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EndeavHER: Back To Basics, Women Advocacy In The Workplace

“I was the only woman in the room when I walked into one of the toughest meetings I had to sit in. They did not expect a woman to walk in and so when I walked in I saw the collective gasp of horror in the room. It did not help at the fact that I was young, Asian, and a female.” said Tan Su Shan (Group Head of Institutional Banking at DBS Bank) as she opened the floor to the first installment of our EndeavHER webinar series of 2022. The session, moderated by Tan Su Shan (Group Head of Institutional Banking at DBS Bank) was shared between our global Endeavor network, an all women leader-panelists, Angeline Tham (Founder of Angkas), Sharmila Murat (Chief Investment Officer at Chalhoub Group) and Svida Alisjahbana (CEO at GCM Group). Four women from four different countries rocking four different globally-known companies touched on the fundamentals to understanding women advocacy, the tools required in debunking bias & what’s next to empower women unerringly.

Knocking On The Fundamentals

How would you describe women advocacy in the workplace or feminism in the workplace to others?

A Flexible Key, Inclusivity

It’s a marathon, keep running. Be it her empire, Femina Group, a leading women’s and lifestyle publishing house in Indonesia, or conquer 6 marathons in the spirit of heading towards the age of 60, Svida Alisjahbana who is 3 years away from her goal, started off the session by underlining that there is neglect in being inclusive in work policies. The lack of inclusivity has impacted women where they face certain restraints when it comes to climbing the ladder of success (or on the surface), ladder of status. Svida, reminisces about her early days being at the middle stage of her career: “Going back to work is not easy”, as she describes working mothers or female caregivers, “it’s not like they can take sabbatical leave and then go back to the same position they were in”. As she then continues to perpetuate, women empowerment to her is when the policy includes arrangements in the system where despite both genders are seen to carry different responsibilities, their career journey should not be jeopardized just because one must be a caregiver. Especially with the industry heading towards digitalization, even more after the pandemic, it’s climacteric that acceleration can be enabled in the workplace, and it can definitely happen yesterday. Taking breaks in a race should not entail one must start all over again from the starting line.

One Door, To Many

Angeline, a serial entrepreneur who is also known as an avid gamer, has put the helmet on women advocacy, seeing it as a progress: “We’d have actually overcome a lot of discrimination for the total industry and become advocates for this space is definitely a journey”, after being shut down countless times by the government, Angkas today is the most popular ride-hailing and delivery service app for motorcycles in the Philippines with over 30,000 biker-partners and over 4 million app downloads, has had her own drifts in overcoming discrimination and bias especially being in a male dominated industry. Stigma and bias as Angeline put, “are set deeply into everybody’s hearts and bones, that it is only through education and awareness that everyone has the opportunity to learn”, and that it is a constant conduct to be aware a scale a day when confronting with our indoctrinated beliefs or biases.

Have A Firm Grip On The Knob

“We are our own advocates.” Born and raised in Chicago, Sharmila who is currently leading all investing activity for the Chalhoub Group in Dubai, did not see a future past 30 in the crisp years of her career. Chalhoub Group to date is the leading partner of luxury across the Middle East with growing operations in India, Africa, and Latin America. Housing challenges overtime, Sharmila has independently broken through the luxury of comfort and delved into knowing her worth. Throughout her journey, she has made it a point that learning negotiation is key when advocating for oneself in the workplace.

She unpacked her statement further, stating that as gender bias comes down to when we can all put the right value on the work that happens, not the gender behind it. Be it being a stay at home parent, a working parent, society must start laying the groundwork for men and women to truly have equal opportunities.

The Power Of Negotiation

What do you think is required for negotiation to happen in the industry, especially when challenging stereotypes and bias?

Slam Our Cultures: The Constant Need For Education & Training

Cultures, whether they’re ideal or not, do heap certain biases upon us. Women in Asia compared to the West are more inclined to a more submissive manner, “do not talk back”, “know your place” and so on. Just to speak out what we feel and express is not built in some cultures, and so it takes a lot of training for anyone to speak out. Svida added that we can always learn from other countries, cultures, companies or people who are doing it better. Angeline echoed along, “Filipino culture is very reserved too”. To her view, even for men, it is hard to have independent thinkers. The two female leaders from Indonesia and Philippines emphasized the need to have a collective effort in encouraging people to not be shy and demand for things they deserve. They then added that in breaking the barriers that comes with culture, education and training are powerful tools.

