The Rise of the Female CTO in Asia Pacific

By Helen Coult - 15 Min read

During my career, working globally with some of the world’s most recognisable brands, and having been based in Asia Pacific for the past three years, I have witnessed significant progress in companies addressing gender balance at leadership level.

Helen Coult

Director, Asia Pacific

It is well documented that a diverse Board and leadership team encourages diversity of thought and styles. This ultimately promotes innovation, progress and business growth, as well as providing role models to sustain the diversity balance coming up through the ranks at all levels in years to come. However, there is still some way to go in relation to gender diversity.

86%

of companies stated gender diversity as Global HR’s top priority, according to a recent study on LinkedIn.

Across all sectors, hiring women into technology leadership roles is particularly challenging, as these are roles which traditionally have been held by men within a male-dominated function.

There is increased demand for senior technology leaders across every sector. Over the last five to eight years, many businesses outside the technology sector have been focused on digitalisation. Digitalising everything from HR systems to ecommerce platforms, marketing, operational processes and supply chain takes time, and this digital transformation requires restructuring, acquisition of new digital skills and the creation of new technology roles.

In almost all cases there has been an increase in the importance and number of senior level technology roles, especially in a growing region such as Asia Pacific. This has presented an opportunity to bring new female leaders into organisations and address the gender balance across leadership teams. This digitalisation trend has only been amplified by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as companies need to accelerate their efforts in response to the huge shifts in consumer, business and employee behaviours and processes, within a very short space of time.

In some cases, there is now a sudden need for businesses to reinvent themselves entirely. For example, several major alcohol companies have moved towards B2C ecommerce to compensate for a drop in trade within the hospitality sector.

Within technology, the disparity in gender representation is well documented. The growth of STEM roles is outgrowing other industries and yet gender gaps in STEM roles in Asia Pacific (and elsewhere) remain.


3/10 STEM graduates are women, in New Zealand, Australia and South Korea. [OECD, 2019]

In Japan, the ratio goes down to two. Without affirmative D&I action from the ground up, the proportion of women filling that career pipeline alongside men will not be enough to shift the balance of gender equality at leadership level in the future. Achieving gender balance is not a “one off” tactic, it needs to be an ongoing attraction, hiring and continuous development for retention strategy. Making quality technology education attractive and welcoming as a career option for women is a fundamental area of focus and improvement for most countries.

In Asia Pacific, we are seeing positive developments. There is already a significant number of women holding senior roles within technology companies. Prominent women such as Tan Hooi Ling, co-Founder at Grab and Sandhya Devanathan, Country MD for Facebook Singapore are superb role models for the future of women in high profile technology leadership and entrepreneurial roles.

What about more traditional MNCs who need to digitalise their businesses and are now hiring CTO or CIO positions for potentially the first time in this region? They are moving swiftly and competing to secure women with the digital skills required to help address gender diversity in leadership teams. The increase of senior technology roles has developed a precedent for a supportive and inclusive culture, where not just men can succeed as technology leaders in their businesses.

I have seen a marked increase in female technology leaders in Asia Pacific in the past few years that I have been based here. However, there does not seem to be a straightforward answer or route as to how companies can achieve this redressing of the gender balance.

Many of my clients have a less joined-up approach to sourcing, screening, interviewing and talent development strategies across Asia Pacific than, for example, in Europe. Standards and practices often differ, depending on the country. The focus at a local level tends to be more on the acquisition and development of local talent to replace expat leaders. In ASEAN countries, except for Hong Kong and Singapore, where global businesses have historically located their HQs, and in Japan and South Korea, companies have a higher priority in addressing the gender imbalance.

The regional leads in technology roles especially, will fall under the global D&I strategy and in US- or European-headquartered companies the priority tends to be on addressing the gender balance at executive level, rather than on local talent.

Observations from the APAC market

Recently, Armstrong Craven undertook research into global companies across Asia Pacific, including Singapore, other ASEAN countries, Australia & New Zealand (ANZ), South Korea, India and Japan, looking at the number of women in a range of senior roles. In terms of sectors, we focused on strategy consultancies for FMCG, Financial Services, Pharmaceutical companies and, in regions such as Japan and South Korea, Technology companies. One positive trend to emerge was the significant number of women already in a CTO/CIO role in APAC, in keeping with global trends. A 2019 global report from IDC, for example, showed that the percentage of women in senior IT leadership positions grew from 21% to 24% between 2018 and 2019.

We identified 72 women in a CTO/CIO role, at the time of research, including both expat and local talent across the regions mentioned above.

source: Armstrong Craven Study

In this research, we found that female technology leaders were well-represented in ANZ, India, Singapore and Japan (where technology companies dominated the talent pool). Singapore and India were well-represented due to the high number of MNC regional hubs, and ANZ, largely due to its sizeable Financial Services sector. However, emerging markets such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia remain challenging in terms of securing female technology leaders. Companies will often recruit from neighbouring developed markets. This keeps talent within the region and gives individuals the opportunity to gain international experience and work outside their home country.

Another positive trend we noted is companies hiring key female talent from APAC to take on global roles based elsewhere. For example, Swiss Re has hired its new global CTO, Youngran Kim, from Allianz in Singapore, where she was the Regional CIO, Allianz Asia Pacific.

The research showed that some businesses are providing excellent career progression for women in senior technology roles across Asia Pacific, including Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, L’OreĢal, Citi, Unilever, JP Morgan and Proctor & Gamble.

At Coca-Cola, for example, the Chief Information & Digital Officer, Asia Pacific is female and so is the CIO Japan. Interestingly, the company also recently appointed a female Asian national as CIO of the North America business. Contacts at Coca-Cola reported that in APAC, and all other parts of the business, diversity is an important consideration in both internal appointments and external executive searches.

