By Espie Angelica A. de Leon
Once upon a time, four young dreamers took the road less traveled to forge their own careers in the relatively new field of information technology.
One was Aileen Judan-Jiao who did not succumb to the more popular college courses for women at the time like commerce and accounting. Instead, she was lured into computer science. “I felt that computers would really make it in the future,” she said.
There was also Ambe Tierro who really wanted to master the computer.
Another was Ma. Cristina “Beng” Galang Coronel who was fascinated with how things are created. Hence, she took up chemical engineering where she got the best grades in her class for computer subjects. Later, Beng became a programmer and then an entrepreneur.
And then there’s Michie Ang, a registered nurse who was introduced to the idea of creating an app by a friend based in Singapore. The year was 2011 and apps were not yet as popular. She did not even know a thing about programming. But just the same, Michie flew to Singapore where she and her friend researched on the topic in the libraries.
Fast forward to 2019.
These women now occupy high-level positions in the Philippine technology sector: Aileen as IBM Philippines president and country general manager; Ambe as Accenture PH senior managing director – global artificial intelligence (AI) lead; Beng as co-founder, president and CEO of Filipino-owned IT-BPM firm Pointwest Technologies Corporation; and Michie as co-founder of Tecsoft Apps and founding director of Women Who Code Manila.
They were certainly ready to venture into technology and have been successful. Yet, their journeys had not been smooth and easy all the way.
The four shared their experiences during the Filipina STEM Leaders Forum organized by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and held at the Net Plaza Building, Taguig City on February 22. The forum was held in celebration of the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
Beng recounted how, in her first job at a petrochemical company, she was told that the firm does not hire female chemical engineers. That did not deter her, however. Tapping her outstanding ability with computers, she became a programmer trainee, landed a job as full-fledged programmer, and the rest is history.
For Ambe, the international conferences she attended during the early years gave her a wake up call. Citing the lack of women in such events, she admitted, “It can be very discouraging. You’re afraid to talk. You’re even afraid to raise your hand.”
Michie also observed that there are issues which women are afraid to discuss with their superiors. “It’s okay to negotiate your salary, your time off, for your company to bring you to a conference and pay for it,” she advised.
Tech sector demand for soft skills
Women also have to deal with the shifting nature of the job landscape itself.
With the rise of automation, AI, and cloud computing, the ILO estimates that 49% of employment in the Philippines or over 18 million jobs may be automated in the future.
With women dominating low-skilled STEM positions, they stand a great chance of eventually being displaced. In fact, according to an ILO study, women in the Philippines are 140% more likely than men to lose their jobs because of automation.
Given this scenario, is there still a place for women in STEM fields in the country?
“Soft skills are becoming more critical because technical skills are getting more outdated,” Ambe revealed. “Even if you know how to program in Java, that may be obsolete in the next two years. The soft skills – ability to learn, initiative, problem solving – those are becoming more critical in the 21st century.”
Soft skills also include leadership and public speaking.
Women Who Code Manila conducts technical study groups on various programming languages, fireside chats, hackathons, and conferences. They also give talks to schools around the country to generate awareness about their organization and get more young Filipinas to be interested in technology-driven careers.
“We want more women to speak at [these] different events and be confident about themselves,” said Michie.
In effect, the women speaking at these events become the very role models for the girls in the audience who are dreaming of a place in the tech world someday.
The tech leader is also a mother
Another challenge is juggling career with family life.
“Nineteen years ago, I made the decision that I will balance my career and my motherhood. I’m managing that decision,” said Ambe, a mother of three.
So is Aileen who is very involved in raising her kids. IBM Philippine’s first homegrown Filipina leader cooks, tends to the garden, does the groceries, and creates reviewers for her kids. But, her reviewers are a notch above the rest because they’re gamefied.
Ambe added that in order to succeed at being a mother and career woman, one has to choose the right man. “I cannot emphasize enough how important this is,” she claimed. “Your partner has to be supportive.”
Though Beng acknowledged that in the Philippines, working women have good support systems, she believes that some of them still feel guilty about their dual roles.
“I think that there is still that guilt feeling that if you become more of a mother, you become less of a manager. Or conversely, when you’re more of a manager, you are less of a mother,” she explained. “I hope we will change that mindset.“
Women-friendly company initiatives
And change the mindset is exactly what their companies are doing to support their female staff in their professional and domestic lives and eliminate that feeling of inequality between the two.
IBM has programs for breastfeeding, breast milk delivery, and for assisting female employees with domestic problems like unsupportive husbands. The company also trains its HR personnel to remove that unconscious bias against women including female job applicants.
“Even in the way you interview, there must be a way to take out the bias,” shared Aileen, citing typical job interview questions about the applicant’s civil status. The interview should instead highlight the candidate’s competence.
Meanwhile, Accenture extended its maternity leave benefits to 120 calendar days in 2015. In December 2018, its parental leave benefits package became official, expanding the leave benefits of life or common-law partners, adoptive parents, secondary caregivers, and of fathers as well.
The company recently became the first in the Philippines to receive an EDGE Move Certification for promoting inclusiveness and gender equality among its workforce – from entry level to top level positions including tech-intensive roles. Of its 50,000 employees, 52% are females. Leadership roles have a 50-50 share among males and females.
Accenture has also been upskilling its workforce to be in sync with trends in the marketplace such as the rise of automation and AI.
On the other hand, Pointwest has programs for its female staff to realize that it’s alright to be in the technology industry and to be a leader at that.
“I think that would actually resonate well with their own children. So that now, it’s not just a unique thing to be in STEM or to be a leader, that it’s just an ordinary thing,” said Beng.
Reaching the topmost rungs of the ladder may be the most ordinary thing to happen to these women considering their abilities and dedication. But what they are doing are extraordinary.
As the top woman of IBM Philippines, Aileen who started out as a systems engineer in the company, leads the team in helping businesses to grow by using industry-leading AI/cognitive solutions, cloud platform, and industry capabilities.
Ambe drives Accenture’s AI agenda by helping to develop and industrialize AI architectures and capabilities and scale them across industries.
Under Beng’s stewardship, Pointwest has grown projects and accounts in the US, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. She aspires to put the Philippines on the map of major IT-BPM destinations in the world.
Launched only in January 2017, Women Who Code Manila now boasts more than 2,050 members, has held more than 200 events, and developed more than 40 leaders. Michie and her team aim to bring their efforts around the country and encourage more women in technology to move up.
These four women, once upon a time, were dreamers. Boldly, they ventured into a field of specialization rarely entered by women and became mavericks. Now, having successfully navigated their career paths, they are achievers and leaders in the industry.
But they’re not just achievers. They are also role models. They are the women whom the current generation of girl dreamers can look up to and say, ‘Hey, if they can do it, so can I! Here I am tech world, I’m ready for you!’