Having women in leadership roles is still not as much a norm as we would like it to be. The recently released survey ,Grant Thornton Women in Business report points towards the progressively improving metrics in gender diversity in the workplace. However, a lot of cultural and social norms often mean that most women are unable to work towards career progression.

In this regard, Singapore-based edtech firm NewCampus is not just leading by example but also enables many mid-career professionals to work towards the next jump in their careers. Many of the key roles in the company are held by women. Co-founder and COO Fei Yao talks to Women Icons Network talks about various aspects of gender equality in the workforce and in leadership roles.

D&I in start-ups

As a serial entrepreneur with three co-founder credits to her name, Fei has seen how start-ups operate closely since launching her first venture in 2013. She feels that the world of startups is an intersection of technology and business talent. Unfortunately, both of these are generally underrepresented by women already, she points out.

She feels that the primary reason for this is the median age of founders. “Most people are already in their early 30s at the time of floating their first start-up. This is also the age where women may be looking to start families due to the common perception that it would be ‘too late’ for family planning after this age,” she shares.

This is not true just for start-ups. In general, systemic, infrastructure and societal expectations that make it more challenging for women to succeed professionally, she feels.

Cultural impact

The three companies that Fein built are located in different countries – Australia, China and Singapore. She has also worked with people from different backgrounds and nationalities throughout her career.

Her observation is that the prevalent local culture has a great impact on women’s career progression and gender parity. “In Australia, women often exit the workforce because childcare costs are so high that continuing to work doesn’t make sense anymore. However, in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, help is more affordable. There’s also often family around to help out,” she informs.

The presence of social support structure facilitates more women making it to senior positions and leadership, she says. This also trickles down to representation for juniors, she adds, who would otherwise think you have to be exceptional to succeed.

Benefit of women leaders

Fei is surprised that questions like whether and how an organisation can benefit from having women in leadership roles are still asked in 2022.

However when pressed for an answer, she remembers an anecdote regarding a group of male scientists who were trying to analyse some cave paintings. They suspected them to be the earliest record of writing/documentation in this certain region, assuming it to be the work of a cave”man”. Much later, a female scientist came along and straight away identified this early “writing” to be the 28 red markings for a menstrual cycle.

At present, humankind is facing some of the biggest problems of our times, such as climate change, automation and mass unemployment, as well as a pandemic that seems to never end, she iterates. “Having a balanced leadership representation leads to more diversity and encourages the collaboration of people from all walks of life from different backgrounds, contexts and experiences as they work closely together. Thus increasing the possibility and likelihood of innovation and new solutions to the challenges we face,” she explains.

Managerial education at NewCampus

Business schools and MBAs have long had a record of boosting one’s career, often coming with a sweet increase in pay, acknowledges Fei. She is quick to point, however, that the average age of an MBA student tends to clash with the average age of women in the  family planning phase, making the pursual of an MBA a difficult commitment.

The existing management education landscape is merely an MVP of what continuous upskilling can look like, similar to bringing in existing knowledge and context and then getting a patch update, she believes. Also, she opines that managerial education is generally for people who already have experience in the workforce or business world. In the early stage of their careers, she advises, people should focus on technical skills or operational capacity after which they should focus on learning organisational and people skills. The aim then should be to integrate the most valuable soft skills of today (for example the 4Cs: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration).

It’s also important to see, says Fei, whether women are rejoining the workforce after establishing their families. In this transitional phase, women can really benefit from a strong network and professional support system, she adds.

“All of these requirements are fulfilled by NewCampus as it prioritises the networking element of the business education experience. While doing this, it also helps to minimise the time commitment, removing the need for students to physically attend classes over a prolonged period,” she informs. Instead, it offers shorter programmes that facilitate attendance from anywhere in the world.