Pham Thi Thu Diep - Leading the way

March 08, 2021 | 14:00
Pham Thi Thu Diep, country general manager of IBM Vietnam, talked with VIR’s Hoang Anh about her experiences of navigating the overwhelmingly male-dominant IT landscape.

Two months into the role of country manager in Vietnam for such a big company, and 10 years into your IBM journey, what are your thoughts on the role of women in such a position?

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Pham Thi Thu Diep was appointed as the first female country general manager in Vietnam of IBM, the multinational technology company headquartered in New York.

I have received the greatest support from the Vietnam team as well as from my regional colleagues as we transform to adapt to the new business environment.

I feel fortunate that there are many programmes in IBM that will groom female leaders to hold significant positions in the company. My journey in the last 10 years as a female leader has been meaningful and fulfilling. But it is not so good across the board for women leaders.

The latest IBM Institute for Business Value study on women in leadership in the workplace reveals that organisations are losing their footing in the effort to achieve gender equality in the global workforce, spurred in part by the pandemic. We are at a crossroads where failure to take immediate and bold action will have long-term business and societal repercussions.

The start of 2020’s difficulties brought clearly to light the incredible pressures working women face both at home and in their careers. But one year later, leaders’ recognition of the challenge hasn’t turned it into a priority. IBM’s study shows gender equality is still not a top 10 business priority for 70 per cent of organisations, and optimism about the likelihood of progress is fading among both women and men.

Are there any specific factors to address on the point that the pandemic has negatively affected working women?

The massive shift to remote work brought renewed attention to the persistent challenges that women face as they work to advance their careers, during the workday and from the “second shift” of family responsibilities that many women pull at home after their day jobs end.

C-Suite leaders widely recognised their clearer view into the context in which their people, especially working mothers, were working, and that new kinds of empathetic leadership, programmes, and cultural support would be required.

And yet, IBM’s study shows “gender equality fatigue” is growing. Only 62 per cent of women surveyed and 60 per cent of men surveyed expect their organisation will significantly improve gender parity over the next five years.

Many organisations are implementing more programmes for gender equality and female empowerment. How does this impact on progress in this area?

Organisations have implemented more programmes, but that hasn’t equalled more progress without shifting mindsets or creating inclusive cultures. While more organisations are instituting more programmes to improve gender equality and inclusion compared to 2019, like gender-blind job screenings and parental leave for women, that hasn’t translated to better outcomes because mindsets and cultures have not shifted.

It’s obvious that if front-line managers in particular don’t take personal accountability to challenge stereotypes and make change for themselves and their own teams or feel empowered to fully adopt programmes that support women’s equality in the workplace, they will not have their full effect.

On the other hand, male allies are truly essential. Men and women often perceive the gender equality problem and progress differently. But male allies are essential to drive cultural change, especially those at middle management levels who are often on the front line to promote women into leadership pipelines.

What suggestions can be offered to drive equality in organisations?

First of all, organisations’ leadership must pair bold thinking with big commitments. We have to make gender equality a top 5 formal business priority, driving accountability with specific, measurable goals across every level of leadership.

McDonald’s Corporation recently announced it is tying 15 per cent of executives’ bonuses to meeting targets including diversity and inclusion. We might also have to create programmes to bring women back into the workplace and invest in the future pipeline with skills schemes that make it easier for women to enter high-growth fields.

IBM has such programmes centered on shifting the talent paradigm to expand ways for people to enter and stay in the workforce and build family-sustaining careers. This includes the growth of “new collar” jobs and apprenticeships; roles in which having the right skills matters more than having a traditional degree.

Currently, nearly half of IBM’s job openings in the US do not require a 4-year degree, and we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in initiatives to help people around the world gain skills for a new era of technology. We believe the philosophy of “skills as currency” and the concept of new collar jobs can be a game changer. If the requisite of a four-year degree vanishes, then we can help more women transition out of inflexible roles and into jobs that provide them support and flexibility.

Secondly, we should create a culture of intention, and insist on making room. Employers and managers need to take an empathetic and inclusive approach toward their employees. Other IBV research found that the best-performing CEOs say they are committed to supporting the wellbeing of their employees, even if it costs them profitability or budget.

IBM is focusing on empathy through initiatives such as training managers on empathy and mental health awareness, as well as a grassroots, company-wide commitment to respect boundaries when working from home called the IBM Work from Home Pledge.

Last but not the least, we must use technology to accelerate performance. Hardwire fairness into screening, use digital tools for communication and feedback to surface what’s working and what’s not, and invest in collaborative tools and teaming practices that allow women and men to engage effectively in physical and remote environments even after the pandemic abates.

At IBM, we have focused on understanding how women are doing and what they need, through surveys, so that we are designing initiatives and benefits that support them best. Mini pulses provide data-driven insights on the impact the pandemic has had on women’s careers, as well as how all employees are doing in the face of external and internal issues, such as the pandemic, racial injustice, and shifts in business strategy and organisational changes.

By Hoang Anh

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