Laura Houldsworth has earned an enviable hat-trick in the corporate world; she has been the first woman to hold the office in her last three postings. Currently, she is the Managing Director for Asia Pacific at Booking.com. Before this, she spent almost ten-years at SAP Concur where she rose to the rank of Senior Vice President and General Manager for Asia Pacific, Japan and Greater China.
A resolute advocate of women’s empowerment and development in the workforce, she has sponsored and mentored several young female talents throughout her career. She also inspires other female leaders to do this through a Women in Leadership network. In this conversation with Women Icons Network, she shares her opinions on various aspects of gender diversity in the workplace.
The Inner Critic
The biggest challenge that a working woman has to face, according to Laura, is her own inner critic. She acknowledges the merits of this inner voice – it ensures our plans are realistic and we motivate ourselves.
“However, this inner critic also diminishes and limits our abilities. Telling ourselves that we may not be experienced enough or have the right skills for the next role or promotion; rejecting opportunities that come our way can only deter a person from reaching their full potential,” she explains. In the absence of a good support system, this negative feedback can become cyclical, undermining all efforts taken to improve the representation of women in key roles, she adds.
The other key challenge for working women, she says, include ineffective workplace practices and policies. This can range from maternity/paternity policies, flexible work arrangements to recruitment and advancement processes.
Commitment to Gender Diversity
A company that commits to diversity is one that celebrates differences in perspectives, because it fosters better creativity, ideation and inclusion, believes Laura. “This means that the company is focused on changing what the workplace looks like, how it is managed and to challenge the status quo when it comes to their values, policies and practices,” she elaborates. She also points out that this has to start from the very foundations and the company has to ensure this is role-modelled at the top.
Laura goes on to give the example of how Booking.com has focused on visible representation of women in their global workforce spanning more than 150 nationalities, half of which is made up by women. In APAC, women make up almost 70% of the workforce, with 75% in her own leadership team, she informs. In fact, the company achieved gender pay equity in 2019.
Initiatives like wellbeing programs, employee resource groups, talent initiatives and in-house volunteer programs also foster a greater sense of inclusion and equality within the organisation. “We also celebrate the achievements of inspiring colleagues with our Playmaker & Inclusionist Awards. The awards seek to recognize colleagues who empower and inspire others and who are promoting the mission of Inclusion, Diversity and Belonging (IDB) by supporting others in the organisation,” she informs.
Role of Male Allies
The importance of the men in the workplace in furthering the cause of diversity and inclusion is a complex one, feels Laura. In fact, she believes that it is often affected by factors like the local culture. As an example to support this claim, she talks about the countries and cultures, particularly in Asia, where gender norms can be nuanced and have arguably seen slower progress compared to the rest of the world.
She thinks that this cultural aspect makes it important for men to be included in the journey towards equality and the rightful empowerment of women. “It starts with building their awareness of the existence of gender bias, and how enhancing their sensitivity to the issue can kickstart positive change in the workplace,” she states.
Men, she believes, will be playing an important role in allyship from being positive role models, introducing fair recruitment and talent development practices, to promoting diversity rights and appropriate working conditions.
Lessons from the Pandemic
The pandemic has had an adverse impact on women in the workplace, Laura feels, adding that this time will have long-term implications on gender parity. “For women who are caregivers, the pandemic has made it difficult to think of taking on more opportunities in the workplace. In fact, they are riddled with thoughts of leaving the workforce to be able to deal with additional family care responsibilities,” she informs.
She points out at the increased reports of domestic violence against women during the pandemic. Lockdowns meant a delay in access to the support system that would otherwise be available to resolve issues, she adds.
“Women are also overrepresented in sectors that have been negatively hit, making them increasingly vulnerable to job losses,” she shares. Along the same lines, she says, women-led businesses that already faced challenges before are more vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic.
The travel industry has been one sector that has always employed more women (54%, as per the World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) Global Report on Women in Tourism), informs Laura. This is much higher than the overall global average of women in the workforce which stands at 39%. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals that female representation starts to fall when we look at mid-level management, senior executive level and beyond with C-level roles, even in the most gender balanced industries.
She says that all this has had an impact on women’s mental health and well-being, adjusting to a new way of working where we’re always ‘on’, and the boundaries between work and home are blurry. This has made it imperative for managers to ponder over ways to build a more flexible and empathetic workplaces, where everyone feels safe to bring their whole selves to work.
The discriminatory laws and social norms, and the inequalities at the workplace need to be addressed urgently, she stresses. If this doesn’t happen and the socio-economic plans are not designed with gender neutrality in mind, it will take us a lot longer to reach the goals of women empowerment as enumerated by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
As an advocate for diversity and inclusion, Laura has resolved to keep on championing initiatives that will have a positive impact on gender representation in the workplace. She says she will continue to use her voice to take a stand for diversity and develop allyship within the organizations she works in.
“At this juncture, due to long standing gender inequalities there is a barrier at the very top. There are very few women at the top rung cracking the glass ceiling,” she rues. Even so, she acknowledges the importance of having the right talents in the right roles.
The quest for gender parity, Laura thinks, requires a deep cultural and mindset shift – not only within companies, but with the entire ecosystem. This includes government policies that equalize gender pay gaps, establish paternity leave, provide accessible childcare and make disclosure of diversity data mandatory. Companies, meanwhile, need to look at workplace practices to create a more inclusive work environment. “Employees, both women and men, need to come together to be accountable to each other, support one another and be equal allies to bring everyone a step forward together,” she concludes.