International Women's Day: The tech industry needs to do more to be inclusive, say experts


It’s International Women’s Day (IWD) this Friday (March 8), and the theme for this year is ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’ under the hashtag #InvestInWomen.

Industry experts have long acknowledged that bringing women into the tech industry and investing in their futures is a core part of building a skilled workforce that can help further advance the field.

Despite that, according to a study from PwC UK titled “Women in Tech: Time to close the gender gap”, only 27% of female respondents say they considered a career in tech, far short from the 62% of males.

The report goes on to say that 61% of female respondents were put off by the idea of a career in the field due to a lack of information and advice on what being in the industry entails.

There’s also the perception that the industry is male-dominated that pushes women away from the field, a notion that was further reinforced with reports like the “2023 Global Leadership Forecast” – from human resources consultancy Development Dimensions International – which stated that only 28% of leadership roles in tech are held by women.

All this on top of the allegations of workplace discrimination and unfair levels of compensation.

In the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition of X (then Twitter) in 2022 and the subsequent abrupt mass layoffs, several former employees filed a class action lawsuit against the social media platform.

The lawsuit alleged discriminatory targeting in the terminations, citing a figure of 59% of female engineers laid off against just 45% of males in the department.

Search engine giant Google too was involved in a legal battle last year over alleged unfair wages for Ulku Rowe, a director of engineering at the company’s cloud unit. — AFPSearch engine giant Google too was involved in a legal battle last year over alleged unfair wages for Ulku Rowe, a director of engineering at the company’s cloud unit. — AFP

Search engine giant Google too was involved in a legal battle last year over alleged unfair wages for Ulku Rowe, a director of engineering at the company’s cloud unit.

The lawsuit claimed that there had been a significant pay gap between Rowe and men in the same role despite them having similar backgrounds and experience. Rowe also alleges to have been denied promotions due to her complaints.

Rowe was awarded US$1.15mil (RM5.5mil) last October after a jury ruled against Google in the trial.

With this year’s IWD theme, the United Nations hopes that investments into women and gender-equality measures will help build a more inclusive society and amplify women’s voices, while also accelerating progress.

Embracing equity

For Hana Raja, the managing director of Cisco Malaysia, one of the main goals of these investments should be to foster an interest in, and change perceptions towards, the tech industry from early on.

Hana says investing in women's education and professional development broadens the talent pool and brings in new perspectives to the industry. — Cisco MalaysiaHana says investing in women's education and professional development broadens the talent pool and brings in new perspectives to the industry. — Cisco Malaysia

“Women and girls first need to be able to see themselves in tech roles before they pursue them.

“From a young age, girls need to be introduced and encouraged to explore STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as a topic in schools so they see it as a part of their futures.

“It is about providing them with the right resources, training, and courses so they are equipped for roles in the industry,” she says.

According to Hana, investing resources towards the education and professional development of women both broadens the talent pool and brings in new perspectives to the industry, which is a driving force in innovation.

She further adds that skills-to-job programmes like that offered by the Cisco Networking Academy are one such resource that can be tapped to enter the industry.

These thoughts are shared by Touch ‘n Go Sdn Bhd’s chief corporate development officer Lum Joy Deng, who emphasised on the transformative effect and greater competitiveness that women can bring to the industry.

Lum emphasises that women need to understand their value, skills, and accomplishments while being confident to advocate for themselves. — Touch 'n Go Sdn BhdLum emphasises that women need to understand their value, skills, and accomplishments while being confident to advocate for themselves. — Touch 'n Go Sdn Bhd

“Women bring unique perspectives and approaches to problem-solving, which can lead to more creative and inclusive technology solutions.

“Additionally, by equipping women with the necessary skills and knowledge, we’re not only empowering them to excel in their careers but also paving the way for more female leaders in tech, helping to address the industry’s persistent skill gaps,” she says.

Farah Jaafar, vice-president of the Fintech Association of Malaysia (FAOM), says that a long term view is needed when it comes to the tech industry.

She highlights that having the foresight to invest in women will develop the industry by including their point of view, which can be vital in certain areas.

