CXO Breakfast meetup: notes on diversity and gender equality


SLASSCOM’s latest CXO Breakfast meetup, held on the 27th of May, 2014, focused on a topic that’s rapidly rearing its head in Sri Lanka’s IT industry: diversity and inclusiveness in the workforce. A Breakfast meetup, as per the norm, features a specialist on a particular theme and then a panel discussion: the idea is to bring to light and explore issues and trending concepts in the industry. Diversity, which is a particularly thorny topic in Sri Lanka, was discussed by Dr Astrid S. Tuminez and a largely female panel from different aspects of the industry. Dr Astrid, Regional Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs for Microsoft’s Southeast Asia division, a graduate of MIT and Harvard, was a particularly well poised to dish out wisdom in this field.


“We are living in unprecedented world,” began Dr Astrid, pulling up a slide titled Asia rising. In it, she charted the steep growth of the Asian economy, with the prediction of the average annual income hitting $45,800 by 2050. “Asia is rising. Now why I’m pointing this out in relation to diversity is simple: as Asia grows, organizations need different views and skills to achieve and maintain business success. The more diverse groups are, the more creative they are, and the better they become in solving complex problems: this has been proven time and time again. If you have the same set of people every time, you’ll get the same set of answers. In today’s knowledge-based economy, this creativeness is paramount. So as an employer, it’s about getting the best and brightest – whatever the packaging.

“Why women in particular? Based on research, without the full contribution of women, Asia loses $89 billion a year,” she pointed out, building a interesting and very valuable case based on economic and HR data that the usual political rhetoric. “Over time, women have become more and more viable as a human resource. They have become more educated, they have become healthier, and they have become a viable employment option. The simple truth is that this is an untapped market.”

Of course, as she pointed out, Asia’s doing quite well in this field. In fact, this region is better than the West: Thailand, for example, is #1 when it comes to female CEOs. The Bank of Philipines, on whose board she sits, has fifteen directors – five of them female. In the public sector, no other region in the world has had more female heads of state – a tactical nod to Chandrika Bandaranaike here – and overall, in Sri Lanka, we have 1.83 female students to every male in university. We’re getting there.

And refreshingly, neither was this discussion blind to the obvious biological lessons so often ignored by activists. Astrid, in a case-by-case study, explored both the needs and current work trends displayed by women. For example, 90% of women in Asia work in agriculture – low-income industry. Some rise into management, where there’s a huge drain at the middle management level – around the time maternity comes into the equation. She pointed out that biologically, a woman’s path in life is different from a man’s, and to leverage that, certain core systems ideally need to be in place:

a) Flexible working conditions (a la Microsoft)

b) Support services and facilities to manage work-family relationships

c)  Leadership – to quote her, “You can talk about gender equality until you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t matter if the CEO does not believe in it.”

And perhaps a change in hiring processes, because research indicates strong gender bias in hiring, For example, it’s common to see more males than females taken in when an orchestra is recruiting. In an experiment, they changed the audition process, placing players behind a black screen so interviewers could not tell whether the interviewee was male of female. The result? They ended up hiring far more females than males, based solely on the merit of skill.


We also witnessed a rather unique panel discussion: one male, five females – in an age where expert discussions most IT events are predominantly occupied by male CEOs and the like, it’s refreshing to see women taking the stage. To quote Astrid, “It’s not just about economics – it’s also about building a better society. When you see foreigners talking about Asia, it’s always money. In the world economy conference, for exam, a very senior person pointed out that China is a great place to make money. But is that all we want to be? Asia should not just be about money. It should be about a whole, fair and balanced society.”


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