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International Women’s Day 2022: How These Female Leaders Break Glass Ceilings

Hear from four women who have done it all – and continue to inspire other women to succeed.

International Women’s Day 2022: How These Female Leaders Break Glass Ceilings
Gunjan Soni, Zalora

Social media feeds turn purple, brands applaud their female staff, and streaming platforms curate movie and music playlists titled ‘powerful women’. It’s finally International Women’s Day – a time to celebrate women’s innumerable contributions and achievements.

This year’s theme is #BreaktheBias, inviting us to envision an inclusive and equitable world that celebrates diversity. We spoke with four fearless female leaders, who lent insight into their journeys and hopes for the future of women in their respective industries.

Gunjan Soni, Chief Executive Officer, Zalora

Gunjan Soni, Zalora CEO
Gunjan Soni, Zalora CEO

Being a woman in the tech industry has never been easy, but Gunjan Soni is not afraid of a challenge. Having steered e-commerce and media platforms in India, she is now the CEO of Zalora. Soni has appeared in the Fortune India 40 Under 40 list and was recognised as a leading woman in business by the Economic Times.

What does the word ‘power’ mean to you?

Power, by definition, is the ability to exercise influence over something. More importantly, power, as cliched as it sounds, is all about responsibility. Inherent to this is the ability to make positive changes. Effective leadership is understanding how to use power for good.

Being in a position where I am able to shape the future of Zalora and make a positive impact on the lives of our people, partners, planet and the community is a great honour and privilege.

What are some unforeseen challenges you have faced?

By and large I’ve been blessed with a lot of support from family and mentors at every step of the way. However, a common challenge I faced early on was around perceptions and early judgements largely based on gender and age. I would openly receive comments about how young I was to be doing what I was doing. I remember wearing zero power glasses to look a bit older!

It’s important to continue doing what you do well, to not be shy of showcasing your achievements, and to seek out advice from trusted mentors. This can really help transcend many challenges.

Women leaders often have to work harder at proving themselves. But once you’re able to do that, you get noticed more.

How have your experiences as a woman shaped your leadership style?

I don’t believe that leadership is linked to gender. I think it’s really about the values that you uphold, and the strategies you put in place. Every leader has their own mission and values. Men are equally capable of having values that are supportive of diversity and many do. So to me, it’s about choice.

But surely being a woman and having seen bias in your own journey makes you more empathetic to the cause. Drawing on my experience, I believe that a leader needs to get three things right. Firstly, it’s really important to get strategy and performance right as a successful company that creates value for all stakeholders forms the right platform for all things good.

The second is to create a thriving environment for diverse talent. Talent, gender, age and cognitive diversity in my view, is both an obligation and pragmatic choice for any leader in today’s world as it not only creates a more equal workplace but leads to better business outcomes as well.

This is something that we’re very focused on and proud of at Zalora. Among the top 50 people leading the company, 45 per cent are women and 55 per cent of total employees are female. We have more than 30 nationalities working at Zalora. That really creates a rich working environment.

Last but not the least, it’s also very important to put in place systems that create a transparent and fair work environment, and that we contribute back to society and to the planet.

Aim high, have the willingness to explore all possibilities, work hard, learn and let others mentor you along the way.

Gunjan Soni

How do you empower other women in your work and daily life?

I do my best to mentor younger female colleagues and to try and have healthy diversity especially at leadership levels. Additionally, I do believe that there needs to be a concerted effort from senior management to remove any pre-existing unconscious bias. This, we ensure through various initiatives including a Speak Up programme to report bullying, harassment and discrimination, as well as a policy that gives women and parents more flexibility over their work-life set up

What do you want the next generation of female leaders and women entering your industry to know?

I fundamentally believe that we’re limitless in our potential and in what we can achieve and contribute to society. Believe in yourself. Aim high, have the willingness to explore all possibilities, work hard, learn and let others mentor you along the way. Once you do that, there is really absolutely nothing you cannot achieve.

Also remember that while there are many challenges, the world today offers more positivity and opportunity than it did a couple of decades ago. We are blessed, in relation to women who didn’t even have the right to vote in the past. So rather than focusing on the constraints, I’m a firm believer that we need to focus on what we have to offer: How we can bring to life the talent that we have; how we can drive change ourselves.

Joanne Wong, Vice President, International Markets, LogRhythm

Joanne Wong. LogRhythm
Joanne Wong, LogRhythm

Former lawyer Joanne Wong is now a veteran in a field that she never anticipated joining – technology. Having worked at SAP and Microsoft, she is now the vice president of international markets at American security intelligence company LogRhythm. She has been vital to the company’s growth in the Asia Pacific since joining in 2014. In an industry that is predominantly male, Wong’s success over the past 20 years is nothing short of admirable.