Proctor & Gamble is another interesting example. The company has had definite success in developing female technology leadership talent, due undoubtedly to the company’s well-established ‘build from within’ culture. The CIO of P&G India is female, and several recent CIO hires in major companies have also developed their careers here. Some of the most notable female P&G alumni include the Global VP of technology at GSK and Coca-Cola’s Chief Information & Digital Officer, Asia Pacific, who worked at P&G for 15 years.

However, for the top regional or global technology jobs, we found that the majority recruit female leaders rather than promote women from within. Out of our pool of female CIOs identified in APAC, only 33% had been internal hires for their current senior role, with the remaining 67% hired externally. Of the internal promotions, most of these had joined from another company within the last few years, rather than having built up their career in one company. The exceptions included the following companies: British American Tobacco, Johnson & Johnson, Morgan Stanley, IBM and JP Morgan.

There may be a number of reasons why women move companies for the top roles, including that there are lots of companies vying for a small pool of senior female technology executives in Asia Pacific, with a view to increasing gender diversity at a senior level. So, good candidates are presented with plenty of options. Sometimes there is a glass ceiling at their current company purely because there are fewer leadership level roles overall. Of course, an external move will usually achieve a more significant pay increase over an incremental increase for an internal promotion.

A key reason, may be more to do with the growing confidence among women in the technology sector. In most instances relating to career opportunities, women have been conditioned to be more likely to doubt themselves than men, and within the technology sector women have historically been discouraged from pursuing a career thought to be typically reserved for, or more suited to, men. However, now there is an increased understanding of the importance of diverse workplaces, as well as the realisation that the STEM sector is crucial to the economic development of countries and that women need to be part of that for the good of all. In response, companies and governments have devoted resources to creating opportunities for women in technology roles.

How are companies developing senior female technology leaders?

So, is the rise of the female tech leader in APAC a result of successful D&I initiatives and positive career development in large businesses over the past few years? How have companies achieved success in developing a pipeline of female technology talent, ready to take on leadership roles, or indeed who are in a position to secure a new senior tech role elsewhere?

In other research, we spoke to companies who are making good progress in this area:
A Senior Regional Talent Acquisition Consultant at a major global MNC, described how the company uses a variety of measures globally to increase diversity. The first step is to look internally and develop its own internal pipelines, which is a crucial factor in increasing retention. In APAC, it has specific women- led initiatives. If a skill is not available internally at any location in the company, then they look externally. It uses specialist software to remove gender bias in job advertisements, identifies a wide variety of companies that could add value to their corporate DNA and ensures that there is a good candidate engagement journey.

For female candidates this engagement journey can look different to that of male candidates:

Female mindset is different to male mindset amongst passive candidates. Men are more prone to take risks and more open to hearing about roles. Women tend to only consider roles when they are ready to move and are more loyal towards their organisations. This means that for candidate engagement, it takes more messages and conversations to gain female trust and loyalty. APAC Talent Acquisition Leader, Leading Healthcare Technology Company.

Likewise, Schneider Electric combines a “build and buy” strategy. Joan Soong, Global Vice President for Executive Recruitment, described how the company nurtures strong female talent into senior roles by actively putting them on a roadmap to the top jobs, offering structured career progression with individual development plans and stretching roles across different regions and business units.

Where companies are successful in filing senior roles, a strong relationship between talent teams and hiring managers was highlighted. Understanding business needs, undertaking long-term talent pipelining and understanding where there are gaps can help companies to develop internal talent, or where this does not exist, source this talent externally ahead of need. This can cut the time to recruit senior, critical roles, and ultimately the cost to hire.

Additionally, companies are being creative in their recruitment methods, and looking outside of immediate competitors. A leading tech company observed that it already has many industry experts internally and also knows the talent pool of its competitors well. It increasingly looks outside of sector, because it is aware that a technology leader from another sector should have interesting transferable skills, no matter what their industry background. The important thing to note here however, is that it is not only technical skills that are important, but rather the commercial skills required for someone to take a leadership/Board role. It is this blend of technical and business acumen that can make finding senior tech leaders even more difficult.

A final point that many were keen to highlight, is the current COVID-19 pandemic and how this may affect the market in terms of women for technology leadership roles. As highlighted previously, the pandemic has driven rapid digitalisation, however, it has also meant that working from home/flexible working has now become the norm, and clearly individuals can effectively carry out their work in this way. Diversity studies often point out the desire for women to work flexibly, often around family commitments. However, this can serve as a blocker to applying for leadership positions, or even considering them in the medium to long term. It is hoped that the increase in flexible working will speed up the growth of this female talent pool.

The rise of the female tech leader in APAC is a very interesting and positive trend. The efforts of particular companies to create pipelines of these women is paying off across many countries in APAC and elsewhere. The significant trend for companies to hire female technology executives from the external market, demonstrates how important it is for companies to continue their D&I initiatives from the ground up. This allows them to retain in-demand women in their senior technology roles and offer them attractive career development opportunities.

At the same time, companies should maintain their awareness of external talent pools for senior female technology talent. If companies are still in a “buy” rather than “build” phase or if their “build” efforts are only beginning to bear fruit at lower levels in the organisation, then a strong partner for mapping and pipelining senior female talent is essential.

At Armstrong Craven, we are experts in providing the intelligence needed to facilitate business evolution. If your leadership team needs a talent refresh, we identify and approach the next generation of talent. Alongside this, we analyse the extent of leadership risk and provide a detailed report on the external view of your business.

This report contains additional reporting from Jackie Bernard and Charlotte Moffat, Armstrong Craven Insight & Talent Analytics.

Want to know more? Speak to Helen Coult