Today, we celebrate International Women’s Day and renew our commitment to promote greater gender equality in the workplace, and beyond. This issue is more than just a matter of basic fairness; it is proven to offer significant economic benefits to those organisations and societies that choose to embrace it.
Diversity plays a crucial role in driving innovation, shaping technology advancements and powering Asia Pacific’s growth to create a more prosperous future. According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, advancing women’s equality in the countries of Asia Pacific could add $4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP by 2025, a 12 percent increase over the business-as-usual trajectory.
Meet Anita, Bidushi, Felicia, Melisha, and Mikaela – five female innovators from Asia Pacific who are using technology to improve lives and make a difference in their community.
For organizations, better gender balance can also lead to more ideas being conceptualized, greater innovation and higher performance. From my own personal experience, I find that the best, richest feedback I receive as a leader is from diverse, heterogeneous teams.
The link between gender diversity and performance is even more pronounced for technology companies like my own, with those offering better gender balance achieving more than 5% higher annual returns than their peers, according to a recent Morgan Stanley global report on this topic.
This comes as no surprise. A diverse workforce can help a firm understand the varied perspectives of their clients while empathizing with their concerns. When organizations better grasp their customers’ unmet or unarticulated needs, they can innovate and create solutions to fulfill those needs.
Dire Lack of Female Representation in STEM Industries
Asia Pacific faces significant challenges in building the pipeline for female talents and attaining gender diversity. The gender gulf is particularly stark when it comes to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. For example, according to a UNESCO report, less than a quarter of researchers in East Asia and the Pacific are women.
When I examine my own organization, female employees currently constitute 38% of all non-technical roles at Microsoft globally. However, when we look at technical positions, the figure falls to only 20%. Since a high percentage of our company’s roles – including R&D and Engineering – are technical in nature, we are focusing a significant proportion of our diversity efforts on encouraging more young women to consider STEM as a career choice.
One reason for the lack of women in the STEM industries and technical jobs is that girls often give up pursuing these subjects at an early age. Research has shown that there are many contributing factors, ranging from peer pressure to a lack of role models, to a self-belief that they have no natural aptitude for STEM subjects.
As technology continues to evoke sweeping changes to how we live, work, learn and play across the region, the absence of female representation in STEM can lead to hundreds of thousands of jobs being left unfilled, while the lack of diversity can stifle innovation. With the creative minds of half its population untapped, Asia Pacific’s growth will be hamstrung.
Encouraging Greater Gender Diversity & Inclusion in Organizations
The onus for building a stronger female STEM pipeline rests not just with governments, schools and nonprofits − businesses must play a part as well.
My own thinking in this area focuses on three areas – the “Triple E” approach − that can be used to foster greater diversity within an organization and in the communities that we operate.
1. EVOLVE Recruitment and Talent Outreach Programs
To break the status quo for gender diversity in STEM, organizations must first challenge conventional assumptions on where and how best to identify candidates. They can start by investing in a range of initiatives that can locate and engage these talents while they are in school. This will let us build a sustainable talent pipeline by spurring more girls and young women to pursue their passion in STEM, and provide them with a clearer picture of what it is like to have a career in these industries.
For example, Microsoft’s DigiGirlz program helps female students in secondary and tertiary schools learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft staff, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops.
Microsoft partnered with the Auckland University of Technology last year to hold a DigiGirlz event that gave 70 female students a platform to interact with women leaders and employees from the technology sector, as well as try out different digital skills.
2. EMBED Diversity in the Heart of Organizational Culture
To achieve better gender balance, organizations cannot focus on hiring alone. They also need to find ways to retain female staff and empower them to grow with the company.
To achieve this, leaders need to make diversity a core priority within their firms and foster a culture that empowers women while providing equal career opportunities based on performance.
To support an inclusive environment in Microsoft, we have implemented an unconscious bias training program that helps our staff understand unconscious bias and counter it. We want to help our employees see that differences are not a hindrance to progress and innovation − they are catalysts and accelerators. I’m pleased to share that more than 70,000 Microsoft employees have already completed this training course.
In addition, having flexible work arrangements enable working mothers to better balance their office and family commitments, allowing us to retain or welcome back female employees who had to take a break from work for their families.
In Japan, for example, we have launched a returnship program that encourages female staff to return to full-time positions and helps them ease back into their roles, regardless of the duration they had been out of the workforce.
3. ENFORCE Leadership Accountability
At Microsoft, we hold leaders accountable for driving gender balance by tying a portion of their compensation directly to diversity progress within their business units. We are also encouraging the adoption of inclusive practices at the managerial level and above through targeted training sessions, learning toolkits and feedback mechanism.
Attracting, developing and supporting women to thrive in STEM fields is increasingly vital to many organization’s success and also builds a well-rounded, inclusive society. If we continue to struggle to bring the minds, experiences, capabilities and perspectives of half the population to our workforce, innovation will be stifled and our society’s most pressing and complex challenges will not be fully addressed at scale.
While we are seeing some signs of progress from the types of initiatives I describe, it is clear that this is a ‘journey’ for us and there is still much more work to do. We will continue to invest, experiment, track progress and share learnings as we advance along this path.
In closing, I wish you well in your own diversity and inclusion journey, as we celebrate International Women’s Day and the unique and invaluable contribution of women at work and within society as a whole.