November 2021 marked Verena Siow’s ten-year anniversary with SAP, a multinational software developer. In this time, Siow has held six roles and was a lead in sales and strategic planning. She is now president and managing director of SAP Southeast Asia and manages the firm’s business across 13 offices in 7 countries.
Siow has grappled with gender stereotypes since early in her career, in a space that’s typically dominated by men. While she feels that there is more of a “level playing field” for both genders now, there is still bias towards mothers in positions in high-level positions.
Recently, Oasis sat down to hear Siow’s observations and SAP’s approaches to promoting gender balance.
The following interview has been edited and consolidated for brevity and clarity.
Oasis (OS): What was it like to join SAP ten years ago, when the software industry was dominated by male?
Verena Siow (VS): Almost 20 years ago, my husband and I tried to build our own healthcare startup in Florida. We tried for a year, it was very exciting, but unfortunately it didn’t go well, and we had to shut it down. Then I moved to Israel, where I worked for different technology companies for almost ten years before I joined SAP.
For a long time, the tech industry has been male-dominated. But I never let that hold me back. Quite often, I was the only woman in the room, and I had to constantly teach myself to speak up, to voice my opinion, in order to achieve my goals. One lesson is do not let our own perception hold us back, and have the confidence to speak up and voice our opinions. Be vocal about what you want to achieve.
For most of my career, I have been in sales or sales leadership roles. One good thing about sales is that it’s results-oriented. As long as you achieve your targets, your gender doesn’t matter to the company.
OS: Where do you think gender stereotypes in terms of career choices originated?
VS: Part of that starts at home and in school. In Asian societies, we have these urbanistic points of view about careers that boys and girls should have. At school, girls are encouraged to do arts instead of sciences.
Being a mother of two teenage daughters, I encourage them to pursue their dreams. This is very important, as the seed of doubt may be planted in their hearts at a young age.
OS: What about today’s tech space? Do we enjoy greater gender balance in STEM subjects and careers?
VS: I see today’s tech space as a level playing field. Girls are encouraged to pursue their interests in STEM subjects alongside boys.
For example, at SAP, we’ve been running an ASEAN data science explorer competition for the last four or five years. The program welcomes both young boys and girls to solve scientific problems together for a day. Over the last few years, we had more female attendees than males.
OS: The status of female employees in the tech space has improved compared to two decades ago, but what are the contemporary biases towards female leaders now?
VS: I think the overall working environment today is much healthier. But still, we need to watch out for some unconscious biases and stereotypes.
For example, there is the stereotype that mothers in high-status positions are less committed or productive than fathers or childless peers. Once in the past, I interviewed for a role in a tech company. At the time, my two girls were both under ten. The job interviewer asked me, “This position requires a lot of regional travel, can you do that given you are a mother of two young kids?” Instead of staying quiet or reacting enthusiastically with yes, yes, I can do it, I asked him, “If I were a man, would you ask me the same question?” He admitted that he wouldn’t.
This hasn’t been limited to job interviewers. Many people around me have asked me who takes care of my children when I travel for my job. My answer has always been, well, they have a father, and he is an equal partner who will take care of them.
Another thing is the unconscious bias that leaders should be firm and decisive. But today, empathetic leadership is gaining importance in the workplace. Besides, I don’t think those are male- or female-only characteristics, it’s very much up to the person themselves.
OS: What can we do to mitigate gender bias in the tech space?
VS: The most important part is for us to be self-aware about the unconscious biases we hold, and make sure we think through that before forming any judgement.
Also, we actively encourage our female colleagues to be bold and apply for the roles they want, even if they don’t feel they have met 100% of the requirements. Often, women are more hesitant and feel like they’re not good enough.
No one is born ready, we need to be confident that we can learn in the process. Before you become a father or mother, are you always ready for parenthood? No. Similarly, I encourage all my colleagues to go for their ambitions.
For SAP, I’m very proud to say that 51% of the employees and around 47% of people in leadership roles in Southeast Asia are women.
OS: You mentioned that you are a mentor to many female employees in SAP. Who’s your biggest source of inspiration in terms of female leadership?
VS: In terms of the speech style, I have great admiration for Michelle Obama.
She has great stage presence and is very charming. Even if she addresses an audience of thousands, you still feel like she’s speaking to you personally. And you could see that the audience always feels connected to her. I think that connection is important, besides being articulate, clear, and concise about her vision and ideas.
November 29: The story has been updated to clarify the number of offices and markets under the interviewee’s management.