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IWD: Four female business leaders share their sexist battles and hope for allyship

Four female business leaders who have climbed the corporate ladder in their respective industries share the initiatives they've launched for IWD.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, The Peak reached out to four female business leaders and asked them questions about their corporate journey and what the gentlemen can do to help in the fight for equality and equity. Here are their stories.

Claribel Chai, Country Manager, Singapore, Palo Alto Networks

(left in cover picture)

What was the biggest case of sexism that you’ve faced in your career?
In one of my previous roles, there was an instance when a manager kept promising me leadership opportunities during our internal HR catch-ups, but his behaviour and attitude in front of my other colleagues said otherwise. He would constantly make misogynistic comments and demeaning jokes about women in our wider team meetings. Even though he claimed I was a valued member of the team, the work environment he created spoke volumes about the way he perceived me.

Whether it’s directed at you or another colleague, my advice would be to call out unacceptable behavior when you see it. We have to hold people accountable for their actions if we want to build a truly inclusive work environment free of such microaggressions.

What is your proudest career achievement?
Rather than pinpoint specific achievements, I’m proud of the supportive work environments that I’ve helped to build over the years. My personal motto is ‘do what is right’, which extends from the smallest day-to-day interactions to the toughest business negotiations. I believe that these small steps can create an inclusive work culture environment that empowers women to grow and take on more leadership roles in traditionally male-dominated fields.

What can men do to help push for women in your industry?
Women are often told that they have to emulate men in order to get ahead in the business world, but I think it’s time for us to redefine what the image of a leader looks like. After all, traditional paternalistic styles of leadership are no longer the de rigueur for effective person-centric management.

Men need to recognise that strength and leadership can take many forms, and work on eliminating any unconscious biases that they may carry in the workplace. A modern organisation must allow diversity of thought, and a spirit of innovation so that it can navigate and thrive in an increasingly volatile business landscape.

(Related: From egg freezing to giving up her salary, CEO of Trip.com Group Jane Sun shares how she motivates her stafF)

Chelsea Perino, managing director, global marketing and communications, The Executive Centre

(centre in cover picture)

What was the biggest case of sexism that you’ve faced in your career?
I am fortunate that I have worked in incredibly open, supportive and equal opportunity organisations. One challenge I did face was when I first moved to Seoul, South Korea. I wouldn’t call it sexism necessarily, but there were definitely cultural norms that were gender-related and it was at first difficult to understand the workplace dynamic. I like to look at these situations as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than negative experiences, and hopefully act as a change maker to bring a fresh perspective to the table.

What is an initiative you’ve launched to help level the playing field in your industry?
One initiative that I strongly believe in and am proud of is being the chair of the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) Women Speakers Database. WLI was established in 2011 and is dedicated to promoting the advancement and visibility of women leaders in the real estate industry, and supporting the development of young women members as leaders both in ULI and in their professions. The initiative began with the goal of achieving gender balance at corporate real estate events. I am spearheading the development of a comprehensive database of female speakers from various industries and positions who will contribute thought leadership in industry events. I am also liaising with conference and event coordinators around APAC to ensure that there is equal female representation for speaking opportunities at events in the region.

What can men do to help push for women in your industry?
Listen. Be an advocate. Challenge organisations and stereotypes that create barriers for women’s advancement. Ask why there aren’t more female leaders in their organisations. Partner and mentor younger women, empower them with the message that they are valuable and deserve a seat at the decision-making table.

Deborah Ho, Country Head, Singapore and Regional Head of Southeast Asia, BlackRock

(right in cover picture)

What was the biggest case of sexism that you’ve faced in your career?
Years ago when I was working for a former employer, my female colleagues and I could not take part in a client event because it was for male colleagues only for their male clients. The company and none of our bosses seemed to have a problem with that, and so they never challenged it. I am just glad that society frowns on such practices today.

What is your proudest career achievement?
Almost 20 years ago, when I was leading a team in investment banking, there was a talented woman in my team who wanted very much to start a family but kept putting it off for work. When she was ready, she experienced a lot of difficulties adjusting to a new stage of life. As her manager, I worked with the senior management to let her keep her job while working half days from home. This was unheard of in those days. She could do so because the rest of the team were very supportive and helped carry the load on days she could not work. Fast forward some 20 years and her son is now in University. She went on and had a successful career and retired last year as managing director in another financial firm. I’m so honored to have played a part in this and I am so proud of her and the team who paid it forward to help other young women who faced the same predicament.

What can men do to help push for women in your industry?
I am a big proponent of gender allyship. This simply means that men commit to becoming better colleagues to women at the workplace and also be willing to advocate for systemic change. This may sound drastic, but it can always start off with small but impactful gestures such as challenging stereotypes, assumptions and unconscious biases towards women at the workplace. Finally, an excellent ally is prepared to sponsor talented women, celebrate their achievements, and be willing to share their social capital.

(Related: Sabrina Ho, CEO of Half The Sky, aims to achieve gender diversity in the corporate world)

Isabel Chong, Country Manager, Southeast Asia, Eaton

Isabel Chong, Eaton

Isabel Chong, Country Manager for Southeast Asia, Eaton

What was the biggest case of sexism that you’ve faced in your career?
I once attended a final negotiation meeting with a foreign-based prospect. It surprised them when they saw me representing the company. They asked one of our sales staff if I could call the shots and whether a more senior male could sign the agreement. We closed the deal that day when I shared I was the highest-ranked in our Singapore office. Our relationship became much better overtime as we could build rapport when working on a project with them. We also became close friends.

It was an interesting encounter but also a powerful reminder that deeply entrenched biases against females working in fields like engineering and power still exist. Women in positions of leadership are still regularly regarded with skepticism. It’s important for people, regardless of their gender, to challenge this thinking and only assess a candidate based on their capabilities to determine if they are suitable for the job.

Could you share with me an initiative you’ve launched to help level the playing field in your industry?
Power management is still a male-dominated industry. We need to take concrete actions to promote gender equality and level the playing field. This was one reason we developed formal training programmes and initiatives like Women Adding Value at Eaton (WAVE).

As a dedicated inclusion resource group for female employees, WAVE organises regular discussions on how we can better advocate for female representation in our workplace. This includes annual panel discussions as part of Eaton’s annual IWD celebrations. Insights shared during such discussions can go a long way in helping Eaton remove barriers that still stand in the way of career advancement for women. Engaging with our employees ensures we’re aware of existing challenges faced on the ground and enables us to identify and empower aspiring leaders. We hope that by proactively pushing for such conversations, we can build up confidence in our female employees and encourage them to recognise the value they bring to the table.

What can men do to help push for women in your industry?
It’s imperative to rope men into conversations around driving talent diversity at the workplace and encourage them to play their part to advocate for the same. We call on male employees to recognise the value in diversity of perspectives when female employees contribute to workplace discussions and decision-making. For IWD this year, we’ve introduced a video project which also involves our male employees to make their pledge on how they #ChoosetoChallenge for more diversity and inclusion at work.