What does the word ‘power’ mean to you?

Power lies in confidence in yourself and your own abilities. I work alongside male leaders in a traditionally male dominated industry. While I am grateful to have an equal seat at the table and an equal voice in the team, the confidence I have in my own abilities and skill sets has played a key role in earning that trust from my colleagues.

Developing that confidence takes time – it is akin to a muscle that we must constantly exercise in order to achieve our goals in the long term. And more importantly, it needs to start from within. We must be the first to believe that we are every bit as capable as the person next to us, and that we have the right to take up space at the table and be heard.

What are some unforeseen challenges you have faced on your journey?

I started my first tech role following a stint in the legal industry – where equal opportunities have always been afforded to both men and women, even 20 years ago. In the legal profession, hard work and talent determine your success, and gender has little implication on it.

The same could not be said of the tech industry, especially during my early days in it. Naturally, adjusting to an industry that skews male certainly posed unanticipated difficulties.

Nevertheless, carving out a career in the competitive tech sector imparted valuable lessons. For one, it strengthened my resilience. Through the years, experience in tackling challenges in an industry that might not always favour women has moulded me to be agile, open-minded and ready to stand up for myself when necessary.

For far too long, society has held onto the notion that the tech and cybersecurity industry is reserved for men only, but it is time we addressed these misconceptions and reframed the narrative.

Joanne Wong

How have your experiences as a woman shaped your leadership style?

Being a woman has its unique set of privileges, but also its challenges. I experienced that first-hand as a new, working mother. The anxiety I faced about being absent from work even led me to shorten my paid maternity leave to resume work.

Looking back, that was a formative experience that helped me empathise with women who continue to feel an unspoken burden and judgement for their choices – even if they are well within their rights.

With that, I have always believed that a leader must be conscious of the labels and stereotypes that are often attached to individuals from diverse backgrounds. We cannot let ourselves get distracted by superficial notions around gender, age and race. What matters more is attitude, and how we can tap on people’s individual strengths and knowledge to create value. We’ll certainly be surprised at what we can find.

How do you empower women in your work and daily life?

At LogRhythm, I sit on the Global Diversity Council, which oversees the issue of gender equity and diversity of team talent. Together with my team, we have been working towards achieving inclusivity and diversity in our workplace.

One such way is through hiring. I believe that getting the right candidate has everything to do with merit and potential, and nothing to do with age or gender. A few years back, I hired a 63-year-old female employee for a sales position. That female employee went on to become the top performing sales development employee in the Asia Pacific.

Joanne Wong, LogRhythm
Joanne Wong, LogRhythm

What do you want the next generation of female leaders and women entering your industry to know?

My advice for women aspiring to enter and succeed in the tech industry is to be confident in pursuing the opportunities they want. For far too long, society has held onto the notion that the tech and cybersecurity industry is reserved for men only, but it is time we addressed these misconceptions and reframed the narrative. Women are equally capable and deserving of a seat at the table, and we must be the first to believe it and take action.

Additionally, I can’t emphasise enough the need to be prepared to take up opportunities as they arise. Women must take advantage of upskilling opportunities – whether through government initiatives, on-the-job training with industry partners, or courses on learning platforms – to ensure that they are well-equipped with the necessary skill-sets to succeed. Women also need to demonstrate an ability to not only be agile and keep an open mind to tackle challenges head-on, but also stand up for themselves when necessary.

Krizia Li, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Vermillion

Krizia Li, Vermillion
Krizia Li, Vermillion

Krizia Li is the founder and CEO of Vermillion – Asia’s first B2B e-commerce luxury platform. The company curates items made by regional craftspeople and designers for various businesses, conserving heritage and maintaining sustainable and ethical supply chains in the process. Li’s career roles at leading global firms include auditing and strategy consulting. She is now committed to bringing Asian design to the world – alongside her company’s all-female leadership team.

What does the word ‘power’ mean to you? 

Power to me is not invasive, but simply means exerting influence on others through well-informed, intelligent, logical, and emotional persuasion for their authentic buy-in. Power is not top-down or enforced on others. Others must see the why and how of your mission, from both the head and the heart. Only then will they be willing to follow you – from hell to high water – wholeheartedly.

We need to learn how to play to our idiosyncratic strengths, in a way that is not about imitating others or fulfilling what the world seems to consider as conventionally desired.

Krizia Li

How have your experiences as a woman shaped your leadership style? 

