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Malaysian women making their mark in IT

There is no limit to what women can achieve in Malaysia’s IT industry, as a small but growing group of prominent women IT leaders in the country has found

Chemical and pharmaceutical company CCM Berhad’s general manager of IT, Kwong Foong Yee, is one of the few women IT leaders today who have carved an IT career path for themselves in a male-dominated field.

“I had the good fortune of having good bosses along the way, who noticed my abilities, and gave me the opportunities to move forward,” she says.

After scoring a degree in mathematics – computer science degrees weren’t offered at her university – she nabbed a job as a trainee programmer with a US multinational company, before going on to pick up other IT skills, such as running a data centre. She eventually rose to spearhead the implementation of a common IT platform for CCM.

Her motto all these years, which has stood her in good stead, is: “Whether you’re in a male-dominated industry or not, you have to prove yourself. In other words, you have to prove you can do the work, or perform up to standards. My advice is to do extra, and volunteer for extra work.”

Women such as Kwong are becoming more predominant in IT. Others include Rani Nathwani, CIO of Prince Court Medical Centre, and Alecia Heng, co-founder of her own IT training and consultancy.

Besides serving as president of Gorgeous Geeks, a non-governmental organisation that advocates women empowerment through IT, Heng is also a chief business architect with at least three certifications under her belt. She holds a master’s degree in technology and a bachelor’s degree in maths and computer science.

Juggling an IT business and family, Heng knows all too well about the hurdles women face in IT. “The tech industry sometimes requires long working hours, but technology is also enabling flexible working hours,” she says. “And thanks to mobility technologies, KPIs [key performance indicators] can still be maintained.”

Providing flexibility

She adds that technology also offers women the flexibility of participating in the workplace on a project basis. And when women have family matters to attend to, they can still remain connected without needing to move out of the industry or employment.

Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, CEO of the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), echoed this thought, noting “technology and the internet serves as a market access enabler”, and there’s no reason why companies should not leverage this to tap the female workforce.

Kwong believes that as more women enter the workforce, working on equal footing with men – as well as Malaysia’s push to increase participation of women at the board level – the glass ceiling for females will become a thing of the past. “It’s only a matter of time,” she says.

Why women in IT?

In Malaysia, it’s not so much about gender equality and the need to bridge the gender gap.

These days, the popular belief is that the female workforce is a regular resource pool to tap into. When it comes to certain industries and roles, women are as competent – if not more so – than men.

For example, women, with their caring and nurturing qualities, generally tend to excel in healthcare, a sector that emphasises care of patients. Prince Court Medical Centre’s Nathwani has even observed that in healthcare, it is mostly women who are at the top of the organisational chart.

Read more about ASEAN women in IT

Kwong also holds the opinion that IT is not about physical strength, a quality often associated with men. “It is about creativity, innovation, communication skills, thinking skills and analytical skills,” she says.

A roll-up-your-sleeves attitude doesn’t hurt either, says Kwong. She advises women who are looking to advance their IT careers: “Opportunities to do something different will come your way. Seize the day. Take the challenge.”

Women at the helm

Yasmin, who has been The Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) CEO since 2014, has always been a firm believer in diversity, and that includes gender. “Female empowerment is a topic very close to my heart. Technology provides opportunities for women to contribute economically, not only on an individual level but also towards national development,” she says.

With a distinguished 30-year career that started as an analyst programmer at a local bank, Yasmin rose through the ranks to senior positions in Hewlett Packard Malaysia and later, Dell Malaysia.

It was as Microsoft Malaysia’s first female managing director in 2006 that Yasmin used the opportunity create a strong impact with her “Malaysianise Microsoft” mantra. It resulted in the company eventually taking a more inclusive stance.

Female IT leaders like Yasmin, as well as Kwong, Nathwani and Heng, serve as good examples to the local tech industry, and women in particular, to rise to the challenge of participating in male-dominated industries like IT – as well as male-dominated functions like the C-suite.

“I’ve learned from my years of experience that there is no limit to what women can do in the IT industry,” says Kwong. “You have to find the area of IT you’re passionate about.”

Read more on Diversity in IT