Women in IT: Coming into their own

Posted on December 17, 1999 
Filed Under Anita, CNET, Features

by Anita Devasahayam

Carly Fiorina’s appointment as CEO in the world’s second-largest computer company in July is an indication that women are beginning to seriously dot the male-dominated high-tech landscape.

Reaching the No.1 post at Hewlett-Packard Co is all the more significant as Fiorina, 44, had topped Fortune’s ranking of the “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” for two consecutive years.

Perhaps, even more telling in Fiorina’s case is that the only other person tipped to take over the reins at HP, prior to her being named, was another woman, Ann Livermore, the CEO of the computing division at HP.

Women have been holding high positions in the IT industry in the last decade. Yet their presence has not changed long-time perceptions as it is beginning to now, as more women make their mark in technology and Internet-based environments.

Although Fiorina’s position shows that women are coming into their own, the journey for the majority has only just begun.

A recent survey released by New York-based women’s research group, Catalyst, said that although more women are making it to the top corporate positions, they are still under-represented in positions that lead to such promotions.

In Asia, the under-representation is no less pronounced.

Intel Technology (M) Sdn Bhd’s country manager Yohani Yusof agreed that the number of women holding top posts in the IT industry is smaller compared to their male counterparts. “I think that it is because IT is engineering- and technical-focused, which is traditionally a male domain. And women in this arena have had to struggle every step of the way,” she told CNET Asia.

But she added that the playing field is changing as more women are entering high-tech industries with the onset of the Internet. “More women are also populating financial and management roles in such organizations.”

One survey by online research house Media Metrix showed that women comprise half of Internet users in the U.S. since January, a rapid rise from a mere 18 percent in 1996.

Tough journey

Such impressive statistics do not, however, make for a smooth climb up the ladder to success.

Yohani who worked in Hewlett Packard and IBM prior to Intel and has spent 12 years in the industry said that women everywhere have had to work harder to prove themselves. Within the Asian context, the need to do so is greater.

She observed that women need to have a strong character to be heard in their environment, but once heard, they will be noticed. “More importantly is the need to deliver. Once they achieve that, it is much easier to proceed,” she added.

Corporate communications manager at Malaysia Online, Jenny Ong, said a track record wins the day regardless of gender. Instead of fighting for equality in the local context or for preferential treatment in moving up, Ong reckoned women should learn to hold their own. “Prejudicial treatment is, and will always, exist be it based on gender, age, race or religion,” she argued.

The ground rule, according to Ong, is to be able to prove one’s worth. Moreover, there is room for improvement as local mindsets change over time.

It is still tough convincing the largely male-dominated management that women are as productive as men. Sometimes the stereotype prejudice against pregnancies and monthly discomforts get in the way of the work in hand. “Let’s face it: women do suffer. But why dwell on it? People should just accept it and move on,” said an IT businesswoman who refused to be named, but added that the prejudice comes from both sexes.

Situations tend to be more complicated for married women as they are still often the expected partner to handle family and domestic issues. And when they work hard, the family gets hit the most.

Most women acquiesced that they cannot be super heroines. “She cannot be a career person, a great wife, a great mum all at the same time. The trick is to focus and balance the responsibilities. Quality is key and time management is crucial,” said Intel’s Yohani.

Many women have proved that they are able to juggle family and a career without being overwhelmed by guilt.

Case in point is Dawn Edwards-Hong, personal assistant to Unisys (M) Sdn Bhd’s managing director. Having started out with less than a diploma as a secretarial clerk at the now-defunct NCR Malaysia, Edwards-Hong worked her way up the ladder to her current post over more than 15 years.

Today, she holds a first-class honors degree in economics from the London University, a degree attained studying part-time while she was pregnant with her second son. “It was tough but challenging, but I enjoyed it, ” said Edwards-Hong who defied the odds and perception that “pregnancies and monthly discomforts” are obstacles.

“Working in the IT industry provides great exposure for women. My job allows me to communicate and interact with individuals from varied departments and companies, apart from taking charge of seven secretaries,” said Edwards-Hong, whose husband is also in an IT company.

Fair play

Keeping up with the constant flow of exciting developments in technology, however, has its contradictions. “It is exciting but the paycheck does not add up,” said a secretary of another IT company, who declined to be named.

Many concur that higher salaries for women in IT, compared to their peers in other industries, is negated by the longer hours. Intel’s Yohani said in her experience that women tend to put themselves at a disadvantage right from the start. “Women are less fussy and more likely to accept what is being offered rather than negotiate for a better starting pay package. So they tend to start at a lower pay although they may be more qualified in terms of experience.”

In spite of that, often a woman’s diligence, reliability and natural ability to play catch-up help them gain the skills set needed to put them ahead of the pack, she added.

Yohani also pointed out that foreign IT multinationals tend to value contributions instead of focusing on gender compared to local IT companies.

Ong agreed, adding that local companies do not have a lofty regard of women as their foreign counterparts. Hence, women in high positions have to contend with what comes their way. “We must not look at what the company provides but how we, women, put them to use. Having policies does not guarantee equal treatment,” she said.

Above that, women walk a fine line between professional attitude and bitchy behavior. A woman boss who forces her team to deliver is seen as a witch. Ironically, if a man employed similar methods, he would be seen as driven.

“Women need to learn how to thrive on what we do, and until we can achieve getting over the fact that we cannot do this or that because of our gender, we will never be respected. We should strive to be better human beings,” said SC Ng, owner of an events management company in Kuala Lumpur.

Women are, however, unanimous that they are perceived as being “people oriented” and therefore inadvertently edged into areas such as human resources and public relations.

Yohani countered that changing that perception is the women’s responsibility. She does not think that men are preventing women from reaching the top. “Glass ceilings do exists but it can be broken depending on how the women works, communicates, performs and exerts herself. She needs to do this more than the men, to ensure she is heard. But once she is heard, then the rest is history.”

Published in CNet Asia, Dec 17, 1999: Pg 1 | Pg 2 | Pg 3

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