Equity, empowerment, and a culture of allyship in Asia Pacific

headshots of IWD allies

By Andrea Della Mattea, President Asia Pacific, Microsoft. This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

International Women’s Day this year was poignant. Two years on, the pandemic revealed inequalities that have existed for many years, but the crisis brought them into sharp focus.

I’ve seen my share of progress and milestones in the technology sector, and while there’s been a fair improvement in the number of women in STEM industries and diversity within organizations, the reality is that COVID-19 erased some of that progress.

Women’s jobs and livelihoods are more vulnerable to the pandemic, and they were disproportionately affected by the social and economic consequences of the lockdowns. Young people, minorities, and lower-skilled workers were equally impacted by job and income losses.

I believe we can achieve an inclusive world by investing in sustainable, inclusive development — whether through skilling, up-skilling, trying new things, or simply being an ally.

Breaking down barriers

As far as we’ve come, I maintain a strong conviction that more women must acquire digital skills for a genuinely inclusive economic recovery. Currently, under 30% of data and artificial intelligence  professionals are women; this figure falls below 20% when it comes to cloud computing. Leaving women out of the cybersecurity workforce will only hurt our ability to close the skills gap.

This isn’t just about equality, there’s a business case too: gender-diverse businesses perform better. According to McKinsey, taking action now to advance gender equality could be valuable, adding $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030.

This is one of the reasons I’m pleased we launched Code; Without Barriers in Asia Pacific last September, alongside like-minded organizations when it comes to closing the gender gap in the cloud, AI, and digital technology sectors.

There is an urgent need to increase the diversity of such talent to help every country achieve its national digital agenda and experience inclusive economic growth.

That is why Microsoft provides skilling and certification in cloud and AI to female developers and creators, to broaden the tech talent pools across Asia Pacific — particularly in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

So far, Code; Without Barriers has piloted 18 certification programs for Women in AI across eight APAC markets, training over 480 women and certifying 203 developers… and we are doing so much more.

We do this as we recognize our responsibility as business leaders to ensure that our digital worlds reflect the diversity of our societies, and benefit from fresh perspectives and greater innovation. To do so, the future of tech must be one where women are not only afforded the same opportunities as men but also feel confident pursuing their career goals & nurturing their talents.

“Let’s not forget that at the foundation of every example of change and development is people.”

Diversity from adversity

The biggest contribution that everyone can make for long-term societal improvement is developing skills, because it’s people who drive digital transformation and skilling will be the currency for the post pandemic world. Unfortunately, persistent, and enduring gaps remain in employment for individuals with disabilities.

We’ve found ways to improve employment opportunities for everyone, including women and those with disabilities. As remote work swiftly became the norm, we launched Microsoft’s APAC Enabler Program to increase the digital skills of people with disabilities and increase their employability through opportunities with committed organizations across Asia Pacific.

Within six months, more than 110 matched to 65 potential roles with Microsoft Partners. These developments spur us on to continue equipping those with disabilities with digital skillsets that will give them a strong footing in a post-pandemic world. Microsoft’s next step is a five-year commitment to help bridge the ‘disability divide’ worldwide through accessible technology that will open doors for disabled tech talent to find meaningful careers.

Globally, there are over one billion people with disabilities with 650 million across Asia, so we’re just getting started. And while we have considerable distance still to cover, we can see it through if we remain committed to ensuring each person has access to tools that they need to effect positive change in their respective communities.

Accessible technology is a fundamental building block that can open doors to bigger opportunities for people with disabilities, tackling barriers to communication, interaction, and information. At Microsoft we start by working to ensure our own products are accessible by design to empower everyone across the spectrum of disability, with many features now built into the devices and software widely available today.

We do this by infusing the insights and feedback from our disabled employees, accessibility experts, customers and the disability community to build features like Immersive Reader for people who are dyslexic, SeeingAI app for the blind, and the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which empowers gamers with disabilities.

While technology has the power to increase the accessibility of work and all areas of life, we will not move the needle on employment of individuals with disabilities without focused effort.

Microsoft proactively hires talent with disabilities, with specific hiring programs and strong disability inclusion practices to empower candidates to “come as you are, do what you love.”

Align with allies

I’ve talked about the importance and impact of empowering women and people with disabilities in the tech sector. To continue progressing towards true inclusion, we need a community of allies.

Allyship, covering, unconscious bias and the empathy triangle are important concepts that help us become self-aware on our journey of inclusion. At Microsoft, we use allyship as a model and tool for self-reflection. It helps us better understand our own emotional reactions and encourages us to establish systems to hold ourselves accountable as we strive to be the most effective, consistent, and sustainable allies we can be.

It’s our responsibility as leaders of this community to shape what comes next, to show what’s possible when our digital worlds reflect the diversity of our society. When communities, governments, and industry leaders come together – and are empowered by technology – we can do more than just bounce back.

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