Southeast Asia can—and should—do better to close the gender gap in IT

There are many reasons why Southeast Asian IT organisations lack significant participation by women, but IT leaders agree that a real effort could lead to real change over time.

Although the issue of increasing gender diversity and inclusion among IT organisations has received increasing attention in the last few years, the efforts in Southeast Asia to increase women’s participation remain relatively small. Although gender balance in IT is low globally, it’s even lower in Southeast Asia. The 2021 Gartner CIO Agenda Survey shows the global average in the IT workforce is 13% female, but just 8% in Southeast Asia.

“Diversity does not figure prominently on the agenda of Southeast Asian CIOs because it was not a big concern,” said Alex Siow, a professor at the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore and director of the Advanced Computing for Executives programme. “It is not that they are not concerned with diversity, but there is no deliberate effort to ensure gender diversity.” Siow noted that it is possible to achieve greater diversity: “When I was CIO in the Housing Development Board, at least 40% of the leaders were female. The current CIO of HDB is female.”

“Although some companies are getting involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for girls in schools as part of their diversity initiative, it’s not a real agenda,” Singapore-based executive coach and C-suite advisor Tanvi Gautam told CIO ASEAN. “It is picking up steam but is still an afterthought for Southeast Asian CIOs.” Examples of that steam include Mastercard being an advocate of girls in tech at an early age, and Juniper recently hosting a cross-industry forum with Singapore’s minister of State for Trade and Industry, Low Yen Ling.

Zubin Shroff, the CEO at human resources consultancy Nirvighana, said CIOs in the region are certainly far more cognizant of the need for diversity among their ranks. “The degree of prominence or importance varies, however, on the stage an organisation is in its evolution as well as its market or location in Southeast Asia,” he said.

For example, “in Singapore, there are many female CIOs in the public and private sector, but female representation in the CIO role is lacking in the neighbouring countries,” Siow said. Another difference: Multinational companies, typically those from the US and Europe, have greater female participation in their Southeast Asian operations than local Southeast Asian companies do, Shroff said.

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