Break Restrictions, Be Borderless

This view was then amplified 7,000 kilometers away. Sharmila from Dubai added that negotiation can transcend even more than grand gestures. Most times it’s just speaking your mind and becoming independent thinkers. When we talk about negotiation, it sits intimately with knowing what’s our worth first. Sharmila center states that negotiation comes with the belief that we are our best advocates and we need to guide our careers, gain skills and experience that will make us be more confident to state our terms and know the right compensations to maneuver through. The difficulties of leaders sometimes is making sure that everybody gets a fair chance, “in order for someone to have career development or a fair chance at the right compensation is most times just somebody asking for help in certain aspects in life, asking for that promotion, or asking to be paid correctly for it to be recognised and only then with the right leaders, action can be taken”. Through knowing our value, we can all negotiate and advocate in grand and small gestures. Asking for help or asking for change does not direct the notion of weakness. This need for perfection in all roles we carry is unrealistic hence, we should all meet the limitations and break certain restrictions through advocating rightly.

Measure The Gaps, Statistics Is Everything

Data speaks for itself. In order to know where we are going, we must first know where we were. Su Shan added that we need to start tracking the data of what our industries, our countries and our organizations do for women across the career cycle from junior level, mid level and up to senior level. Svida led the notion, “we need to keep on taking the polls, do research. Currently when women are asked (despite their career stage) why they would leave, at any point of their career ladder, their answer is always, to take care of the family.” This collection of data would enable us to call out people who are not doing the right thing, Su Shan remarked. As women get up to seniority levels, our women leaders emphasized the concern to how can we make sure the high potential women in the workforce stay on and if they don’t, how can we create what Svida mentioned, “have flexible management so that women can still be engaged when they want to come back after a leave from the workforce”. Data allows us to see the detrimental effects of bias. Data gives us credibility to why change must happen, and why it should happen now.

Moving Forward: Beyond The Door

How do you see a gender-bias-free industry, your expectations and hopes for equality in the workplace?

Change The Screws, Don’t Sit With Comfort

People like working with what they are comfortable with. Angeline’s view on a gender-bias free environment is when people are able to sit with unfamiliarity and adapt to change. Women should be given the chance to prove that they have what it takes to climb up the ladder in the industry and are seen as equally important and recognized by their male counterparts. Whereas Svida sees that it’s also about the work culture we have and having it be more attuned to different roles people carry. To her, the pandemic has shown how effective flexibility can be: “it’s not about the inclusivity or focus on gender solely, but how leaders can take control in allowing hybrid working, giving room for caregivers to ace different roles, to take out the pressure from people that they can only excel one role at a time”. Sharmila Murat foregrounded further that although the easiest way to hire is undoubtedly to hire people that are similar to us, where we would know how to manage and lead. With this mindset however Sharmila said, “the downside to this smooth sailing boat was that there were no fresher innovative ideas to a company, and a company needs diversity for innovation to happen”.

At the end of the session, the panelists conceded that having perseverance is just the beginning of a journey in one’s career. Women advocacy differs not only between individuals however with time too. Advocacy back then is not the advocacy we may need to focus on today, hence in the end, advocating takes weight in meeting our rights and needs, and correcting our receiving; if we’re unhappy with an environment, be the step to change it with passion, compassion, resilience, authenticity, proactivity and humility. In the end, there is no one screw that fits all.


The content of this article is summarized from the EndeavHER session organized by the APAC Endeavor offices: Endeavor Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam & Japan. Endeavor is the world’s leading community of high-impact entrepreneurs. We dream bigger, scale faster, and pay it forward with our high-impact entrepreneurs. Follow us on our social media pages to get the latest news on upcoming events and key learnings.

This session was powered by the International Labour Organization and Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide.

Catch the recorded session here:

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