Sandra Teh is the Chief Culture Officer, APJC at Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Managing branding and talent engagement for AWS in the APJC region since October 2017, Singapore-based Teh also conceptualised the first AWS DeepRacer Women’s League in ASEAN and is AWS GetIT’s chief ambassador in Asia.
Teh constantly communicates with industry on collaborations to develop the cloud leaders of tomorrow. She is always keen to discuss with customers, the media, and the community Amazon’s culture of innovation and its mission to be Earth’s most customer-centric company and best employer.
She also speaks on topics related to inclusion and diversity, and how Amazon hires and develops talent and is enthusiastic about the ways technology can be more inclusive, equitable, and flexible for all.
During an interaction with People Matters, Teh talks about the diversity gap within the tech industry and how companies can address the gender imbalance.
What are the major reasons for fewer women in tech even when the tech industry is booming? How has it changed in recent years?
When it comes to entering the tech business, women encounter several challenges. There are structural and cultural barriers, as well as a perceived high learning curve, lack of visible women role models, and difficulty determining where to begin when considering IT career paths.
Studies indicate that the number of women entering STEM-related fields is on par with men, but at managerial positions and higher, this gender representation becomes more disparate. Today, women make up 34% of the IT workforce in India, with a 50:50 gender parity rate in STEM graduates according to 451 Research.
However, while women make up 51% of entry-level recruits, only 25% are in managerial positions, with less than 1% in the C-Suite. This lack of women representation at higher levels makes the tech industry seem male dominated, resulting in less women pursuing a career in the industry.
In recent years, however, companies are consciously hiring women talent and are focusing on building an inclusive work environment to improve women’s representation in senior roles. It is necessary to implement initiatives at all levels of the organisation, from leadership to human resources. Business leaders can initiate mentoring programs and assist in preparing women for board roles.
For example, my colleague, Puneet Chandok, President, India and South Asia, AWS, encouraged the entire AWS team to take personal pledges to support diversity, inclusion, and equality. His personal pledge was to recruit at least three women into his leadership team, mentor eight to ten women, be more aware of the challenges they face, and actively support their choices.
What roles had companies played in more women taking up careers in tech, if at all? How are companies trying to address the gender imbalance in the tech space?
Industries like manufacturing have been skewed towards men due to their labour-intensive nature. However, fields like technology are an equal playing ground for both men and women, and we are seeing more women keen to explore careers in technology. To enable more women to take up careers in tech and retain them, its necessary to provide equal opportunities, strong role models, and equal pay.
From an HR perspective, companies can build a diverse and inclusive workforce by including women during interview processes, creating gender-neutral job descriptions, implementing blind screening of resumes, and conducting inclusive hiring training among employees.
Engaging with young tech graduates is another way in which companies are driving women participation. For example, AWS has held several calendar events, such as Girl's Tech Day and International Women's Day, that helped foster community learning and eliminate the stereotypes of STEM-related fields.
We also held community events like AWS DeepRacer Women’s League ASEAN and AWS DeepRacer Women’s League India. Through such initiatives, we hope to drive early adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning by bringing together female students in the regions to connect, learn collaboratively and practice machine learning through a cloud-based virtual racing simulator.
How do you think women are transforming the tech industry - the qualities that set them apart and their contribution?
Two great benefits of having more women in tech industry are innovation and learning. Having teams made up from different walks of life showcasing different experiences and perspectives results in an intersection of varied ideas and solutions.
Similarly, the tech industry is in need of more women talent to foster higher problem-solving abilities and increase performance at the business level as there is potential in building and curating high tech products and services catered to women. Lastly, more women role models are needed to encourage the next generation of the workforce through guidance and mentorship.
At AWS, we've been successful in hiring women for all positions, including management, and I am excited to work with incredible women who are innovators and builders, contribute to the growth of the organisation and deliver exciting results for our customers.
One such leader is Mani Thiru, Aerospace and Satellite Solutions Lead, APJ. Overcoming stereotypes every single day, Mani works with a global team of interdisciplinary experts to re-imagine space system architectures, transform space enterprises, and launch new services that process space data on earth and in orbit. Her efforts have resulted in outcomes that range from space-enabled agriculture and emergency and disaster management to impact on education and earth observation research.
By actively sharing her stories, Mani has brought the women in space community across APJ together, to run meaningful programs for youth as well as webinars for the industry.
Another leader, who is my role model, is Francessca Vasquez, Vice President, AWS Technology and Customer Solutions. Francessca leads a large global team and yet she always finds time to volunteer and mentor young girls and youth, apart from taking good care of her big crew.
How can companies empower women to pursue careers in the tech industry? How is AWS doing it?
The first step in creating programmes to empower women is to identify the pain points that women face in specific areas. By knowing these pain points and challenges, we can then look to understand how we can help women address them better. The next step is to ensure that the programmes we adopt can assist women in addressing these issues. We want them to feel welcomed and empowered, so they can debunk the myth that the tech business is a challenging environment for women.
One of the programmes that we have introduced that has seen great success is the AWS She Builds programme. This initiative was conceptualised in 2017 by my colleague Kim Bonilla, GTM Growth Acceleration Lead - ISV (SaaS), who noticed a gender gap in the ratio of men to women speakers at AWS events and community-led engagements. This observation encouraged her to create She Builds as a local programme to inspire women, which targets ANZ university students. She Builds has since grown, supported by a dedicated team of 13 programme owners, and the wider organisation to include community education and mentorships across Asia Pacific and Japan, influencing over 7,000 registrations and indications of interest to date.
The She Builds event, led by women employees, encompasses talks and invites women leaders as speakers. This event fosters engagement for women in tech where they can hear stories about other examples, connect with like-minded peers, and explore opportunities to increase their technical and strategic skills to further expand their careers. In addition to She Builds, we have many international programs that support inclusion, diversity, and equity. Pilot programmes like AWS GetIT were launched in Singapore, with an aim to empower young students, especially girls, to help them gain digital skills, challenge gender stereotypes within the tech industry, and consider a career in technology.
How do you see the future of women in the tech industry?
A Deloitte Global study published in December 2021 predicts that global companies will likely continue to close the gender gap in the year ahead. Large global technology firms, on average, will reach nearly 33% overall female representation in their workforce across the world in 2022. This is an increase of 2% from 2019, representing progress achieved through targeted campaigns to attract women into the tech industry despite economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.
Businesses continue to understand the importance of diversity and the benefits of having a diverse workforce in terms of gender, race, and culture, including increased productivity and levels of innovation. I believe that women working in technology organisations, both small and large, will play an increasingly important role as companies focus on innovation and growth. They will renew and recommit to their efforts to hire more women. As a result, today’s women tech leaders will serve as key role models and inspiration for the next generation of women, playing a crucial role in achieving gender parity in the tech industry at all levels.
Your message to women who wish to take up a career in technology but give up due to various reasons?
A greater effort is required than women simply wanting a career in tech. My advice to women who wish to take up careers in IT is that they must come forward boldly with their aspirations and for organisations to encourage and facilitate a culture that encourages employees to voice their unique insights and ideas. It is incumbent on all of us to advocate for and lead opportunities for women and underrepresented individuals to have a successful career in technology. Creating a global community of women in IT that is inclusive, equitable, and innovative can be accomplished by removing the barriers standing in their way. It is this culture of inclusion that will nurture diversity and help attract, retain and grow women talent in the technology sector. And this starts with you and me.