It’s July 26, 2022, and Sandhya Parameshwara, Managing Director, Accenture, opens the Women’s Advocacy Summit with a stark wake-up call: There are clear disconnects between business leaders’ perceptions of the importance of workplace culture and inclusivity and those of their employees and the wider public, especially millennials.
Many leaders see culture as difficult to measure and link to business performance. Consequently, other issues often take a higher priority. Parameshwara, however, points to research that suggests that businesses with a strong focus on culture and equality also have staff, particularly women, who are more likely to reach senior positions and benefit from growth through innovation.
Ahead of this curve are the people Parameshwara describes as “culture makers”—those who recognize the importance of an inclusive culture and reward those who strive to achieve it.
“Culture makers are the people who say, who do, and then who drive,” she explains. “They are self-aware. They are relevant in the marketplace. They recognize and see the importance of the culture. They promote and advocate progress.”
This notion set the tone for the rest of the Women’s Advocacy Summit, an event hosted in collaboration with the MongoDB Women’s Group, AT&T’s Women’s Group, and Women in Samsung Electronics. Two hundred women tech leaders and their allies came together to discuss the inequality that women continue to face in the workplace, how companies will forge ahead to accelerate their organizations’ equality, and how they’ll work to retain and cultivate their female talent.
The power of courage
Anne Chow, who recently retired as CEO at AT&T Business, is a clear example of a culture maker. Chatting with MongoDB CEO Dev Ittycheria, Chow discusses the value of positive change and shifting corporate dynamics. “There's no question that the future and our present require leaders to become truly inclusive,” she says. “It’s an evolving art and an evolving science.”
Chow also believes there has been an evolution in corporate structures. “The power is flipped. It’s now in the hands of employees,” she explains. “One of the key things about being an inclusive leader is we need to meet people and align with where they want to be and where they want to go.”
For Chow, positive change is “so desperately needed, across our businesses, across society, across the community,” and driving inclusivity requires a particular set of skills and attitudes. “Courage, especially moral courage, is one of the most foundational characteristics of great leadership,” Chow says. “You also need the realization that mistakes are simply part of the journey.”
Ittycheria recalls an adage he gives his children: “Success is not the absence of problems, it's the ability to deal with them.” He adds, “Hope is not a strategy; you have to take a proactive approach. You have to find a way to navigate the difficult issues.”
One of the difficult issues that women—especially if they’re parents—often struggle with is work-life balance, although this is a concept that Chow challenges. “One of my famous sayings is, ‘Balance is bogus.’ Why? You have one life that has personal characteristics and professional characteristics, and you are leading that one life.”
Chow prefers to view life as an “optimization equation” in which you can have it all, just not necessarily at the same time. She also says that leaders must recognize that attitudes will vary. “What are you trying to optimize to? There is no answer that Dev or I or anybody could give you that's going to inform you what the right choice is for you.”
Pay it forward
A panel discussion brings a wider perspective as Asya Kamsky, a principal engineer at MongoDB, invites four women leaders to share their views. Key themes include the importance of support networks, juggling the responsibilities of work and parenting, and the obligation to mentor women as they build their careers.
Having grown up in India and Africa, Anjali Nair, Microsoft’s VP of Azure Operators, is familiar with cultural biases in technology. And while things have changed in the past few decades, she still believes there is a long way to go before the balance of representation is fully redressed. “It's really about women uplifting and sponsoring each other,” she says. “I want to make sure I'm doing my part. I've been involved in grassroot initiatives where we get women involved in STEM at high schools and colleges. This is going to be a continuous process.”
Success strategies for women have also evolved from simply being “more like the men,” says Leigh Nager, Vice President of mobile and networks commercial law at Samsung. “We're starting to understand that women bring characteristics to the table that are good for business,” she adds. “But how did we get that recognition? We had to get representation in the first place.”
Many of these themes resonate with AT&T’s Vice President of eCommerce, Maryanne Cheung, who says that while being a woman in a largely male-led industry was once a “badge of honor” for her, the value of having a peer support group became critical, especially when she had concerns about starting a family. “I had a network I could reach out to and get advice from,” she recalls. “It’s important to recognize where we can show women more of our authentic selves at all stages of our lives. It's something I'm really passionate about.”
Tara Hernandez, engineering VP at MongoDB, acknowledges support she has received, and that she in turn has her own duty and obligation to “pay that forward.” She also echoes Nager’s view that there is a strong commercial argument for fostering an inclusive culture. “It's not just about growing women in tech,” she concludes. “It's about recognizing that all of us bring something valuable that will lead to innovation, growth, and business success that are all ultimately in our best interests.”
There’s still time to register for the next MongoDB Women’s Group event. Register to attend “Forging your Path as a Woman in Tech” on October 13 12:30pm - 1:30pm, 3:30pm - 4:30pm EDT.
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