International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. While the IWD gathering is more than a century old, its mission to achieve gender parity is as relevant as ever today.
As we enter the next stage of globalization, coined as Globalization 4.0 by the World Economic Forum, companies need to compete in an innovation-driven economy, and staying innovative requires having a highly inclusive and diverse workforce. This accelerates the need – and also the opportunities – for more women in the technology industry.
I spoke with Uma Rani T M, senior vice president and co-lead of the Global Maintenance and Support team for SAP On-Premise Applications, about her career path and how we can inspire more women to take the leap to pursue a senior leadership position in tech.
After joining SAP in 1997, Uma became the first woman to get appointed to the SAP Global Senior Leadership Team in India.
Uma, you were one of the first trailblazers for women not just at SAP, but in the global tech industry. Looking back, have opportunities changed for women to pursue a career and leadership position in tech compared to your early career days?
When I started working 25 years ago, women had a very different type of glass ceiling than today. In the 1980s, the IT industry was still in its infancy. There were not many software companies in India. My first job was to be the first female electrical engineer in a manufacturing firm in India. I was the only woman in the organization. The company was not even equipped with the basic amenities for female employees.
I quickly shifted to a career in the IT industry afterward. Getting hired as a woman in an industry dominated by men already cracked the glass ceiling at that time. This is unimaginable today. Most businesses now understand and promote the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, especially tech companies like SAP.
While opportunities for women still vary by industries, companies, and geographies, we can see small steps being taken everywhere to attract more women into the workplace. Looking at my home country, India, society’s idea of what represents an appropriate career for women has evolved over time. More and more women get access to education and can choose their career.
Today’s glass ceiling is not about getting more women into tech jobs; it is about getting more women into leadership positions across all industries globally. It’s important to have trailblazers who show opportunities. For example, at the beginning of this year, the Astronomical Society of India, elected a woman president for the first time. Last year, General Motor’s appointed Chennai-born Dhivya Suryadevara as the global car manufacturer’s first female CFO.
We came a long way from not knowing how to accommodate female employees to having dedicated programs to attract and mentor female talent. Companies like SAP put in place a good foundation for women to thrive in the workplace, balancing career goals and family.
Did you have a role model growing up?
Growing up, I benefitted incredibly from my parents as role models, especially from my mother. From a very young age on, she ingrained into me the importance of continuous learning. She was a teacher and showed me how family and career can be brought together.
Balancing work-life is an important lesson. A recent study led by Kathleen McGinn, a professor at Harvard Business School, found that women who grew up with working mothers are more likely to have careers themselves than those with stay-at-home mothers, and they’re also more likely to have better, higher-paying jobs.
When did you know that you want to pursue a career in IT?
I decided to pursue a career in IT after dipping my toes in manufacturing. While the IT industry in India was still in its infancy, it was growing rapidly, opening up more opportunities for women. I joined Tata Consultancy Services. Coincidentally, my first manager at Tata was a woman. She had been the first woman to join the Tata Group IT Services firm and is now the CEO of one of the Tata enterprises. She was and still is a role model for me. She taught me my first leadership lessons and showed me how to grow my career balancing professional and personal goals.
You have worked on numerous innovations within SAP that helped customers to transform their business. But you also worked on social impact projects, such as an educational app as part of an SAP Social Sabbatical program in the New Leaders Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa. Can you tell me more about this initiative?
I had the opportunity to work with the educational non-profit organization, New Leaders Foundation (NLF), in South Africa on improving the education system for South Africa’s youth. NLF is supporting the Department of Education. We were brought in to help make sense of the vast amounts of data from the nation’s schooling system and visualize it in a way that helps students improve their performance.
Outside of work, at my lodge in Johannesburg, I also happened to meet Daisy, our housekeeper and a mother of three. Daisy was worried that her second daughter was still unemployed and that her son, who was in eighth grade at that time, would not complete his schooling. In South Africa, less than 50 percent of students graduate from school. That is one of the reasons why the youth unemployment rate is extremely high. Our work could potentially help Daisy’s children be successful in life. The team provided NLF with business model recommendations which are still being used today.
What I remember the most was the energy and drive of everyone involved to create a better future for South Africa’s youth. There was a spark in everyone’s eyes. I went back to India with the hope that in the near future goals like a 100 percent literacy rate in South Africa can be achieved. Anything is possible when people are willing to change the status quo to achieve their purpose.
Where do you see opportunities for women in the industry today in the next 1-3 years?
The IT industry continues to evolve rapidly, creating new opportunities for both men and women. New technology fields, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and augmented reality, are growth sectors. Everyone who continues to learn new technologies and knows how to adapt their potential for business innovation will have a bright future. For example, we are looking at artificial intelligence and machine learning for business process improvements in customer service.
Do you have any tips for women that work in tech and look to advance into a leadership position?
First, women often do not receive honest feedback on what they need to work on to get into leadership positions. Make your goals clear, and ask your manager what you have to work on to achieve your goals.
Second, be aware of common pitfalls for women, such as displaying a lack of confidence, not voicing career aspirations, or letting opportunities slip by. Sometimes it is as easy as looking back at what you have achieved already to give yourself a confidence boost and share your contributions with the team.
Third, never stop learning. Today there are so many flexible learning modules, outside the traditional classroom. The world is changing every day, so are your skill set requirements.
Who or what inspires you today?
My credo is based on the common saying: Looking from the outside in, you can never understand it. Standing on the inside looking out, you can never explain it. Life is a continuous learning process and we must strive to enrich our knowledge every day.
The ability to learn fast and adapt is also what differentiates you from others in a rapidly changing world. Learning can happen anywhere at any time. You can learn a lot from colleagues. The opportunity to learn something new every day is what keeps me inspired.
What do you wish you had known in your early career days – and would give as a piece of advice to your younger self?
I would have loved to know that I need to ask for what I want and not expect others to understand my ambitions and provide me with the opportunities.