Gunjan Prasad
Mar 8, 2024

Danone's Sri Widowati on work-life challenges, the glass cliff, and women's advancement in corporate Indonesia

The VP of marketing for Danone opens up about her conflict of priorities as a single mom with career goals and aspirations as part of our International Women’s Day 2024 coverage.

Danone's Sri Widowati on work-life challenges, the glass cliff, and women's advancement in corporate Indonesia
As part of our International Women’s Day 2024 coverage, Campaign looks at the state of gender representation in markets in Asia Pacific together with senior female leaders who have experience in these markets. To read the other interviews in this series, click on the links below:

Singapore: Sapna Chadha, VP Southeast Asia and South Asia Frontier, Google

Sri Widowati, vice president, marketing at Danone, has lived both her personal and professional lives on her own terms, keeping the ‘impact’ that she is creating at every role as the only yard-stick for success.

A single mom, she has successfully managed to balance work and home, while pursuing what was right for her, even when it seemed daunting. “With a clear sense of direction and motivation rooted in something greater than myself, everything else fell into place.”

As a leader in a position to write her own rules, she openly shares her vulnerabilities, experiences and stories for creating empathy in the workplace for other women.

International Women’s Day for her is a celebration of women and their achievements and impact that they have made. But it is also a time to reflect on what can be done further to support and mobilise other women to realise their full potential.

In our interview to mark IWD, Campaign asked Widowati about both her personal and professional journey.

Let's rewind to your early career days. Tell us about your backstory and what factors influenced your current career.

I fell in love with marketing when I joined Unilever, Indonesia, as a skin care marketing manager. It was also around the same time that I was choosing to be a single mother. As per conventional wisdom, I had the choice of not pursuing my career so ambitiously, but I realised that I was good at it and could see myself making an impact in what I do, while at the same time provide the lifestyle I aspired for my two girls.

I came from a family where my father played a supportive role as my mother pursued her career in IT when it wasn’t so popular in one of Indonesia’s largest bank. This helped me prioritise my career at the time when I was at cross-roads between family and work.

It also didn’t stop me from making the difficult choice of leaving a well-cushioned life in Jakarta to take up a regional role in Singapore with my two daughters, as I came from the mindset that this can be done. No one in my family is a single mother, but they have their own way of thriving and there is no stigma attached to it.

In fact, for me sometimes this question about discrimination is a bit tough as I came from a very different reality. My grandfather, an educator, raised very strong opinionated women. In fact when my mother and aunty decided to move from being Muslim to Christian, he actually opened a Church for them. For me, that’s the testament of inclusion. It became the foundation of how I saw the world. 

Talk about the challenges youve faced in your career due to being a woman. How did you overcome them?

I have to be careful in terms of making generalised statements as I was lucky enough to spend the 'impressionable' years of my corporate life with Unilever, where the understanding on inclusion and diversity was already there. There were many women directors and almost 50% of senior managers were also women. The company was so supportive that I never thought of gender as a challenge. Also, being in marketing - a predominantly women-dominated domain — helped.

The challenges of being a woman were more personal than professional for me as I grew in ranks.

As a single parent, I was constantly confronted with conflict of priorities. I could take the risk and move to a new place to further my career or opt for an easier life. I could relocate to Thailand in a regional role that would require me to travel extensively or let it go to be able to spend more time with my daughters. I could move to a highly challenging and demanding role in tech after spending years in consumer goods or back to the more ‘conservative’ social demands of Indonesia after spending years outside the country.

As women, we are always afraid to do things that go against the ‘cultural construction.’ However, there is always a solution. You have to want it enough.

In Thailand, I took two post graduate students under my wing with an understanding that they would look after my girls when I travel. In return, I paid for their graduate studies.

When I left Unilever to join L'Oreal, I amended my contract to put in a clause that allowed me to visit my daughters at regular intervals. Partly, what has allowed me to be successful was to know that while I put my 100% into work, I have the safety net in case something were to happen. And something did happen. I had to fly out to Singapore on a moment’s notice as my daughter was unwell.

I have always been very upfront and candid about my situation, as at the end of the day my role as mother is my priority and I can’t function if they are not doing well. When I allowed myself to be so open about it, they understood too.

What needs to change in your market when it comes to female leadership and tackling inclusivity? 

The mindset and behaviour towards diversity and inclusion needs to change at a very basic level. While there are companies such as Facebook are more 'woke', most traditional outfits don’t even understand what inclusion means. Inclusion goes beyond mere representation of gender, race or ethnic diversity. It’s about creating an environment where everyone feels heard, empowered and valued to participate. If in a meeting, it is for the leaders to provide support to people who are different. In Indonesia it is more cultural - as part of their upbringing, people feel uncomfortable with confrontation, or are unable to make quick decisions. It should not mean that they get left out.

Diversity in terms of gender is also just numbers. The behaviour and mindsets are still archaic. In the business I was working with  earlier, we had a lot of female mid career recruits and interestingly the pay gap was skewed in their favour. Once in a meeting I had to call out a male colleague who made a derogatory comment about their skills and a higher pay. Whether a joke or not, leaders can’t let these things slide and constantly need to change attitudes.

