Women in STEM: A Conversation with Zendesk’s Wendy Johnstone
April 28, 2021
As the global pandemic grinds on past the one-year mark, it continues to drive women from the workforce in disproportionate numbers. For women with careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the pandemic has widened an already significant gender gap, especially in leadership roles.
This spring, The Asia Foundation and software company Zendesk have announced a new partnership to track women’s leadership networks in STEM, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. Wendy Johnstone, chief operating officer of Zendesk Asia-Pacific, spoke recently with Eelynn Sim, the Foundation’s director of global communications, on changing the face of women in STEM.
Good morning, Wendy, it’s great to speak with you.
I was so pleased to read that my home country, Singapore, where you’re currently based, is one of Southeast Asia’s leaders in supporting women in STEM. That said, the pandemic has disrupted the global workforce and cast an urgent spotlight on the implicit bias and disconnection facing women in the workplace, particularly women of color. What are the benefits of more balanced workforces and leadership teams?
It’s undeniable that the tech and STEM fields have long been dominated by men. There are countless records of this: UNESCO reports that the global average share of female researchers is only 30 percent, while a Credit Suisse report shows that women account for just 16 percent of managers in the IT sector globally. With every female talent excluded from the field, the industry loses an opportunity to grow and progress.
Gender diversity, quite simply, is good for business. McKinsey’s research shows that diverse companies on average outperform their less diverse peers in profitability. A broad mix of differences—from culture to ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, and gender—brings important perspectives to the organization. This encourages vibrant discussion that enhances creativity, leading to better decision-making and better outcomes. Diversity is the key to unlocking some of the best and boldest ideas.
With every female talent excluded from the field, the industry loses an opportunity to grow and progress.
Can you say more about creating a supportive environment for different perspectives?
Leaders must recognize the complex matter of intersectionality. If a leader is serious about eradicating discrimination in the workplace, they must start by acknowledging the issues that exist and how they intersect. This means more than being generally aware of discrimination or stigma. It means truly listening to employees and collecting data from every level and department. Only with this knowledge can we work with employee representatives to find the right strategies to close the gender gap. From seemingly small details, like the language used for internal communication, to bigger matters, such as deliberately lowering entry barriers for diverse hires, businesses must start by looking at the heart of the issue in their organization.
Ultimately, the path to gender equity does not belong to women alone. Allyship is crucial to any efforts to break down barriers, remove the threat of discrimination or bias, and achieve greater diversity in the organization.
You’ve written about gender balance as a continual work in progress. How can workforce strategies ensure that women of all backgrounds advance and are empowered to become leaders in STEM?
As a leader, I take my responsibility to champion my people very seriously, because I want to ensure that all Zendesk employees feel valued in the workplace. We are in the business of cultivating good relationships, and this includes our employees. Empowered employees go on to grow as individuals and achieve great things, in the workplace and in their personal lives. This motivation translates to better job performance and ultimately drives the organization’s success.
When measures are put in place to combat the challenges women face, it gives us a stronger support system. From there, it gets easier to voice concerns, raise issues, or flag difficulties. It creates a supportive environment for women to be heard and to share their struggles, creating better structures for championing psychological safety and mental well-being. A company’s long-term commitment to realistic policies and performance expectations also helps women to stay longer in the workforce, reducing the need to give up or downsize our careers to make things work.
What are some of the challenges you faced in your own career, and how did women’s networks support you?
Women’s networks have really helped to encourage me and propel me forward in my career. When I first stepped into the field, I was much less comfortable with the idea of putting myself out there, asking for help, or even meeting new people. It was really women’s networks that showed me the power of women working together; it was a warm and welcoming way to practice building new relationships and growing from authentic connections. And I owe much to them: three of the times I made a career move, it was because someone in one of these networks thought of me, told me about an opportunity, and spoke up on my behalf, opening the door for me to start a conversation.
When I first returned to work after my maternity leave, the readjustment was tough. Talking to women who understood my experience really helped me to identify what I needed to settle back into the office. These networks are buzzing with opportunities, and I would encourage all women to tap into them to help them find their voices and engage in important conversations.
These networks are buzzing with opportunities, and I would encourage all women to tap into them to help them find their voices and engage in important conversations.
How do tech companies generally and Zendesk in particular benefit from women’s STEM networks?
Women’s STEM networks are important to every organization, including ours. Whether inside or outside of the organization, these networks create a supportive community to discuss, explore, and share best practices for women in STEM. At Zendesk, our Women in Engineering employee resource group creates and champions a space for women engineers to collectively use their talents to improve, innovate, and contribute to their professional success. These networks not only help women to learn and thrive within their industry, but also strengthen female talent pipelines.
How can these collaborations lead to bigger and bolder programs for women that have real, sustained impact?
Advancing women in STEM is an issue that can’t be solved by a single entity. It requires a collective effort to create greater impact. For instance, Zendesk’s partnership with The Asia Foundation includes research to identify key challenges and opportunities. These research findings can then be used by both the private and public sectors to develop better, more effective initiatives to support the next generation of women leaders. Sharing knowledge and expertise between organizations also creates learning opportunities for policymaking and implementation, helping leaders to identify better ways to support the advancement of women in STEM.
A research study on women’s STEM networks in Japan, Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the signature initiative of the social-impact partnership between Zendesk and The Asia Foundation, will be forthcoming.
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