SINGAPORE – After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, Yean Cheong started her career in the hospitality industry. She even co-founded an experiential adventure travel company that took people all around Asia. A couple of managerial experiences later, she found a footing in the world of marketing where she has climbed through the ranks over the past two decades.
An early adopter in the world of technology, she was a part of another travel-based startup Travelocity which pioneered real-time, online bookings during the height of the dotcom boom. In fact, she was deemed as Asia Pacific’s most Outstanding Woman Technology Leader of the Year in 2017 by Campaign Asia due to her contributions in bringing a digital transformation in her industry. In the past, she has held several leadership positions for M&C Saatchi, Zuji, Cadreon, IPG Mediabrands and Brand Ex Machina. Currently, she is the Executive Director of SGTech.
From as early as she can remember, Yean was encouraged to try new things – in the form of both experiences and food. Her father who was her pillar and a strong influence on her young mind would often say, “Try everything once”. He told his three daughters and son that they could achieve anything they set their heart to do.
The youngest among her siblings, Yean grew up being curious and interested in people and things. She ended up trying out different sports as a teen, although never invested enough time in them to master any. She would aspire to be a teacher one day, a psychologist another day, and an architect the next. She once felt inspired by the adventures of the protagonist of a TV series. Looking back, she realises that she was exploring and experimenting all along.
And, this exploration continued into her work life as well. She started her first job as a flight attendant with Singapore Airlines at the age of 18 because she wanted to travel. “Getting paid while seeing the world was a really good deal to me. Additionally, this was an eye-opening and mind-expanding experience,” she recalls.
Since they saw their dad cook and sew (he was a tailor by profession), gender roles never surfaced as a topic of discussion in the Cheong household. However when she was applying for the first job, it was the first time for Yean that her gender was a key criterion to qualify for the role. She was soon put through professional grooming and intensive training to appropriately portray the image of the ‘Singapore Girl’.
It was just a gap year job though, after which she went on to earn her degree from National University of Singapore before entering the hospitality industry. She kept exploring careers in different sectors including retail, travel, marketing and advertising industries throughout her career.
She acknowledges having been subjected to gender discrimination at work. “I feel blessed that on those occasions, I was able to speak up and that there were escalation protocols available for recourse,” she adds.
Even as Yean was busy establishing herself as a marketer in the 1990’s, she did not forgo her love for adventure, exploration and traveling. So when she got the opportunity to join an adventure travel start-up, she jumped right at it.
“The experience was fun, yet sobering and humbling. I was full of enthusiasm and energy but I didn’t have enough business acumen and knowledge under my belt to take the company to the next level,” she says about her startup journey.
She also feels that the team was very involved and over-invested in product development, and neglected the importance of maintaining a sustainable investment pool and path for growth. All this was happening in the era when technology was not quite interspersed with our lives as it is today. Knowing things she knows now, and with today’s eCommerce models and marketplaces, she says she would have done things very differently if she got a do-over.
Gender at the Workplace
Through her experiences over the years, Yean became more aware about the type of leaders and the kind of work environment where she thrives best. She realised, she gravitates towards leaders who were generous in their teaching, open with their sharing, clear in their communication, and provided a working environment for learning and making mistakes. She also modelled herself after such leaders.
After she took over her current role, Council and Chapter leaders at SGTech are referred to in gender-neutral terms, as the SGTech Chair, or a Chapter Chair instead of ‘Chairman’. “We are also consciously inculcating a gender-neutral and inclusive culture, being more conscientious with our language at the workplace. This includes reviewing the way our job descriptions are worded, being mindful of the way we evaluate job applicants’ or employees’ skills and performances. Everyone is provided with equal opportunities to excel and progress, and is encouraged to speak up and contribute regardless of their gender or rank. I am proud to share that in our secretariat leadership today, more than half of our leaders are female.
Need for Diversity & Inclusion
According to Yean, an ideal workplace with regard to diversity and inclusion policies is when every role in the organisation is conceived as equally appropriate to be filled by a woman or a man, and considers every aspiration suited for any gender.
She believes that a company thrives best and succeeds through the productivity and effectiveness of their employees. “Employees stay when they feel they are making a difference through their contribution, when they feel they are being appreciated, and when they feel they play an intrinsic part of a cohesive community with co-workers. While salary remuneration remains a key consideration, employees stay when the values embedded in companies they work with, are congruent with their own values,” she shares.
When a company can offer this to its employees, they feel empowered, they feel ownership and inclusion, all these factors contribute to deliver sustainable effects in the long term, she thinks. Maintaining optimal employee retention is an important contributor to a company’s bottomline, she insists. After all, it leads to saving costs by maintaining business processes and knowledge-transfer continuity, curbing skills leakage, maximising training investment and minimising recruitment costs, she explains.
Women in Tech
The technology sector is one that is commonly associated with a lack of gender diversity. Yean is grateful that the business leaders in Singapore’s tech industry are passionate about fostering diversity though. She believes her appointment as the top boss at SGTech – Singapore’s premier tech industry association — is testament to this passion of the industry leaders.
In 2021, SGTech, IMDA and SG Women in Tech jointly launched the SG Women in Tech Corporate Pledge. Through it, several big tech companies pledged to create a conducive environment with a support system to attract, retain and develop more women in tech. The initiative saw strong support from SGTech members, with over 50 companies taking the pledge.
Some of the participating companies like Accenture, Amazon, Autodesk, Flying Cape, Inspire-Tech, Kaspersky, Lenovo, NCS, ST Engineering undertook workshops, mentoring, support and community building networks for women employees. Others like Inspire-Tech, Kaspersky, Keppel Data Centres, KPMG, Microsoft, Singtel went on to promote internship opportunities to encourage female students from polytechnics and universities to explore careers in tech. Oracle committed to increasing the representation of females in leadership while Flying Cape established a goal of hiring at a 50/50 gender ratio.
Effects of Pandemic
While we all read about the gender issues being impacted negatively by the pandemic, Yean opines that it has presented us with many possibilities for change, to embrace and accommodate the many roles we play in our daily lives. The ability to contribute and do more on the domestic front without necessarily undermining work performance and career progression has been a godsent opportunity for many people, she feels.
“The impact of virtual-physical mesh-ups, changing use of spaces, recognising the multiple roles we play in our daily lives (as parents and caregivers) were evident as flexi-hours, outcome-based job scopes were feasible for some companies,” she explains. This, she says, is an opportune time for the corporate world to review their work and remuneration models, job roles and responsibilities. Employers and employees coming together to reflect and align on what the new work-life blend means to job roles, job-sharing, performance evaluation, co-worker relationships, and individual mental wellness, empowering every individual to deliver to their fullest potential is the need of the hour, she feels.
Gender Equality Goals for 2030
Gender is a social construct that people learn from behaviours that they see around themselves, believes Yean. She feels that it takes concerted efforts by all parties including businesses, business leaders, schools and academia, as well as families to model the desired behaviours and create a supportive environment for gender diversity to be part of normalised behaviour.
In order to fulfill the United Nations’ gender equality goals for 2030, she says, we need to overcome quite a few obstacles. “The biggest challenge in the current environment is the high levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, which demands a lot of attention from individuals,” she opines. She thinks that we cannot afford to be distracted by day-to-day challenges and forget about fostering gender diversity – because diversity is part of the solution.
As the new generation needs to be involved in this solution as well, she has a special message for all the young and ambitious girls around the world: Be curious, be fearless, be willing to invest time and effort to learn, fail-fast, and excel in everything you do.