Samira Shihab, Gillian Tee, Roshni Mahtani Cheung

How women-led tech startups create gender equality in the workplace

April 1, 2022

The awareness of gender equality and diversity in the workplace has emerged worldwide, including in Southeast Asia’s work sphere. Many Southeast Asia companies realize the importance of gender diversification and equality but still figure out how to address those issues in the workplace. 

Three women tech leaders shared some of their experiences at the Women with Impact Forum held by East Ventures, on 16 February 2022. East Ventures’ Principal, Devina Halim, moderated the session and discussed how companies and leaders can bring gender diversity and equality to the workplace through some policies. The session speakers are Roshni Mahtani Cheung, Founder and Group CEO of theAsianparent.com; Homage’s Founder and CEO Gillian Tee; and Tinkerlust’s Co-Founder and CEO Samira Shihab. 

Gillian Tee, the Founder, and CEO of Homage, a personal care provider, had thought that the lack of diversity in the tech industry was due to the pipeline problem – not many women are educated in tech, nor are they interested in tech startups. However, she realized, the real problem is the lack of action and encouragement from the companies and leaders for the women workforce to pursue higher careers. 

“We must champion it. Having a conversation about women and gender equality issues, and being very mindful about intentional actions that we can put into the workplace, starting from the leadership, are two full marks that we can encourage,” Gillian said. 

The importance of having gender equality and inclusion is also recognized by Samira Shihab, the CEO and Co-Founder of Tinkerlust, Indonesia’s leading preloved and luxury fashion marketplace, in which 80% of the team are women. 

While Samira ran her own company in the early ages of the company, she encountered an uneasy trend, in which mostly women resigned because they wanted to have a new family or just get married.

She reflected on her experience, while she was working in a large company in the United States, which gave benefits and flexibility to its women employees to work. She also reflected on her goals in choosing the entrepreneurial, as she needs more flexibility and can manage her time. Thus, she decided to give the employees flexibility when an employee wanted. 

“Flexibility is the basis of all of our policies and vision for these female employees and the future mothers and future leaders of these households, ” Samira said. 

The flexibility does not only apply to women employees, but the company ensures to offer the same treatment to men for paternity leave. “We see those men – they are also parents, have children, and have dual roles. Having awareness allows their wives to continue their role in their employment, and so forth,” Samira added. 

Besides the flexibility for maternity and paternity leave, Tinkerlust also provides educational allowance, especially to motivate women employees in pursuing their long-term careers and progression. 

Roshni Mahtani Cheung, Founder and Group CEO of theAsianparent, also emphasized that companies leaders need to find solutions to the common issues and challenges faced by women, particularly those who dropped out when they become young mothers or get married. 

“We are half of the world’s population, and we have our own distinct needs that it is difficult for men to understand. If you need to build things for 50% of the world’s workforce and population, you need to ensure that 50% [of women] are represented in the workforce,” Roshni said.

Creating and localizing the policies

Being a mom and a leader in a company with physical operations in nine countries, Roshni has to navigate all the challenges in different countries, particularly when the countries implement other policies to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak. 

For example, the employees in the Philippines had to work along with taking care of their kids at home, as the schools were closed and kids could not step out of the house. The situation could be stressful for employees, as they need to manage their work and their children. Meanwhile, employees in Singapore were a bit lucky, as the school lockdown was only 1-2 months.

Roshni ensured that she listened to the different nuances as she knew one policy does not have one size fits all solutions. Therefore, she said it is essential to localize those policies and put a semblance of empathy. 

“Lead with your heart, and I think COVID-19 has taught us: we are not cogs in the wheel at the end of the day,” Roshni said. 

During the pandemic, theAsianParent has implemented several policies to help their employees who are working parents to stay sane and help with the kids’ at-home issues. The company set group chats for all parents in the organization across different countries where the parents can share their babies or kids’ photos or stories about their children and other conversations around breastfeeding, potty training, teaching kids, and phonics. 

The firm also hired 3 to 4 virtual babysitters who would help with baby-sitting, storytelling, and phonics during six months of the pandemic. The kids started to become friends from other countries, and their parents could be a bit relieved. 

TheAsianparent also provides Netflix or Amazon allowance to de-stress with entertainment for all employees. Meanwhile, the company also offers a printer allowance and unlimited photocopy papers for employees who have kids, as children love coloring and need to print-out homework and stuff. The printing and paper also cost lighter for the parents’ employees. 

Meanwhile, at Homage, the employees have the flexibility to work at the office or at home. Gillian said the company had implemented one or two days a week at the office. The rest of the days they can work at home or anywhere, as they need to care for their families. 

Homage also has Wellness Wednesday, which employees, either single or parents’ employees, can take Wednesday morning or in the afternoon to take time for accompanying one of Homage cares for care visits, volunteering, or spend time with their families.

Normalizing the companies’ culture and being transparent

Besides creating and localizing the policies, Gillian also tries to normalize the way people talk about women’s issues and their performance in the daily workplace. For instance, if a woman employee wants to take maternity leave, it becomes a normal situation for the other team to encourage and support her along her journey.  

Having transparency in the workplace is also important to create equality and reduce the gender gap in pay in the workplace. A recent statistic showed that women are paid 20% less than men, due to invisible aspects of compensation and sensitivity like culture and nuances. 

Roshni said the company could have some transparency in the organization. Last year, theAsianparent had a leveling exercise for employees, so that they could know on what levels they should have been, and what range of salary they should earn. The same way for ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) policies. In tech startups, a lot of compensation comes through ESOP. To ensure the employees understand their rights, Roshni and her team are actively educating them and normalizing it through a benchmark. By having an open benchmark and being transparent for most people, there is very little chance for anyone to take advantage of other people as the data is out there. 

Start from the leaders

The founders agree that creating gender inclusion and balanced treatment for employees should be started by the leaders. Either the C-levels, the head levels, or managers, can encourage more women to speak up about their perspectives and have their voices heard. 

Gillian took an example from her employees’ experience – Ai Lin Yoon, the Account Management Lead in Homage. Starting to work as an entry-level associate two years ago, Ai Lin has been always encouraged by her manager, Darren Yong, who has given her the opportunity to speak up. Being acknowledged by the leaders, accountable, and giving the insurance for women to speak and have the conversation, is a cultural setting that becomes a fondness to achieve managers and leaders. It is also a mandate that can drive some additional support for women. 

Samira also underlined that leaders are the key players in making the policies and new initiatives work well in a company. Although there is the HR department in helping to socialize and implement the policy, leaders have to push and implement it in the entire company culture and mission. “If it is not going to be part of the leaders’ mandate, I guess it is not going to happen, and we are going to face a lot of push-backs because it is not going to be a priority. It starts with leadership and their personal belief in the importance of this,” she said. 

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You can watch the rerun of Women with Impact Forum 2022 by clicking the video below.