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How to be an alpha woman in technology

For Harriet Green, chairman and CEO, IBM Asia Pacific, choosing the right employers and reskilling are key to growth and gender equality in the workplace

Harriet Green. Photo: Peter Searle
Harriet Green. Photo: Peter Searle

Harriet Green’s Twitter bio reads “Woman, Wife, Mother, Cyclist, Head of @IBMAsiapacific", a rather down-to-earth descriptor for a woman who has been called the “alpha" of female chief executive officers in the UK. As a girl from the Cotswolds who studied medieval history in college and started off her career in technology reviewing word processors, Green’s rise has been meteoric, and she has gone on to hold several senior management positions across companies. Her high-profile stint as Thomas Cook’s CEO thrust her into the public eye and won her the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award in 2014. As one of the few female CEOs, Green has been an inspirational figure as well as someone who is constantly in the limelight. She compares herself and her management strategies to a “landa" (a cross between a lion and a panda), and everything from her kettlebell lifts at dawn to her perfectly coiffed hair, has been subject to media scrutiny—and Green takes all this attention in her stride.

In 2015, Green joined IBM as general manager of Watson internet of things, customer engagement and education. Over the years, she has emerged as a business leader and a powerful woman in technology, paving the way for gender equality in the field. In June 2016, she won the Women in Technology Institute (Witi) award and was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame. In January, she became chairman and CEO, IBM Asia Pacific. Green was in Mumbai in February for IBM’s Advancing Women’s Leadership event, to discuss the role of women in fostering economic growth and the transformation of Indian business and society. She spoke to Lounge about the need for more women in technology and leadership positions. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your journey from medieval history to technology leader.

I was personally not that gifted at the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and chose to study medieval history and business psychology because I enjoyed it. My very first job was working for a magazine which reviewed word processors. Then, I applied to work for the Macro Group as a management trainee, and, within nine years, I had become the company’s managing director and won a “Young Woman in Business" award.

Then, I joined Arrow Electronics and ran all of the major businesses as well as strategy, procurement, etc. Thereafter, I wanted to explore being a public company CEO and took the role at Premier Farnell Plc. as the CEO, transformed the business digitally and started the whole Asia operations. It was the Thomas Cook transformation after that.

I like challenges and I like the digital space and how data plays such an important part in the future of businesses. And so I have learnt about business, procurement, supply chain and semi-conductors, and about really developing those skills. And this is something that has persisted even after I joined IBM…as I have learnt more about cloud, Artificial Intelligence and blockchain, among others. It is not just the millennials who should be talking about renewable skills. It is on all of us to do that.

It is often said that you are a super boss who sleeps only 4 hours a night and answers emails at 3.30am. Do women in senior management always have to be superwomen?

Some of that is incredibly hyped. I am a very regular sort of woman. I have the same issues, same vulnerabilities on a daily basis that most of my gender or maybe even men do. As a child, I have never been a big sleeper, so my sleeping habits are not about being a businesswoman and are just part of my make-up. I am struggling right now with all the things that any normal woman would—trying to set up a new home and get members of my family to align, and worrying about where that will be, if everyone is happy. I always talk a lot about my family because the single biggest thing that you want in your team is that they bring their whole self to work, and this means that you talk about your children or your elderly mom.

In the war for talent, being who you are is important...and mostly the things that make me tick are the same as they are for other women. The press picks up on things that they want to make the most of. I think the most remarkable acts in businesses and in communities are done by everyday women who are taking the steps with their children, elderly parents, their own jobs, to do all the things that I just described. So, I certainly do not consider myself in that category.There are certain things that are important. I do think I have a voice and it’s having that voice that I always wanted to try to move us forward (as women).

A lot has been written about women and their biological clocks and the challenges of returning to work post-motherhood. What is your take on this?

You have to choose very carefully who you work for. If you take a company like IBM, the policies are extremely inclusionary. In my last role at IBM, I worked with a woman who was a distinguished engineer at the company and the mother of twins (her second set). So she had four children under five years and she herself was under 35. The breast-milk delivery programme at IBM enables her to travel on work and do things simply because she expresses her milk and it is transported the same day around the world through IBM for her children free of cost. It enables her to do what she loves to do—her work—and be a great mother.

The programmes that we are running here in India are also designed to help young women who are new mothers at the workplace. Projects like Tanmatra and Disha ensure that reskilling and digital capability (take place). A fair bit has been written about some of the new tech companies and how they treat non-male employees. I think we also have a responsibility to pick the right employer so that we can do what we want to do. So, if we want to have children and be a successful executive, then the company should make that as possible as can be.

You have spoken about the inclusion of women in STEM fields across the world. How differently would you broach the subject here in India?

The starting point is education—ensuring that women are educated equally and that they are given a fast track set of skills around digital. One of the IBM programmes that I love in India is around getting girls to code. Our volunteers are IBM coding developers who take 10- to 12-year-old girls from underprivileged backgrounds to teach them digital skills and understand the basics of coding. We also provide help to educate STEM leaders in schools. The second thing is that you cannot be what you can’t see. So, where are the female role models in society? Where are the businesswomen, politicians, journalists, writers, artists? And it is also about making sure that these role models talk about their business, start-ups, coding, STEM skills, because tech is moving to a much better place than heavy industry and heavy engineering.

(Then for companies like us), what is important is our intake here in India to help hire the best inclusive talent regardless of age, sex, colour, creed, sexuality, or physical ability, to make sure that we are really winning the war for talent. There must be a mission. People have to see it every day. So, having a female head of the region, a female head of the company (the CEO of IBM is Ginni Rometty) helps. You can certainly see that it is manifested in the actions that we take.

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