Shawn Lim
Mar 7, 2024

IWD 2024: Google's Sapna Chadha on how Singapore can increase women's board participation

Google's Sapna Chadha shares her journey as a female leader in a male-dominated industry in the first part of our International Women’s Day 2024 coverage.

IWD 2024: Google's Sapna Chadha on how Singapore can increase women's board participation

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 experience in these markets.

For the first part of this series, we explore Singapore with Sapna Chadha, the vice president for Southeast Asia and South Asia Frontier at Google.

In Singapore, where the presence of women on boards has increased across listed companies, statutory boards, and institutions of public character (IPCs), the top 100 listed companies still show a lag in female representation.

As of June 2023, women's participation in these companies' boards rose to 22.7% from 15.2% in December 2018, approaching a voluntary target of 25% by 2025 set by Council for Board Diversity. However, 13 of these companies still operate with all-male boards.

Statutory boards have reached 32% female board representation, meeting CBD's target of 30% in 2022. The largest IPCs are close to their 30% goal, with 29.5% of board seats held by women. Upcoming regulatory guidance aims to further promote diversity in board succession planning. 

The slow progress towards equal representation in boardrooms can be attributed to various factors. Traditional corporate cultures and societal norms often perpetuate gender biases, hindering women's advancement to leadership roles. Additionally, a lack of female mentors and role models in top positions may prevent women from aspiring to these roles or receiving the support needed to attain them.

The gap in representation also reflects broader issues of gender equality in the workforce, including disparities in opportunities for advancement and challenges in balancing professional and personal responsibilities.

Efforts to increase female participation in leadership roles, including board positions, signify a growing recognition of the benefits of diversity for organisational success and societal value. However, the persistence of all-male boards and the comparative lag in Singapore's top companies highlight the ongoing need for targeted initiatives and cultural shifts to achieve gender parity in corporate leadership.

In this context, Campaign asked Chadha about her professional experience and insights on women's advancement in the corporate sphere.

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

I was very much influenced by my mom, who was the first woman in tech I knew. Back in the mid-70s, when I was an infant and computer programming was considered women’s work (think of the movie Hidden Figures), my mom studied at night to become a computer programmer. She would go to classes in the evening, study all night, take exams and still spend all day with me (I didn’t know how she juggled it all!)

When I got my BBA from the University of Michigan, I did not hesitate to major in information systems; then, when I was at Kellogg for my MBA, I focused on tech marketing. I knew early on that I had an aptitude for data information and did not want to do traditional marketing.

My mom played a significant role in this. In consulting, I was one of the few women who could code, but it didn’t bother me because my mom never complained. She put her head down and worked hard, and I followed in her footsteps.

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

While I have been fortunate and experienced strong allyship throughout my career, I have faced gender bias—the most straightforward example being getting interrupted or talked over in male-dominated meetings. I have learned through experience and confidence-building not to let this get to me and to speak my mind.

When I moved to India and was pregnant with my twins, I overheard former male colleagues say they would never “let” their wives do what I am doing in terms of prioritising my career. And I can’t tell you how many comments have been casually murmured by non-working moms in front of me, suggesting that my kids are not my priority.

My advice to those facing gender bias at work is to speak up if you can. When a former employer’s office didn’t have a private nursing area (I was asked to use the bathroom, which frankly made me uncomfortable), I had to explain and push for the office to be upgraded. Though I no longer needed the nursing area, I was glad I could use my voice to impact other women's experiences.

Additionally, you need to find your cheerleaders and counsellors. Mine include my husband, mom and allies who have helped me in my career. To overcome bias and move forward, you need a set of confidantes who energise you and have your back, no matter how hard it gets.

Talk about a marketing campaign that embraces inclusivity and fires all the right boxes for International Women’s Day.

Beauty brand Maybelline NY, owned by L'Oréal Group, was proactive and called out online abuse that female-identifying gamers experience while playing, urging people to ‘Keep your eyes up, and call out abuse online’. I appreciated them being courageous and doing a social experiment.

Given the current landscape where women's representation on leadership boards in Singapore is on a gradual rise but still lags behind global benchmarks, how do you perceive the pace of change in the region? Specifically, what actions are necessary to accelerate this progress towards more equitable gender representation in leadership positions?

It's encouraging to hear about a gradual increase in women in leadership in Singapore. I’m also aware that countries like Thailand have seen a rise, but the lag in global benchmarks reflects that more can be done to ensure women are well-represented at the leadership level.

To truly accelerate change, I believe we need decisive action on several fronts. 

The first would be to amplify role models. For this, visibility is crucial. We need to elevate the profiles of existing women leaders, providing tangible inspiration and shattering outdated assumptions about who belongs in the boardroom. I’m proud to see that many women leaders at Google are often invited to speak at internal forums to share their experiences and journeys, inspire our employees, and help them see that there are role models they can emulate.

Fostering intentional networks via mentorship can be a potent tool. Mentors were instrumental in my career success and have inspired me to pay it forward by mentoring men and women throughout Google and beyond. Programs designed to connect high-potential women with established leaders provide essential guidance and create a pathway to advancement. For example, Google has a sponsorship programme that pairs high-potential women directors with VPs who offer coaching and advocacy to advance their careers. The SEA Coffee Club also seeks to address this under-representation by enabling more junior female Googlers to achieve their career aspirations through group and individual coaching sessions led by more senior leaders.

We must go beyond individual support and examine the organisational structures and unconscious biases that may hinder women's progress. This includes re-evaluating promotion criteria and fostering truly inclusive work cultures.