Recently in a meeting, with a room full of men and taking up most of the seats in the front, I walked ahead to a chair right at the top of the table where a gentleman had his foot as no one was sitting there. As I tapped him and asked to be seated, he pointed to the empty seats at the back. I prevailed but even at my level I see these attitudes of superiority ingrained in men.

Talk about a marketing campaign that embraces inclusivity and fires all the right boxes for International Womens Day for you.

For me, nothing comes close the Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. Beyond the fact that they tried to redefine beauty, what I find really brave is that they have built, grown and stood behind the campaign that didn’t really work in many markets of SE Asia. 

Here, the women are not empowered enough to go against the common wisdom that how they look will define where they will go in life. They will not buy the campaign that says it’s ok to go out in the sun and be dark.

And then came the ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ campaign that fired all the right boxes for me as they took  it to the next level and in a way said that it is all in your head.

For me, what made this ad so successful is that it really touched people in the very personal space of self-esteem and value. The message was not: “You‘ll look better if you use our product”, instead the message was “You are more beautiful than you think, and here is the proof”.

Why do we need an International Womens Day?

Awareness is very very important to advocate positive change. People don’t talk about it enough. In fact, it inspired me to take action and hold a free-wheeling discussion with all of the women in my team and to just ‘check-in’. 

How does culture need to change in your industry so more women are able to shatter the glass ceiling?

As I have always been in marketing, in some ways I am not exposed to challenges of women in segments that are more male dominated.

In my domain, I am finding that the problem with succession planning is with the women themselves. They are afraid to take on leadership roles as they feel the home and children will suffer.

While on a macro level we need to change the narrative about the women’s role in the society, on a more micro level companies can take some practical and simple steps to help women take on more leadership roles.

In a way, as an example one could follow the banking system in Indonesia that hasn’t come back to 100% work from office post-Covid. At CIMB Niaga, whose Board of Commissioners I sit on, they have created a flexible yet accountable system of work-from-home. When checked last, the organisational health index at CIMB was incredibly high. 

On a separate note, I have seen what now has been defined as a 'glass cliff' increasingly taking place in Indonesia, where a woman is put in a challenging role with almost no guarantee of success. Sometimes these situations work out, but mostly the women leaders take the fall. Possibly the women feel this is their only chance at a CEO role, not realising the dangers. They are then almost always replaced by a male leader.

A woman failing, anyway, always makes an interesting story to tell.

If you had a professional superpower to spark a movement that would be for the greater good for the inclusion of women, what would that be? 

I can talk about the country I am in and, for Indonesia, I really wish I had a magic wand with which I could give every woman the courage to have their voice heard.

Talk to any woman leader and you will have instances of when she took risks along the way. It is important for Indonesian women to not self-select themselves out of leadership position for the fear of raising their hand and making a point. It lies on us leaders to build a culture that encourages them to speak out. You don’t have to be aggressive and loud to be heard. Just confident and assertive. 

What is the best professional wisdom anyone has ever given you that you want to pass on to someone starting their career?

Though I had been practising it in my earlier roles, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In hit the bulls eye for me. The second chapter where she talks about the need to 'Sit at the table', was like a pat on my back that I was on the right track, and gave me further clarity about what I wanted from my work.

I learnt to ask for what I wanted - whether it was a different role, a flexible schedule, more responsibility, or money. And to set boundaries.

One of my bosses was known to send very late messages and emails over the weekend with an expectation of a reply early Monday morning. I added an extra addendum in my contract that I will not work on weekends or late nights since I sleep at 9.30pm. We share a beautiful relationship today and I think she respects me more because of this.

It is an inspiration to see women who are able to reach the pinnacle of their careers without losing themselves in the process.

It also gave me clarity about what I didn’t want. For me, to be away from my girls, my work has to allow me to make a meaningful impact and constantly grow both professionally and personally. Any time I find myself stagnating, I make the difficult decision to move on, even when there is nothing lined up.

I waited almost eight months to get the right job after quitting Unilever to find the right job that ticked all my boxes, even though my independent pass was expiring and I was paying all the bills. When a company offered me a job as the GM, I turned it down as I knew I am a better CMO than a GM. And in my last stint at Unilever, as their chief growth and transformational head, I knew within the first few weeks it was no longer the same place and decided to move on soon after.

So, I wish in my own way I could tell the young ones starting their careers is to not let money be the driving force behind the way they chart out their careers. As ‘fulfilment’ will automatically translate into KPIs.

Also, my advice for women who aspire to be leaders is to stop asking yourself if you can. Don’t overthink, face those fears and keep moving forward.

Whats the biggest misconception people have about women in senior leadership roles?

The biggest misconception is the women in leadership positions don’t need support or checking in. Contrarily, it is very lonely at the top and not always easy being in that position and often results in burn-outs.

Check on your senior leadership, create processes that help them unload and give constant credit and appreciation when due.

It is also on women leaders to ask for support. Seeking help doesn’t make anyone weak.

Campaign Asia

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