How to Break the Glass Ceiling in a Male-Dominated Industry, by Zalora’s Silvia Thom
As the chief technology officer of fashion and lifestyle e-tailer Zalora, Silvia Thom is naturally in charge of a lot. She drives the vision, strategy, innovation and execution of Zalora’s tech portfolio across Asia, and oversees its customer-facing products such as the websites, mobile apps as well as internal systems used by the company’s operations, logistics, customer service and buying departments—all that is crucial in supporting the business as a whole.
There’s nothing unusual about a woman being capable of rising to a top-management role in this day and age, of course, but what’s uniquely challenging about Thom’s job is that it is in technology, a field of work that has traditionally favoured men over women, in terms of perceived suitability for the role.
But Thom is proof that a woman can be equally, if not more, competent than a man in a male-dominated industry, and that preconceptions relating to gender—whether towards men or women—have no place in the modern workplace and today’s society. We talk to her and learn more about her personal career journey, what led her to make technology her area of expertise, and how she juggles life and work.
What sparked your interest in the technology field?
Silvia Thom (ST) While I have always been curious about working in tech, it was a gradual and organic process that led me to where I am today.
Before I entered the technology field, I had actually worked in a range of diverse roles that took me all around the globe. For example, after graduating from university, I first worked at Sony Music in London, and had a brief stint at Electronic Arts’ European localisation centre in Madrid, Spain. My interest in the music industry prevailed, so I then turned to the digital world of product management with music crowd-funding platform SellABand.
Eventually, I started craving for a work environment that would provide more room for growth and career opportunities. That was when I joined the beauty subscription service company Glossybox in Berlin, overseeing their tech product portfolio across more than 20 markets at the time.
It was my first exposure to e-commerce and hyper-growth companies, and I really enjoyed the experience of navigating such a fast-paced industry, so moving to Zalora eight years ago was a natural decision. I joined the company as a Senior Product Manager in 2013, and have since continued to pursue my passion in tech and in using it to elevate consumer experiences.
Do you face any challenges, working in a largely male-dominated field?
ST As, I am sure, is the case with many other women in the tech industry, there are certain challenges that we often have to overcome, such as unconscious, but prevailing gender bias—especially with regards to our expertise or suitability in tech. When I first stepped into the industry, I myself faced some of these issues first-hand—people would question if I could be authoritative, or if I were really able to lead large regional teams.
But these comments quickly disappeared once I got down to work and was able to prove my worth. I focused on expressing myself authentically, and interacting and working with others based on my own personal values. I prefer not to get caught up with people’s first impressions of me, or compare myself to other male CTOs, because I believe that your working and leadership styles are not dependent on your gender, and if you are able to find your way as an individual, you will do just fine.
Did you ever feel that you are disadvantaged as a female in the tech industry?
ST With the prevalence of preconceived bias, unequal gender standards naturally exist in this industry. In the early part of my career in the field, and when I faced some scepticism about my suitability in tech, I did feel that I had to work harder to prove my capability to others.
However, I do not view this as a disadvantage, but rather, as an opportunity to show everyone that my gender has no bearing on my ability to excel at my role. I have also been very fortunate to have the support of my team, which has given me even more confidence to lead them well.
While I do believe that more can be done by organisations and society at large to level the playing field for women, I think that fundamentally, defying gender stereotypes starts with the individual. As women, we should not focus on others’ opinions on our strengths and weaknesses, or view them as impediments on our abilities. Instead, we should switch our perspectives by focusing on our work and truly believing in our success. This will help us reach our full potential, even as the odds are against us.
Another way to build confidence and challenge stereotypes is by finding a community with other women in tech, whom you can turn to and engage with for support. As a mentor to aspiring female leaders myself, I cannot stress enough the importance of women empowering each other, and banding together to close the gender gap one step at a time.
I believe that your working and leadership styles are not dependent on your gender, and if you are able to find your way as an individual, you will do just fine.
What do you think women can bring to the field of tech?
ST I think men and women can both achieve equally in tech as well as in other industries—so, rather than focusing on what a specific gender can do to champion progress or innovation, it is about looking at what individuals, in general, can bring to the table in terms of values and strategies. After all, every person has their own core set of values that not only guides their leadership style and work performance, but also brings different perspectives to the workplace.
So personally, my own goal is to nurture a culture of diversity and equal opportunity, where everyone is given the support they need to excel and thrive in this field. I believe that when that happens, we will not only have an invigorating work environment, but also one where the talent and ideas from our team members will truly push the boundaries of the tech industry.
As a woman in a management role, what more do you think can be done in the workplace to further empower women?
ST My advice would be to push for more women to take on leadership positions, as representation and empowerment will naturally follow once you practise what you preach. We often forget the power of role-modelling and what this does for other women—and even for men.
In the same vein, I also think that it is important for men to lean in and push for a larger change. Personally, I have met many male leaders who are strong supporters of diversity, and acknowledge the comparatively fewer opportunities that women receive in the workplace. I thus urge more male leaders who have such powerful beliefs to also step up and spotlight gender equality issues, as their voice will help drive greater progression, especially coming from an alternative standpoint.
Finally, top management must take tangible steps to ensure that diversity and inclusion are not just aspirational, but achievable. That includes incorporating fairer hiring practices, implementing supportive policies and encouraging a culture of openness, where employees are unafraid to express their unique views and opinions.
Ultimately, overcoming entrenched gender inequality requires a collective effort from all players to ensure that these values are recognised and championed every step of the way. If we do not band together to do so, it will indeed be a long journey towards overcoming these issues.
My advice would be to push for more women to take on leadership positions, as representation and empowerment will naturally follow once you practise what you preach.
Who are the women that inspire you?
ST I have always been inspired by women in powerful positions, but ever since my son was born, I have also been looking up to women and men who are parents, and how they express themselves in both of those roles. It is very inspiring to hear their stories, and it makes me reflect upon my own life and choices.
I also definitely look up to my mother and how she managed to strike a balance between life as a mum of two daughters and her job, and try to follow in her footsteps.
Can a woman have it all in life? As a mother, what are your thoughts on balancing work with home?
ST I think the statement of “having it all” is a tricky one. It puts a lot of pressure on women that this is what they should try to achieve, and if you do not have it all, then maybe something is wrong or you will be unhappy.
Personally, if I look at the women around me in my friendship and work circles, I can see that we all want different things and there are many ways in which we can strive to be happy. In a way, everyone needs to figure this out on their own—I think that is actually the real challenge as it depends on individual choices, and that there is no “one-size-fits-all” set-up for women.