With your extensive experience in leadership roles across Google Asia-Pacific, how have you observed the impact of women's leadership on organisational culture and decision-making processes? Can you share insights on how diversity at the leadership level has influenced Google's strategies and operations in Southeast Asia and South Asia Frontier markets?

I have witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of women leaders throughout the organisation. They bring diverse perspectives, foster collaborative environments, and drive decision-making that addresses the needs of our users across this region. I have personally benefited from learning from my peers who may be from different parts of the business. This is vital, as Google's mission is to serve everyone – a mission that demands an equally diverse workforce.

The increasing presence of women in leadership at Google APACnow at 33.7%, exceeding our global figuresis a testament to our ongoing commitment. This shift is not merely about representation; it actively shapes Google's strategies in Southeast Asia and South Asia frontier markets. Women leaders bring a nuanced understanding of these regions' unique cultural dynamics and emerging user behaviours, enabling us to tailor products and services more effectively.

We also take an evident approach to inclusion in the programs we create for skills development. Being intentional, setting clear targets, and being aspirational.  For example, given the considerable inequity, 50% of our scholarships for Google Career Certificates in Pakistan go to women as we aim to get more women into tech.

Moreover, initiatives like our Women@ employee resource group have driven organisational change. Their advocacy has led to company-wide diversity OKRs, expanded parental leave benefits (boosting women's retention), and greater transparency around our workforce representation.

Despite the positive trajectory towards gender equality on boards, significant gaps remain. What are the most substantial barriers preventing women from achieving more significant representation in leadership roles within Singapore and the wider region? How can these challenges be effectively addressed?

There are various reasons why women leaders remain a minority, and these challenges can be complex and multifaceted.

But in my view, I see a few ways on how we can address this:

I mentioned earlier about building support networks. Companies can better provide what women need to succeed in their careers: mentor networks, empowerment programs, and exposure to role models. We have several programs geared toward developing, progressing, and retaining women, including #IAmRemarkable, which empowers women and underrepresented groups to speak openly about their accomplishments, breaking modesty norms and glass ceilings. I’m encouraged that this program has since helped accelerate the career progression of over 550,000 women in more than 180 countries.

Dissolving gender stereotyping can help shift the needle, too. Stereotyping usually starts at a young age. Girls and boys need to be exposed to a wide array of possibilities so they can dream about anything they want to be and believe they can be anything they like to be. As we offer at Google, workplace unconscious bias training creates a common language to address these deeply ingrained patterns.

Having flexible and people-centric company policies is also crucial in ensuring that women across different life stages feel supported.

Rigid policies often disproportionately disadvantage women, who frequently shoulder more caregiving responsibilities. We offer returning mums up to 2 weeks of paid ramp-back time to help them adjust to their new work-life balance. This means they can work at least half their weekly hours while earning 100% of their salary. People-centric policies, like extended parental leave for both men and women, are essential to create a level playing field and break traditional gender expectations.

We offer paid carers’ leave so our employees can take time off to look after their families. It’s essential to provide support for our female employees. Still, it’s equally important to support our male employees so they can help with caregiving responsibilities and not let the burden fall on women only.

Norway and New Zealand outperform Singapore regarding women's board participation without quotas or minimum requirements. In your view, what role should policy and corporate governance play in enhancing gender diversity on boards? Should Singapore consider implementing measures similar to those in those countries to boost women's representation in leadership?

The success of Norway and New Zealand in achieving strong female board representation underscores the need for a multifaceted approach beyond simply imposing quotas. While quotas can accelerate change, sustainable progress relies on proactive measures.

As you’ve shared earlier, Singapore has made meaningful progress where we see the rise of women leadership here. What we can do to boost the figure further can be explored in a few ways:

First, we need to develop a robust pipeline. Singapore must invest in cultivating a pool of highly skilled, board-ready women. The recent launch of the board readiness programme by the Singapore Computer Society and Singapore Institute of Directors, with the support of Infocomm Media Development Authority, is a positive step forward, equipping women with the expertise and networks to excel in board positions. We should explore more initiatives like this.

Second, companies must be held accountable for creating cultures of inclusion. This includes targeted development programs for women, removing biases from hiring and promotion practices, and setting clear diversity targets.

Finally, targeted government incentives and reporting requirements can raise visibility, encourage transparency, and nudge companies towards a more excellent gender balance at the leadership level. Diversity reports can also be a way to keep companies accountable.

Singapore should carefully consider the policy levers utilised in Norway and New Zealand, adapting them to our unique context.  Crucially, these measures should be part of a holistic strategy that focuses on developing women leaders and fostering inclusive work environments. This will ensure that women's board representation results from genuine empowerment, not simply meeting a numerical goal.

As we celebrate International Women's Day with the theme 'Inspire Inclusion', what message would you like to convey to young women aspiring to leadership positions, particularly in the tech industry? How can they navigate the challenges of a traditionally male-dominated field to achieve their professional goals?

My message to young women is to believe in themselves but know that many groups are standing behind them, ready to help them build your skills and self-confidence. Be bold and empowered to find the right resource and/or group for you, whether within your organisation, like Google’s mentorship programs, or externally.

I found YWLC Singapore’s mentorship programs to be fantastic for young women. They provide a platform to get mentored by some of Singapore’s most accomplished and well-respected industry leaders from a diverse mix of sectors.

To women aspiring towards leadership positions in the tech industry, tech for good cannot reach its full potential without greater diversity. We need more women- you’d be helping a whole generation if you joined tech.

Campaign Asia

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