Have you seen the latest Amazon Prime series, The Wilds? The show highlights a social experiment whereby single gender groups tackle a wilderness survival course called “Dawn of Eve”. The scientific researchers wanted to prove that women always naturally work together to create a harmonious world. So, instead of subliminally competing with each other through displays of strength, we seek to come together during moments of divergence, complement each other in terms of differing technical skill sets, and leverage empathy to maximise our synergies.

How do you empower women in your work and daily life?

I believe in giving everyone equal opportunities to succeed and shine, but whether or not they rise to meet the occasion, and strive to achieve far above and beyond, still remains up to each individual. In the end, it is a process of exerting mutual influence within a harmonious collective equilibrium where each woman is empowered, though ultimately expected to prove their own worth.

What do you want the next generation of female leaders and women entering your industry to know? 

Maya Angelou once said, “In diversity, there is beauty and there is strength”. Myers-Briggs teaches McKinsey consultants about balanced teams – teams require an all-round mix of personalities, behaviors, and skillsets in order to maximise effectiveness and outcomes. Everyone offers the world a unique combination of qualities. We need to learn how to play to our idiosyncratic strengths, in a way that is not about imitating others or fulfilling what the world considers conventionally desirable. Only by fulfilling our respective destinies, and by learning how to live our best lives, can we all win in this shared reality.

Wong Sze Keed, Chief Executive Officer, AIA Singapore

Wong Sze Keed, AIA Singapore
Wong Sze Keed, AIA Singapore

When Wong Sze Keed was appointed as AIA Singapore’s first female CEO in July 2020, the country was just emerging from a partial lockdown. She was concerned about the impact that the pandemic had on employees. Her people-centric leadership has given rise to initiatives to empower those around her.

What does the word ‘power’ mean to you?

I define power as being in a position to influence positive change. I am aware and grateful for the power that was entrusted to me by my employees, colleagues, and mentors throughout my journey at AIA Singapore, from an agent to climbing the corporate ranks.

Now, I take great pride in being able to positively influence change within the organisation to mentor and support my people, in turn, giving them the power to influence positive change.

What are some unforeseen challenges you have faced on your journey?

I first started out as an insurance agent about 30 years ago. One of the challenges we faced back then was the negative perceptions of insurance, which people tended to view as a taboo.

I took up the role purely to earn a living, but my perspective changed when I had to process my first insurance claim for a customer who lost his wife during the birth of their first child. At that point, I realised that this was more than just a job, but a meaningful and impactful outlet to do good for the wider community. This experience has fuelled my desire to make a difference in my career.

When I became the first female CEO in the middle of Singapore’s worst health and economic crisis, my first priority was to ensure that our people were taken care of. With my team, I implemented a ‘people-first’ mandate, with a focus on mental wellness to help individuals navigate the pandemic. We have successfully introduced various initiatives – being the first insurer to introduce health coverage to cover mental health.

How have your experiences as a woman shaped your leadership style?

As a child, I was privileged to have a strong support system, which never made me feel that I was lesser or that I could not achieve what I wanted because I am a woman. I grew up with the mindset that talent, grit, and purpose will get you where you want to be in life, regardless of gender – and this is the same set of principles and beliefs I follow when I mentor my teams.

My experiences as a woman have allowed me to be more empathetic in my conversations with my teammates, and I’m also proud to share that females represent 57 per cent of AIA’s senior leadership while six out of 13 members in our executive committee are women. Having experienced the demands of a mother, wife and daughter has helped me to build strong mental resilience. It is this strong mentality that gives me the strength to do what I have to do every day, though I am never afraid to ask for help.

Women should not be too hard on themselves and it is important to know that we are not defined by society’s expectations.

Wong Sze Keed

How do you empower women in your work and daily life?

Unfortunately, the stigma that women are not as competent as men still exists despite recent studies proving otherwise. In the workplace, I identify and call out biases when I see and hear them, and engage in conversations with other women about them. We must treat everyone equally. Setting the right tone at the top helps to build an inclusive and empowering culture. For example, we empower our staff by providing them with the flexibility to decide when they want to work from home and when they would like to return to the office, according to their needs.

How has your experience as a woman influenced your approach to advocating for mental wellness?

Women are expected to take on many hats every single day – to be a strong career woman, a great mother, and still be able to handle household chores. Women also tend to take on a lot of emotional burden, and they might not even be aware of it.

At the end of the day, women should not be too hard on themselves and it is important to know that we are not defined by society’s expectations. Only when we are able to take good care of ourselves, both physically and mentally, can we take care of other aspects of our lives.

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