Dana von der Heide joined global logistics firm DHL as a management trainee right after earning her BA degree. This job also gave her the chance to move from Germany to Singapore. Being passionate about technology, she drove strategic digital transformation projects at the company. She was quick to realise that the logistics industry is lacking a critical component in enabling informed decision-making – refined data. That’s what led her to start e-commerce delivery platform Parcel Perform in 2016 with co-founder Arne Jeroschewski. 

In a bid to continue learning about running an e-commerce business, she got a fellowship program run jointly by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Alibaba Business School in China meant for tech startup founders. Currently, she is the Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer of Parcel Perform which connects e-commerce merchants with over 800 carriers globally to provide real-time and accurate parcel tracking updates. She shares with Women Icons Network her experiences about being a woman in the corporate as well as the startup worlds.

The Challenges 

According to Dana, the most glaring issues that women face in the workplace today are the widening pay gap and glass ceiling. She is surprised that despite numerous worldwide initiatives to break glass ceilings and encourage salary disclosure, the pay gap is widening. She cites a report published by UN Women in 2020 which states that the global gender pay gap is stuck at 16%, and women in some countries are paid as much as 35% less than men. 

“The systemic difference is even more significant for women of color, immigrant women, and mothers. Discriminatory hiring and preexisting stereotypes on traditional gender roles also restrict women from attaining senior leadership positions and receiving remunerations on par with their male counterparts,” she feels. The root of the problem is an unconscious, and often generalised, bias of women as the ‘weaker’ or more emotional gender due to generations of cultural reinforcement, she adds. 

In such circumstances, Dana is not surprised to note that female success is often attributed to outlying factors such as looks and cunning instead of their hard work and abilities. She believes that such perceptions reinforce the stereotypes and biases that affect the role and contributions of women in the workplace, which can result in inferiority complexes and the discounting of success. 

It also starts an unhealthy cycle of women not climbing the corporate ladder due to lack of role models to encourage them, she thinks. “As social beings, we are less likely to be successful if we lack similar role models and have no one that champions us at the workplace. The presence of women in leadership positions and the opportunity to network with them is extremely vital to help motivate them to advance in their careers,” she says.

Glass Ceiling in Startups 

Leaving a comfortable and stable corporate career was a hard decision for Dana. Especially because she did not have many role models around her to encourage or endorse the move. She admits that an entrepreneur needs a robust support system. The first few years, she says, are challenging – not just in terms of the workload and responsibilities but also financially. 

She was setting up a business in a traditionally male-dominated industry of logistics which posed additional challenges to her. Access to capital and funding still remains very much a networking game, and gender bias is prevalent in the ecosystem, she states. “It’s not something for those who wear their hearts on their sleeves or the faint of heart,” she warns. In a 2019 survey on female entrepreneurship by HSBC Bank, 58% of female entrepreneurs expressed their concerns around bias and discrimination when raising funding. In addition, 35% also reported that they experienced gender bias by investors during the pitch process, most in the form of intrusive personal questions or a concentrated focus on the downsides of their business plan.

While women have made significant gains in representation in the last few years, Dana feels that we are still a long way from achieving equality. Businesses and investors need to act now to support, retain, and advance women within their ranks and combating the biases women face at the workplace is critical to getting this right, she asserts. 

For aspiring female entrepreneurs, she has some great advice, too. “You also will have moments of doubt, questioning your every decision. Like all things in life, they too shall pass. A strong self-sense of belief and resilience fueled by passion will see you through both good and challenging times,” she says. Even after six years of being in business, she still finds a very low rate of female speakers at almost every logistics conference she has been to. Women really have to push and really put themselves out there to be heard, she rues. 

Gender Diversity at Work 

Having a commitment to gender diversity, according to Dana, means making it a key priority in a company’s hiring strategy. “If it does not materialize, make it a key performance indicator (KPI) for the recruitment team,” she suggests. 

