After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University’s women-only liberal arts school Barnard College, Jemma Lampkin started her career in the market research domain in New York. She also worked in the Netherlands for a few years. She moved to Singapore in 2015 when she joined AzkoNobel as a Global Marketing Intelligence Leader, where she is currently the sales director of the aerospace coatings division for the Asia Pacific. 

When she first joined the business, she led the marketing intelligence activities for the specialty coatings business unit, covering the aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, and yacht markets. In 2017, she became the Global Marketing Segment Manager for Aerospace. She also decided to continue studying in Singapore through NUS’ Executive MBA program. She discusses her thoughts regarding the roadblocks in achieving gender parity in workplaces, and ways to overcome them in this chat with Women Icons Network.

The Challenges

The first step towards gender diversity is awareness, asserts Jemma. She thinks most companies are aware of why it is important and how it can impact their bottom line. The next step is setting a target of where they want to stand. At AkzoNobel, as an example, the target is to achieve 30% female representation at senior executive level by 2025. 

However, she strongly feels that targets are not enough. “We also need to focus on the how of achieving this ambition. Do we have an entire ecosystem in place to support females in the workplace? It is great for a company to have a target on women in leadership positions, but policies and procedures must be aligned towards this or the target may not be achievable,” she explains. 

She further elaborates this problem by saying that even though companies often discuss the structural challenges like the pay gap or hiring decisions they also need to address the more subtle issues. One of the main challenges, according to her, is that women are more likely to have self-doubt and experience imposter syndrome. So, a company that is truly committed to gender diversity will need to have a focus on empowerment and towards building a psychological safety net for females to grow, she says. She adds that it is also important to train employees about unconscious bias and how to eliminate it in hiring. 

Male Allies 

In order to bring about gender equality, the role of men is critical, feels Jemma. Bringing gender parity into the workplace is a shared responsibility of all of us, she believes. Male colleagues, she says, can be especially helpful in uncovering conscious as well as unconscious biases, and to advocate for change. 

At the same time, she warns that we need to be careful that we do not become misguided with our targets. “We should always hire the right person for the job. Gender diversity targets are meant to introduce highly suitable female candidates in a field they may not have considered. Hiring decisions must be based on the merit of the candidates, not their backgrounds,” she insists. We need an ecosystem that is fair and inclusive, and the best way to achieve this is to have active participation from both men and women, she adds.

Through her career, she has seen many women grow in the company. All thanks to both male and female leaders taking the time to coach and develop them, as well as provide the right opportunities. This responsibility, she believes, should stay top of mind for leaders. 

Dealing with Bias

Personally, Jemma has had her capabilities questioned because of being a female, received comments about her appearance, been asked intrusive questions about her personal life among the many uncomfortable situations at work. She says that people do not have bad intentions; they just don’t realise that they are being offensive. She admits that she is better at addressing it when it happens to others than when it happens to herself. Fortunately, other colleagues or leaders have stepped in to address such issues on her behalf, just like she does for others. 

She recalls that when she joined AkzoNobel, there were not as many women in senior leadership positions. A big proponent of “leading by example”, she felt she needed to see that it was possible and that other women were successful in breaking the glass ceiling. At the time, she came across two female sales directors in the management team. It was then that she started believing in the possibility of career progression. 

The AkzoNobel Way 

To achieve its goal of 30% female senior executive representation by 2025, AkzoNobel is creating a culture that welcomes more women into the workplace and an infrastructure that makes them want to stay. Talent acquisition also plays a key role, so a 50/50 gender hiring approach was set for some of the functions, along with improved referral benefits and various other approaches. All employees of the company must also take part in unconscious bias training as part of their onboarding. 

“In March 2020, we launched a global network in support of women working for the company. The global Women Inspired Network (WIN) will help us advance women’s rights in our workplace. Since the global launch of WIN, many local chapters have started,” informed Jemma. She adds that the network acts as the linking pin between women’s interests and AkzoNobel’s initiatives. Examples of initiatives taken based on the learnings from the platform include the setting up of a hybrid working policy, promoting lateral moves to incentivise women to try different areas of the organization and asking senior leaders to mentor women from different levels.

All these initiatives have shown the employees and business partners that the company takes diversity very seriously, she feels. Furthermore, it has allowed women in the company to work more closely together and identify improvement points for the future. She also points out that it is sponsored by both female and male senior executives, a crucial show of allyship. 

Lessons from the Pandemic

Calling the pandemic an exceptionally tough time, Jemma asserts that we should focus on the positive elements that we can draw from it. First of them being most companies making a rapid shift to hybrid working and flexible hours during lockdown periods. “AkzoNobel was already experimenting with hybrid working, but the pandemic accelerated this. Ultimately, I believe hybrid/flexible working will benefit women, especially those with family and childcare responsibilities,” she shares. She acknowledges though that hybrid working is not comfortable for everyone, so we must also be conscious that not all employees have the same needs. 

Due to a majority of employees working from home for some time now, she thinks more empathy has developed about the struggles of parenting and working simultaneously. Prior to the pandemic, colleagues may have been embarrassed if their children popped up on video calls or made noise in the background, but we are all used to this now and quite understanding when it happens, she points out. 

“I saw a big improvement among our colleagues during the pandemic with regards to caring for one another, showing empathy, and focusing on mental health. These are important values and behaviors that should always stay with us,” she says. 

Way Forward 

Jemma recalls the time when she first moved to Singapore, she was quite surprised when a female colleague informed her that 1 in 10 women faces domestic violence by a male in her lifetime. Talking to some of her female classmates at NUS, she also learned that they had faced discrimination and challenges through their professional careers. She gives these examples to demonstrate that gender diversity issues can still happen in developed and progressive countries.

“Across the world, there is a large deviation in how women are protected or discriminated against. It is about creating the right ecosystem for female empowerment. There are two key factors: one is awareness, and the other is having the right protectionary laws in place,” she states. She is a big believer in using networks and working together towards a common initiative. She gives the example of aviation which is a very male-dominated industry. Organizations like Women in Aviation are working to address this, not just for women already in the industry but to support girls and young women from an early age. 

“It is also important that we share success stories globally. I lived in the Netherlands for six years and was impressed by how the country enables both men and women to take one day per week for childcare. The four-day work week is not uncommon, with parents sharing responsibility for childcare. While this model may not work in every country, we can try to implement it where appropriate,” she suggests. 

To sum it up, she reiterates that we all have a shared responsibility to improve the state of gender parity in the workplace by collectively increasing awareness of the topic, setting the ambition to improve, and leading by example to empower women.