Farah believes that the input of women is crucial in the advancement of the tech industry, especially with emerging technologies like AI. — Fintech Association of MalaysiaFarah believes that the input of women is crucial in the advancement of the tech industry, especially with emerging technologies like AI. — Fintech Association of Malaysia

“An urgent example of investing in women and how it can be a game changer is in AI (artificial intelligence).

“The fact is, AI is generated by humans and these programs will have some form of gender bias, thus it’s imperative to have a woman’s view in the program that creates the AI,” says Farah, who is also chief communications officer with Fusang, a licensed securities exchange that primarily focuses on digital assets.

Meanwhile, for Tung Yan Ning, co-founder and managing director of Claz’room College, a major part of investing in women should also work towards addressing gaps in the industry’s needs.

Tung, who has worked on numerous projects in the video game industry, believes that the creation of specialised programmes is key to helping women break into the field.

“We have witnessed many talented individuals, despite high educational achievements, find themselves ill-equipped for industry-specific challenges, leading to a shift towards other professions.

“This discrepancy is not due to a lack of talent or interest but rather a lack of targeted support and resources that align with the industry’s dynamic needs.

“By investing in specialised programs that address these gaps, we can empower women to not only enter the gaming industry but also to thrive and lead,” she says.

She also stresses that gender diversity is necessary in the rapidly evolving video game industry for innovation and creativity, with women representing a well of untapped potential.

Standing strong

Hana says that women need to develop a sense of belief in their abilities and grab opportunities whenever possible, especially when it comes to advocating for themselves and negotiating for professional growth.

“Women tend to put their hand up only when they are ‘fully qualified’, not knowing that this might curtail opportunities for them.

“This is why we must fight our bias to just not try or try later when we feel more ready.

When it comes to providing an environment that welcomes women and encourages them to build a career in the industry, Lum believes that companies have a big role to play. — Photo by Marvin Meyer on UnsplashWhen it comes to providing an environment that welcomes women and encourages them to build a career in the industry, Lum believes that companies have a big role to play. — Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

“In the workplace, it is also important for us to advocate for ourselves and not be afraid to ask for a step-up opportunity, promotion, or a pay raise, especially when it is well deserved.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to speak out and showcase our best self at work,” she says.

Lum shares similar thoughts, emphasising that women need to understand their worth before they are able to advocate for themselves.

“Understanding your value, skills, and accomplishments and being confident in what you bring to the table is crucial in the tech industry,” she says.

Corporate commitment

When it comes to providing an environment that welcomes women and encourages them to build a career in the industry, Lum believes that companies have a big role to play.

“Tech companies can attract, retain, and promote women by creating inclusive cultures that value diversity at every level, from entry-level positions to the C-suite.

“This includes flexible work arrangements, transparent career progression pathways, and zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment.

“Additionally, providing leadership development, mentorship, and sponsorship programs specifically for women can help in retaining and advancing women in their careers,” she says.

Wanita Data founder Elissa says her community was formed as a place for women to obtain advice, upskill, collaborate, and develop a network in the industry. — Elissa IrhamyWanita Data founder Elissa says her community was formed as a place for women to obtain advice, upskill, collaborate, and develop a network in the industry. — Elissa Irhamy

This also includes creating clear career advancement pathways to close the gender gap in leadership roles, along with comprehensive initiatives such as accelerators for women tech entrepreneurs, and networking groups that connect women with mentors and sponsors in their field.

Those like founder of community and advocacy group Wanita Data, Elissa Irhamy, believe that having women in such leadership roles can be significant motivators to others.

“We heard many stories from the women in our community that seeing and hearing other women succeed in this industry is motivating them to achieve the same,” she says.

Elissa further adds that a more inclusive environment can come about by eliminating harassment in the workplace and providing spaces where women will be heard, while ensuring that team members are given the same opportunities.

In bringing more women to leadership positions, Tung says that companies need to give due consideration towards the roles women fulfil.

Tung stressed that women are an untapped well of potential in the video game industry. — Claz’room CollegeTung stressed that women are an untapped well of potential in the video game industry. — Claz’room College

“Bridging the gender gap in leadership demands a comprehensive strategy that acknowledges and supports the dual roles women fulfil in both professional settings and society at large.