She encourages all leaders to hire consciously with gender equality in mind. A woman is more likely to accept a role if she finds a female counterpart on the hiring side, she thinks. A female on the hiring team creates a cultural representation that showcases diversity, not just on gender but all other diversity angles like countries, languages and significant backgrounds, she feels.

Both females and males have the same responsibility for achieving gender equality, she feels. “Male leaders have to exercise their majority, stand behind their promises for diversity and equality, and act on them with intent to level the playing field. Leaders should identify females they can sponsor and mentor to lift them up from a career perspective. Women need to have role models to be visible so others can get inspired by them,” she elaborates on the roles of leaders. Men can also play a crucial role in championing diversity and gender equality in the workplace, she insists.

The World of Parcel Perform  

The hiring policies at Parcel Perform is a clear indication that Dana walks the talk. The company has an almost 50-50 ratio of male and female colleagues across its global offices. “Being one of the few female leaders in the sector inspired me to implement equal gender representation when hiring for Parcel Perform. 

The company hires with a purpose in mind: to meet its gender equality and diversity targets while ensuring that our shortlisted candidates possess the right mix of talent, work experience, and personality fit during the hiring process. In addition, its onboarding programmes, mentorship initiatives and curated networking sessions ensure that new hirees integrate successfully and flourish within the team. 

Dana strongly believes that her colleagues are the company’s most important stakeholders. As a founder, she strives to be the best possible role model to show that they can succeed regardless of gender as long as they invest hard work, passion and determination into what they do. 

Lessons from the Pandemic 

Dana feels that all employers must be mindful of the fact that the pandemic is an emotionally draining time for everyone. “While the world at large has gotten accustomed to the concept of remote working, we should always be mindful that we are dealing with people and not just usernames on conference calls. We all need to take the time to focus on developing relationships with our colleagues, no matter how busy our work commitments get,” she believes. 

She learnt to take note of personality differences and adapt them specifically for management purposes. During the conference calls, she noticed that women tend to be quieter,  introspective, and less outspoken – they prefer to let their work speak for itself. In contrast, men tend to prefer leading from the front and create more visibility for their outputs, leading to potential productivity biases. Therefore, she would encourage leaders to develop forums for engagement and define clear, standardized KPIs to attain real-time visibility on performance.

Flexible working hours, she feels, are a key to thriving in the new normal. Many women (and men) have kids at home and are caregivers; they may require work arrangements that offer flexibility, she points out. “The traditional 9-5 routine does not work anymore, and we should be flexible about how work gets done while ensuring people get a good work-life balance. After all, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, we have to ensure that everyone gets across the finishing line together,” she states.

Overcoming Challenges

When it comes to tackling the biggest gender parity issue at workplaces, Dana encourages all women to trust in their abilities and take the initiative to create visibility for themselves. “Find yourself a sponsor or mentor to navigate the corporate setting, keep you honest on your development and always encourage you on the next steps and never settle. Don’t devalue the impact you have or can have, don’t wait to be invited to the table; strive to take a seat in it based on merit and talent,” she advises. She also has advice for jobseekers: apply for roles even if you do not match 100% of all criteria. 

She believes that there has to be a standardised set of collective hiring and diversity initiatives across the global e-commerce, logistics and technology sectors regarding the elevation of gender equity and recognition of female talent. Gender equality in the workforce not only fosters collaboration and diversity but also boosts productivity, growth and employee retention, she informs.

“We have seen silos of initiatives spring up, but they can achieve very little independently to effect real change. Thanks to the global boom in e-commerce, more young people, especially women, are considering careers in logistics and technology,” states Dana. Gender-balanced environments are becoming an essential consideration when evaluating a job offer, second to compensation and benefits which is leading to the sector getting younger and more diverse, she adds. 

She feels that businesses must adapt to the changing landscape and demographics. Leaders, she thinks, must do more to elevate and groom the next generation of female leaders alongside their male counterparts. It is now or never, she says while encouraging all her peers in the sector to collectively address gender equality as we make progressive strides to accelerate and recognise women’s contributions in the workforce.