Hubert Burda Media

Interview: Jacinta Quah tells us what it’s really like to be a woman in tech

She recounts how she fought back against harassment in the tech world, and how she’s inspiring others to do the same.

Jacinta Quah is all too familiar with the harsh realities of the tech world. “It was 2002 and I was running a few sales teams in China,” she says. “I was threatened. Literally. Physically. I lived in fear for a year.” Recounting her harrowing experience, Quah tells us that it stemmed from her discovery and reporting of an ethical issue. “I was told: ‘I know you’re alone. I know where you live so you best be careful.’ I was in terror of my safety. He even made it known to my human resources department and manager, but they did nothing.”

SEE ALSO: Dr Christine Cheung tells us why Singapore needs more leading female scientists 

Almost two decades later, Quah is standing strong as a high performance coach to some of the world’s biggest tech companies in Asia and North America. The veteran with 20 years of experience — she spent the bulk of this time at Microsoft and Dell — also dabbled in assorted roles in the industry, including sales, marketing, and technical service delivery.

“Every morning, for an entire year, I’d listen to Tony Robbins to get myself pumped up and focus on doing the right thing. That year was the most difficult one of my career, but I’m glad it happened. It made me stronger and made me feel like I could do anything.”

The tech industry’s problem of discrimination 

While harassment is widespread in the workforce, it especially comes into play when big gender gaps are involved. A 2017 survey by Women in Tech revealed that 53 per cent of female tech employees experience harassment — whether sexist, through offensive slurs or sexual— in the workplace. It’s a staggering figure when one considers this only happens to 16 per cent of men.

“In the tech space, there’s still a belief that men are more tech savvy, or that they make better leaders. People have to acknowledge that there is a difference in approaches and perceptions. Men tend to be more decisive while women are more collaborative —  we want to bring our people along, which can be interpreted as being too soft or indecisive.”

In Singapore, gender bias is nuanced. “It’s about subtle prejudice. People have good intentions but their lens are coloured — that’s subtle prejudice,” Quah says. A male mentor once told her that she smiles too much, and that it interferes with her executive presence. Commonly, working mothers tell her about their annoyance when people ask them who’s taking care of the kids while they’re in the office.. “What they really want to respond with is: ‘Why don’t you ask my husband?’”

On narrowing the gender gap 

As a woman leader paving the way for change, Quah emphasises that “it’s about the belief we have in ourselves. If we have an imposter syndrome, and believe we don’t deserve our success, it will come across. People pick up on weakness.” Quah’s role as a coach comes hand-in-hand with developing a holistic working environment. To narrow the gender gap, she uses her platform and voice to raise awareness. “For me to make any meaningful change happen, it has to start with awareness, whether it’s through blogging, talking about it in interviews, my coaching sessions or masterclasses. It begins with the realisation that that there is an issue, acknowledging it and then figuring out how to focus on it.” 

Quah applies this by pushing for Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) initiatives in the workplace. “A lot of organisations implement these but the ineffective ones take on a top down approach where they see it as a checklist of numbers and facts.” Personalisation is the key. “Organisational change has to happen from the top and from the managers. In order for it to work, they have to take on personal accountability of building a culture of inclusivity and safety.”

When asked for advice for women starting out in the tech world, Quah reminds them to have more confidence in their capabilities. “Earlier on in my career, I struggled with establishing my credibility, getting a seat at the table and getting my voice heard…Looking back,  I simply lacked confidence in myself.”

P.S. —

Jacinta Quah answers: How does one become an inspiration to other women in the tech world?

1. Be authentic.

Walk the talk. Make sure your actions are consistent with your words.

2. Be your best

It’s not about being yourself. It’s about having the audacity to be the best version of yourself. 

3. It’s not about you. It’s about the person you’re mentoring.

Plenty of companies have mentoring programmes. Some take this as a checklist, going as far to say they’ve overdelivered by mentoring more people than they were assigned to. So what? Do you understand the motivation? Are you actively helping the person? Always think: How can I best help her with my experience? Help them learn from their own insights and experiences. 

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