Empowering Women in the Workplace: Don’t just wait to be asked, get involved!

By Michelle Simmons, General Manager, Southeast Asia New Markets, Microsoft Asia Pacific

I recently spoke at the INSEAD Women in Business Conference in Singapore, where it was great to see representatives from different organizations and industries coming together to find ways to develop a more inclusive and diverse workplace. I thought I would share my perspective on Diversity & Inclusion in Asia and insights from my own experience.

Emerging markets in Asia are starting to create enormous opportunities for women in business, thanks to rapid economic growth in recent years. However, according to the World Bank, approximately 55 percent of the female population in the Asia Pacific region are participating in the workforce compared to 78 percent of their male counterparts. Furthermore, an astounding 80 percent of women in business thought they were under-represented in leadership positions according to Robert Walters.

This low participation and representation rate reminds me of a quote by Vernā Myers, a diversity advocate and consultant: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

I think it’s a great analogy to what we are facing right now—the idea of gender diversity has been introduced to the workplace, but in order to progress, inclusion needs to be a bigger part of the conversation .

My storyHow Microsoft helped me and many others

My tenure with Microsoft started in the United States 17 years ago, and it has since exposed me to a wide range of career experiences as I moved across the globe with my family four times for work.

I am now a mother of three but my husband and I only decided to have children when we were six years into our marriage. When we did, it was also decided that he would stay at home, which was at the time uncommon even in the US.

Throughout this journey, Microsoft has undoubtedly helped me balance work and family with its flexible and supportive workplace and leave policies. I had all three of my children while working at Microsoft and I was always able to take adequate time off without worrying about losing my job.

It was this supportive environment that ultimately encouraged me to achieve more in my career.

Adopt a “growth” mindset to truly understand each other

In my opinion, the first step toward transforming the workplace is to develop an appetite for achieving growth – not just for yourself, but also for the people around you. This growth mindset has been revolutionizing the way we develop a more inclusive culture to engage our employees at Microsoft.

We have dedicated learning sessions to help employees uncover their own unconscious biases in order to better understand others. In fact, I was part of a group of “mentoring rings” at Microsoft that builds an excellent learning circle for female employees. Each “ring” is a group of 8-10 with two mentor-facilitators who meet up regularly to discuss issues specifically concerning women in business.

Get the gentlemen involved

When it comes to women empowerment, the involvement of men is equally crucial. BCG revealed that companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity are much more likely to progress than those where men are not involved.

Recognizing the importance of this, we have assigned at least one male mentor to each mentoring ring to ensure that their opinions are also heard.

Start Young

We believe that ultimately, women empowerment begins at its root. Microsoft has initiatives such as YouthSpark and DigiGirlz to inspire and cultivate an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) among girls at an early age.

Both programs have achieved great success. Within five years, YouthSpark has created new opportunities for more than 227 million young people in more than 100 countries around the world, while DigiGirlz has reached more than 26,000 girls in 16 countries.

Everyone plays a part

Workplace diversity and inclusion aren’t mere corporate jargon. They can be some of the key ingredients in the recipe for an organization’s success. In fact, a 2016 study found that companies’ profit margins grew when they increased the number of female board members and senior leaders.

More than ever, there is now a pressing need for companies to keep female employees engaged in order to drive meaningful diversity and inclusion in the workplace, one that’s not gauged by the sheer numbers alone, but how involved they are.

Indeed, true workplace diversity can’t take place unless we get everyone in society involved in finding solutions to address some of the most challenging issues women face at work.