“Initiatives aimed at balancing women’s work and personal commitments, such as providing childcare solutions and fostering a culture of shared parental responsibilities, are crucial for empowering women to step into leadership positions.

“The stereotypical view of women as the primary caregivers often hampers their professional advancement, especially in dynamic fields like tech and creative industries.

“There’s a tangible loss to the industry when talented women are forced to choose between career and family – a choice that shouldn’t have to be made,” she says.

Tung goes into further detail, saying that companies need to create environments that recognise and value the unique contributions women bring to the table, allowing them to leverage their strengths and excel.

For Lum, such diversity in the field is highly important, saying that “diversity in decision-making enriches the creative and problem-solving processes, leading to more innovative and effective solutions”.

“When companies invest in women, they tap into a wider range of perspectives and experiences, which can enhance product development, customer understanding, and strategic insights.

“This investment not only drives better business outcomes but also contributes to a more equitable and inclusive workplace culture,” she says.

Those like Lum and Farah also bring up the implementation of transparent salary policies, terms of employment, and merit-based criteria for increments and promotions, with audits on pay disparity to ensure equity of compensation amongst employees.

Helping hands

In Tung’s experience, the presence of a mentor or sponsor can be a foundational support for women in the tech industry.

Reaching out to a mentor will also allow less established members of the industry to tap into the experience and obtain advice from those who have walked the path before them, which is an invaluable resource. — Business photo created by jannoon028 - www.freepik.comReaching out to a mentor will also allow less established members of the industry to tap into the experience and obtain advice from those who have walked the path before them, which is an invaluable resource. — Business photo created by jannoon028 - www.freepik.com

“The guidance and encouragement I’ve received from mentors have not only helped me navigate the intricacies of the tech world but have also been a significant source of inspiration and empowerment.

“In my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor young women embarking on paths in creative and tech fields.

“Listening to them recount how my achievements have motivated them to chase their dreams, despite the hurdles, has been incredibly fulfilling,” she says.

Tung also notes that role models have a great influence, acting as a roadmap for others to follow, while also helping to dismantle obstacles and nurture confidence.

According to Nuraizah, women-operated startups experience more difficulty in getting funded. — MADCashAccording to Nuraizah, women-operated startups experience more difficulty in getting funded. — MADCash

Similar thoughts are shared by Nuraizah Shamsul Baharin, the managing director of MADCash, though she advises on being more proactive in finding mentors.

“Having a mentor is a great opportunity for support, there are times that I have mentors ‘adopt’ me, but most of the time, I pitch to mentors and have them come onboard to mentor me.

“We can’t be shy about this, go look for your mentors. For the women being asked to mentor, you can always pull a woman up with you as you climb the ladder.

“We need to have more visibility for women in tech so that they can become role models to young women,” she says.

Reaching out to a mentor will also allow less established members of the industry to tap into the experience and obtain advice from those who have walked the path before them, which is an invaluable resource.

MADCash is a fintech startup that provides funding to female entrepreneurs. Nuraizah herself says that women-operated startups tend to face difficulty in getting investments and being funded.

“There is a conscious and unconscious bias when investors deal with women; when the woman is young, they feel that she will have other responsibilities that will distract her focus.

“Investors also worry that the lady will have different priorities in life and prioritise those above the business,” she says, adding that she hopes for established companies to give opportunities for startups to pitch themselves.

The existence of support groups like Wanita Data also serve as a resource that can be leveraged to obtain advice, upskill, collaborate, and develop a network in the industry.

“Wanita Data was formed because we need spaces where we feel comfortable innovating, participating in projects and sharing our experiences in the data industry with fellow women.

“This industry is dominated by men and sometimes it is hard to relate to those who do not share the same experiences as us in this industry,” Elissa says, adding that Wanita Data is an inclusive space, allowing members to focus on projects centered around women issues that aren’t in the spotlight with other communities.

Elissa hopes that with the growth of the industry, investments are also made to develop female talents.

“The industry is growing and more women are taking part. It is high time we invest in these talents and ensure their longevity in tech,” she says.

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