, an opportunity to drive programs that focus on belonging, innovation and growth based on the specific needs of a country. This year, WIN programs have included fireside chats, workshops, and panel discussions with female leaders across the industry. WIN also provides its participants opportunities to network with senior executives as well as peers from across the company.
We also conduct regular MD and HR roundtables and leadership cafes which help us understand what support our female employees need, allowing HP to provide them with the opportunities to learn from other women leaders.
For technical roles in particular, where do you think the most work needs to be done to build the talent pipeline?
In the technology sector, women’s participation in school and the workforce are systematically lower than in other industries, according to BCG. For example, of all technology majors in Southeast Asia, 39 percent are women compared to 56 percent for all other fields of study.
To strengthen the talent pipeline, companies need to be extremely focused and intentional—from how they build policies, to L&D, mentorships and sponsorships, to careful bench-planning and talent development.
There are also cultural and regional variations and there is no “one-size fits all” solution. HR continues to play a crucial role in being catalysts for change.
What are some other biases or obstacles especially in the regional context that still need work today? What's worked to address these?
According to International Data Corporation, women account for only 25 percent of senior leadership roles in Asia Pacific. This stems from a combination of inadequate support, resources, and platforms for women to advance to the C-level.
There are pivotal moments in women’s academic and professional careers that determine whether they study STEM, work in STEM or stay in STEM. BCG’s study lists “three moments of truth”:
Higher education in tech: women are more likely to study STEM out of personal interest, how versatile they feel the major is, and how aligned they feel their skills and capabilities are. One survey found that creating programs that expose school age girls to technology subjects and career opportunities can be highly effective. One example is Singapore’s Code for Fun program that introduces primary school age students to computational thinking through coding.
First job in tech: a key factor in whether women opt to work in tech is whether it matches their major, which underscores the importance of attracting women to study STEM at the tertiary level.
Long-term career in tech: factors that determine whether women stay in STEM in the long run include compensation, attractive career opportunities, along with a reasonable work life balance.
The BCG study found that in organizations that have women acceleration programs, 80-90 percent of women mentioned that they personally benefited from such programs.
Finally, in your view, what is HR's main role in driving a diverse talent pipeline?
HR plays a crucial role in attracting and retaining talent. Working closely with the talent acquisition team, we ensure a diverse interview panel as well as 40 percent female candidates on the slate for technical and non-technical roles. When we plan succession, we ensure that there is adequate diverse talent in the pipeline across all levels. We work closely and listen carefully to what the business and our employees need, and we build our programs from there. Strong Learning and Development programs are key from the moment new employees join.
Take our new graduate hires for instance. We put them through a 15-month long program rotating them through 3 different roles to ensure they get cross domain exposure and accelerates their readiness to take on varied roles across the business. Graduates are assigned mentors and we track progress, learning and growth.
We design and implement targeted development interventions to build current and future capabilities across all levels including strategic thinking, storytelling, resilience, customer obsession, agility, innovation and collaboration through experiential, instructor-led and online modules. Intentional development actions include rotations, stretch assignments, assigning of sponsors, shadowing a leader, and learning through affinity groups.
Ensuring that we have diverse talents provides clear value. But diversity, equity and inclusion in tech will not come without collaboration—it needs to be a coordinated, multi-stakeholder effort.