How women can establish themselves in an industry traditionally dominated by men

David Murphy

To celebrate International Women's Day, three female leaders from GrowthOps Asia share insights on what they've learned in their career journey as women trying to make an impact in a male-dominated industry.

L-R: Su-Ann The, Natasha Manurung and Shellen Yong

According to Statista, the global marketing technology market’s value was estimated at almost $345bn in 2021 as brands and agencies are increasingly embracing technological advances to implement tools to streamline internal processes, improve workflows, and facilitate communication. In Asia Pacific alone, according to Market Data Forecast, the marketing automation software market was valued at $3.29bn in 2020 and is predicted to expect a CAGR of 15.1 per cent from 2022 to 2027.

However, despite the industry's rapid growth and innovation, there remains a persistent gender gap in the technology industry – with only 32 per cent of the region's technology sector occupied by women (based on a study of Southeast Asia’s workforce carried out by Boston Consulting Group.

Historically, the industry has been dominated by men with women significantly underrepresented in leadership roles. Despite this, numerous inspiring women are breaking through barriers and making significant contributions to the industry.

GrowthOps Asia, a marketing transformation agency that delivers high-impact digital experiences, is on a mission to change the martech landscape by creating a more inclusive and gender-equal workplace. As a testament, females make up 42 per cent of GrowthOps's overall workforce at present – significantly 10 per cent higher than the industry average (compared to the data from Boston Consulting Group) – and with strategic policies in place to further boost diversity.

The company also has well-defined advancement programmes in place to encourage long-term career development, allows lateral job moves that provide new challenges and exciting growth opportunities across all of its departments, and an APAC Women's Network that provides a safe place for female employees to give feedback on policies. Additionally, it upholds several practices, such as ensuring pay equity, eliminating gender-biased recruitment methods, and fostering open discussions regarding fairness.

Below, three female leaders within GrowthOps Asia – Su-Ann The, Natasha Manurung and Shellen Yong – share their insights on what they've learned in their career journey as women trying to make an impact in a male-dominated industry.

Sit at the table and own your place with confidence
Persevering and letting your work speak for itself allows you to build a strong foundation for your career. Don't let gender biases stop you from excelling at your job. Women have been fighting to get a seat at the table for years, but it shouldn't end there once you do. Own your seat and excel at it – but remember to be humble and know when to ask for help. Eventually, your peers will respect you for the kind of work that you can deliver.

"There are challenges in every role, and you won't have the answers to them most of the time. Don't be afraid to speak up and ask for help humbly. Roll up your sleeves and do the work; let your work speak for itself", says Shellen Yong, Group Director at GrowthOps Asia, explaining how she overcame challenges in the industry. She is a single mother and the primary caregiver for her two teenage daughters and her elderly mother.

Stay focused on creating impactful and meaningful work, allowing yourself to cultivate a willingness to take risks and venture beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone – enabling you to create truly inspiring work.

Find a tribe that helps you grow and thrive
The marketing industry has a notorious reputation for having one of the most toxic hustle cultures. As a woman, your voice might seem less significant than the opposite gender. Sometimes, you need to – "find your tribe" or a support system that can motivate and inspire you at work. 

Find a tribe that shares your interests, values, and goals. Your tribe should be the people who understand your goals and can offer encouragement and support as you pursue them. Finding your tribe can be a game-changer because it allows you to surround yourself with individuals who inspire you and push you to become the best version of yourself.

Teh Su-Ann, Head of Digital Transformation Strategy, shares this advice: "Find your tribe and know the difference between people who are just there for a good time or to make you feel good, versus people who would truly help you grow. Finding my tribe helped me weather the storms, the latter helped me grow."

Some ways to find your tribe would be to identify your interests and values by thinking about the things that are important to you and the activities that bring you joy. Look for groups and communities that share these interests and values. Be authentic. When you connect with others, be yourself. This can help you attract people who share your interests and values and build a genuine connection.

Channel pressure positively and use it as a motivator to do great work
Everything in moderation is good – even feeling pressured at work. It keeps you on your toes, forces your creative juice to come out, and fuels you to deliver quality work. Just remember to keep yourself in check and ensure you channel pressure positively and constructively. Being flexible and a quick thinker is essential, too, because not everything goes as planned, but you can always adapt to navigate through unforeseen circumstances at work.

"As a perfectionist, my job demands that I pay close attention to detail and consistently produce high-quality work,” says Natasha Manurung, Associate Director, GrowthOps Asia.

“This trait is essential to excel in the industry I work for. However, even with careful preparation, unforeseen circumstances may arise, causing things to go awry. Rather than allowing panic to set in, focusing on finding solutions to overcome such challenges is essential. Additionally, it is important to understand that not every task needs to be perfect. Sometimes, completing a task to the best of our ability, within the given timeline, is more important than achieving perfection."

Empathy is an essential leadership skill
A recent study found that no matter where they live in the world, no matter what their cultural or family influences, in general, women are better at empathising with other people than men, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal.  

As leaders, we should recognise and use our innate ability to empathise when leading our team. Shellen Yong also shares what she thinks is the most vital skill as a leader: "I think there is more than one skill, but if I can only name one, it would be empathy. Empathy is more than just providing a listening ear, but also having a keen understanding of cognitive and emotional reactions to others. This allows you to recognise your team members' triggers or motivational points, which helps you create a more cohesive and collaborative environment. The ideal leader should have a mix of leadership skills. But the most important skill to me is empathy. When a leader has empathy, it can help to foster a culture stemming from understanding. An understanding to have work-life balance, to be inclusive, to respect one another's opinion, and to be valued as a team member."

The 4-burner theory is crucial in prioritising what you want out of work – and life
The 4-burner theory is that there are four significant burners in our lives: family, friends, work, and health. To be successful, the theory says you can only have three out of the four burners activated at one time. While many are trying to find ways to work around it, Su-Ann thinks it's better not to. "I believe in work-life integration and the 4-burner theory. Be clear on what is truly important to you and what you will give up for what you want to prioritise."

While women routinely settle for non-leadership roles because they put their families first, it is essential to acknowledge that this decision is often influenced by the pervasive bias and discrimination that women face in the workplace. Women may feel that pursuing leadership roles is not feasible or worth the effort due to the additional challenges they may face due to their gender, coupled with responsibilities they have to juggle at home.

Addressing these biases and promoting gender equality in the workplace is crucial to ensuring that women have the same opportunities as men to pursue their goals and ambitions, whether prioritising their family or career. This requires a collective effort from employers, policymakers, and society to challenge gender norms and create a more inclusive and equitable workplace culture.