Women currently make up only a small percentage of the technology workforce, and an even smaller fraction of these women are in leadership roles
Catherine Lian cuts an impressive figure in the Malaysian tech scene. With almost 24 years in the industry, her illustrious career with Dell Technologies has taken her around the region, from Malaysia and Indonesia to the far corners of Mongolia and Bhutan, where she played a part in driving the technology movement that was sweeping through the region.
In April 2019, Lian was appointed as managing director of IBM Malaysia. But she joins only a small minority of women in executive positions in Malaysia, let alone the industry. In this new role, Lian continues to push for more diversity and representation in Malaysia's tech industry, especially from the top down.
"Equality for me means that men and women are on the same level of knowledge and opportunities," said Lian, "It is irrefutable that diverse teams produce better business results."
A strong supporter of numerous initiatives rolled out by IBM, including STEM for Girls and Tech Re-Entry, Lian shares her journey as a woman in tech and her vision for a more inclusive global tech industry.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?
I've always believed that technology and human progress are inextricably linked. Technology is always evolving and providing digital solutions to make things easier, whether it is for businesses or our daily lives. If you take a look at how we live today, where would we be without technology? From navigating the roads to delivering food, technology has positively impacted every aspect of our lives.
That opportunity to create positive impact is why I wanted to work in the technology industry.
What has been the biggest challenge you face as a leading woman in tech?
Work-life balance. For women, especially Asian women, we face the pressures of taking on the role of mother, sister, wife and daughter—something that men don’t experience. When I had to move around the region, the biggest challenge was the family element. Relocating and adapting to a new environment was not always easy but luckily, I had a solid support system.
To this day, they make me feel that anything is possible.
Do you think the tech industry has changed to become more inclusive of women?
The IT landscape in the late '90s was very different. The ratio of women to men was incredibly low and there were questions on whether women could even handle this fast-paced industry, with its ever-changing trends.
Over the course of my career, I have seen how the mindset about women in tech has changed, from industry leaders to government. More organisations are acknowledging the power and value of having women at the table and making gender diversity a formal business priority. And Malaysia announced a series of initiatives under the 2021 National Budget to value the contribution of women to nation-building.
Women have more opportunity than ever to take their rightful place as tech leaders and innovators
What do you think are the main barriers to entry for women in Malaysia to both the tech industry and leadership positions?
I think that women are socialised to be less vocal and make themselves less visible. Of course, not all men ooze self-confidence but the gender confidence gap is real and closing it is key to achieving gender equality in all industries.
I have had to overcome this issue in my own journey. Early in my career, I just didn't speak up in a room filled with men. I didn’t feel comfortable drawing attention to myself. I had to constantly advocate for myself over the years, telling myself that I am capable and I deserve success.
A more industry-specific challenge that women, and indeed many young people in Malaysia, are currently facing is a lack of relevant skills and knowledge to support IT activities in the workplace. That's why IBM has launched the Pathways in Technology or P-TECH education in Malaysia. We work closely with the Ministry of Education and Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) to create a foundation for students at high schools and universities so that they are equipped with the right skills to match the industry needs.
Why do you think it is important for women to be in leadership positions?
It's a fact—diversity in leadership is good for business!
We conducted a study, specifically the IBM Institute of Business Value (IBV)'s Women, Leadership, and the Priority Paradox study, and it confirmed that companies with more women in the executive ranks perform better. Communication improves, more ideas start flowing.
I am so glad that at IBM, we place the advancement of women with leadership potential as a key business priority.
IBM has rolled out many initiatives to get women and girls into the industry. But how are they changing the everyday work culture to retain their talent?
Empathy is at the heart of our company policy. We give flexible work arrangements to all our employees, which has been especially beneficial for women during the Covid-19 pandemic.
With lockdown, we are cognizant of the particular challenges that mothers are facing, with the added responsibilities of home-schooling their children. For the last 33 consecutive years, we have been voted as the top company for working mothers by Working Mother Media.
At IBM, we try to build a support system for everyone who is working from home. Something that I have been spearheading in Malaysia is a regular roundtable platform for the women at IBM. We check in with each other, share their wins of the week and talk about how they are coping at home over some coffee and muffins.
What advice would you give to women starting their careers today?
Always stay focused and stay true to yourself. Be open to any opportunities and make choices that will suit you and your goals. Most importantly, find your mentor. They will provide invaluable insight and advice that will be beneficial for your whole career.