Wendy Johnstone, Zendesk

In a career spanning more than two and a half decades and diverse markets across Europe, Africa and Asia, Singapore-based Wendy Johnstone has held several leadership positions in some of the biggest companies in the technology space including IBM, Salesforce and Microsoft. In all these roles, she has ensured to be the advocate for including more women in technology and in leadership roles.

Currently, she is the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Asia Pacific & Japan region at Zendesk. Additionally, she also serves as the global executive sponsor for the Women at Zendesk Employee Resource Group (ERG). She is also a part of the President’s Leadership Council at The Asia Foundation.

In this chat with Women Icons Network, she talks about encouraging more women to pursue careers in STEM, the need for and the ways to make gender balanced workplaces.

Early on in her career, Wendy was often the only woman in the room or at the table. At the time, it didn’t strike her as strange, nor did she question it. She just accepted that as the way the tech industry functioned.

All this changed when she became a mother and was trying to find the right balance between family and career. “At that time, I became keenly aware of the female discrimination and lack of inclusion prevalent in the workplace,” she remembers. Once this realisation dawned, she believed it was her responsibility as a female leader to speak up and help drive change in the hope that her daughter wouldn’t have to deal with the same things she had to.

Women in STEM 

Underrepresentation of women is an especially big challenge within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sphere, more so in leadership roles, believes Wendy. “Systemic barriers can make it difficult for women to speak up and rise up in such organizations, but representation is crucial; it sends a strong signal that success is not limited to one specific type of person, and that there is space for everyone at the table,” she says. She shares that at Zendesk, women currently make up 37% of the APAC workforce and 40% of the global leadership teams.

Explaining the importance of intersectionality and how it can compound the factors that disadvantage women in the workplace, she cites a McKinsey report. Titled ‘Women in the Workplace 2020‘, it says only one in five C-suite executives is a woman, with this number becoming far more dismal for women of colour who account for only one in 25 C-suite executives. “If leaders are serious about eradicating discrimination in the workplace, they must recognize the complex matter of intersectionality, and actively implement policy and structures to reduce and remove barriers,” she notes.

Workplace Gender Diversity 

Wendy thinks that true commitment to gender diversity means a pledge to transparency, advancing systematic progress, and really listening to your people. A continuous process that requires time, dedication and sincerity, it must be driven by leaders in the organization to be effective and successful, she adds.

“It doesn’t really have an end date, and you won’t ever be ‘finished’ with the work. It begins with taking a good, hard look at yourself, and then being honest and brave in admitting the gaps,” stresses Wendy. She goes on to say that companies that are committed to making progress must not only set concrete goals related to gender representation, advancement, and leadership, but also track these outcomes and communicate them internally and externally.

When asked how Zendesk ensures this, she talks about one of their key efforts through the ERGs that unite communities across the company. These groups promote professional training, enable mentorship, build networks, and champion our people. Specifically, Women at Zendesk (WAZ) supports women to achieve their personal and professional goals, and Women in Engineering creates a space where women engineers can meet and build supportive relationships with one another across different offices.

“As the global executive sponsor for WAZ, I’m extremely proud to share that we have launched an internal three-month Women’s Mentorship Program, which connects mentors and mentees, allowing both to share personal experiences, learn from each other, ask for advice, and inspire development in their career path,” she states.

Allyship & Inclusion

The fight for gender equality does not belong to women alone, notes Wendy. She says that she often hears from men that they want to help, but they don’t always know how. Regardless of gender, people who are actively advocating gender equality should bring men into the conversation, so that they can listen to and understand the challenges women face, and get involved in driving the change, she believes. “Allyship is the name of the game. We all need to work together regardless of gender to break down barriers, remove discrimination and achieve greater diversity for the organization,” she says.

She shares that every other woman has at least one story about an incident where they were offended or did not feel safe to speak up at work. According to her, the psychological safety of women is the cornerstone for creating an inclusive work culture where people feel safe, heard, and confident to speak up.

Whether they are directly involved or a concerned third party, companies have a responsibility to ensure their people feel empowered to respond to and call out language, situations or dynamics that are not okay with, she stresses. She adds this is especially important in an increasingly global workplace where culture, upbringing and societal norms can greatly differ.

“At Zendesk, inclusion is core to our identity and it’s important that our people understand that they have an equal and valid role in championing equality in the workplace. Our Allyship Toolkit contains materials that educate employees about equity, conscious inclusion, unconscious bias, and strategies to promote allyship in the workplace,” informs Wendy. These values are regularly communicated to the employees through workshops and empathy circles.

Leading during Pandemic 

Wendy joined Zendesk in the thick of the pandemic last year. In fact, she recently celebrated her first anniversary at the company. She is grateful for the support extended by her husband at this time. The couple has always shared household and childcare responsibilities equally, which came in especially handy during the work-from-home routine. She is also painfully aware that not all women have been so fortunate and reflecting on this in the midst of a global crisis has only solidified her commitment towards gender equity.

“In these times, leaders can and must do more to ensure that women are receiving the support that they need to survive and thrive. This isn’t a matter of paying lip service, it means taking active steps to make a difference, whether it’s creating and enacting meaningful policies, ensuring mental health provisions, or even looking for ways to extend necessary financial support,” she opines. Looking outward and giving back has always been important to her, and Covid-19 has driven her to think and act upon how she, as a leader, can ensure that her company is doing the right things to support women.

Road Ahead 

The pandemic has led to some disappointing consequences and setbacks for the global progress in gender equality, says Wendy sharing many proofs of the statement. The International Labour Organization’s Asia–Pacific Employment and Social Outlook 2020 reports that in some countries in the region women spend around 14–15 per cent of their time on unpaid care and domestic work (SDG indicator 5.4.1), which is 9–12 percentage points more than the proportion for men.

“Alarmingly, the UN SDG Report 2020 also shows that lockdowns have increased the risk of violence against women, with cases of domestic violence increasing by 30% in some countries. COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down, re-emphasising the unequal distribution of household chores, the heavy load of childcare, and the relative physical and emotional vulnerability of women,” she says.

Wendy says that all these statistics are important to understand, because they bring to light how much work is still to be done to achieve a gender balanced society. She points out that there was a silver lining to the dark cloud that the year 2020 was – organizations previously considered working from home or flexible working as something unattainable. This, she thinks, is one big step to creating an inclusive workplace that will (hopefully) become the norm and make the path to the top easier for women.

In a LinkedIn blog written last year Wendy had spoken about how leaders can put in the work to accelerate gender equality within their own organizations. “The three steps that I advocated were: to gather data and find your starting point; to put insight into action; and to practice gender equality in everything that you do,” she informs.

According to her, it is also important to approach the challenges with empathy. In fact, Zendesk launched an initiative amidst the pandemic called ‘empathy circles’, the first of which had over 800 employees participating from across the globe. It emerged as an essential safe space for employees to share their diverse experiences and for leaders to join as active listeners.

The social impact partnership between Zendesk and the Asia Foundation is another initiative that aims to track and sustain women’s leadership networks in East and Southeast Asia in STEM. The recently released research report provides a framework for the private and public sectors to develop better and stronger initiatives to support the next generation of women leaders.

Beyond working hard to advance equality in their own companies, she believes, leaders have the potential to set a crucial direction for industry progress in gender diversity. “This can be achieved through greater partnership – either between private companies or by supporting the good work of public organizations such as Women Icons Network,” she suggests.