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Charlene, an Emblematic Figure of Tech in Shanghai

Posted in Entrepreneurship on November 17th 2020


Why did you come to China, why Shanghai?

We have to do a little bit of history.  I am Malaysian and before I arrived in Shanghai, I moved to Singapore with my then girlfriend, and lived there from 1998 until 2005.  At that time, I was very much in a closet.  In 2003, I came to Shanghai to watch a tennis tournament and immediately fell in love with the city, and I thought to myself then that I should live here one day.    Shortly after, I went through a bad breakup, well, almost all breakups are bad.

It was in 2005 that a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to take a job in Shanghai, working for a semiconductor manufacturing company.  I jumped at the chance as I wanted to start a new chapter in life.  So, for me, coming to Shanghai was kind of a choice, and at the same time was pushed to do so, given the circumstances.  I am glad I moved here, and it is now 15 years since I arrived.

What is your main activity?

My main activity is Ladies Who Tech.  Our mission is to close the gender gap and improve gender diversity in STEM industries.  We have been around for a few years now.   Everyone who is on board the community may or may not be from Tech.  But, through the community environment, those who are interested in Tech get to connect with each other, whether or not they are in the same profession.

Jill, my co-founder, is focusing on our product, which is the mini-program.  This mini-program is similar to a LinkedIn platform that connects women to networks and companies that are hiring, companies that are looking to be more diverse.  Of course, it will have other functions as well.

We wanted to do this because sometimes companies want to be more diverse but they cannot find the talent pool. 

For you, what is diversity about?

“Diversity should not only be embraced in companies, but also in families, schools and society.”

I always say that it is not only about companies being diverse but also about families, schools, and society.  Are parents encouraging their daughters to take up professions in STEM industries?  Are schools encouraging female students to take coding classes?  Or the society, are they enabling women who are in tech?

Achieving diversity and inclusion needs everybody and it takes a long time. I am hopeful, at least I am positive that some change will happen in my lifetime.  I am sure there are many women out there who are interested in being a physician, a doctor, a scientist, or an engineer… But the question is: “are they given fair opportunities?” Everybody plays a part.

What do you mean by “opportunities”?

Opportunities are when you have policies in place that do not discriminate against people based on their gender. Policies in place where the employers should promote or give salary raise equally based on performance and not based on unconscious bias.  People are biased, they think women cannot perform well because they always have to choose between career and family.  But many times, in real life a lot of women do not need to choose between career and family.  It is just society that thinks when a woman starts a family, they will eventually disappear.

There is also the gender pay gap.  Many companies actually pay less to women than to men for the same job, because they think women are not capable enough, that their progression will be low because they have to leave and take care of their family.  Gender diversity does not need to mean 50-50, but that opportunities need to be fair.

Why do you think, particularly in tech, there are less opportunities?

Tech has all to do with science, computers, math, etc.  Again, society thinks that women are not smart enough.  Actually, there are numbers showing women are smart but are not given the opportunities.

Most of my friends from the same high school went on to become scientists, doctors, engineers or pharmacists.  We were fortunate that our teachers were super encouraging.  One day I asked my teacher “what can I do?” and she answered, “go be an engineer!”, so she gave me the idea. But one member in my family said, “engineers are for boys”.

What is success for you and how do you measure it for gender equality?

Success does not mean it is a 50-50 gender balance, there are fair opportunities for women, and enough talent pool for women to be able to go in different industries and different job roles. The opportunity needs to be fair.

You are in Shanghai for 15 years now, do you see an improvement?

I would say there is more awareness and more conversations now about gender bias and gender diversity.  I also see more women are getting more confident in asking what they think they deserve with the job.  A lot of times I hear stories where men ask for more in an interview, and women are not so comfortable asking for the same things.  But I can say, from my past experiences, I did ask for something more and I actually got it.  So, if you ask you may get it, if you don’t you will never get it.

Women also think they need to be over-achiever in order to do something. Maybe we were raised differently, and this is why we think that way.

Do you see a difference between countries in terms of gender equality?

I don’t think it is cultural, the World Economic Forum publishes a report every year that talks about gender equality and pay gap, and I read in last year’s report that it will take 200 years to close the gender pay gap.  Whatever industry, whatever position, women are about 30% less paid. And this raises a question: why are companies not hiring more women?  Because at the end we are cheaper (laughs).

It is a complicated question, and not about culture but more about the overall perception of women not being able to do better or having lower ambitions.  Many employers think that women will give at the end, but it is not necessarily true.

Tell me about your second activity, what is it about?

We chose a very simple name for this organization: “Diversity and Inclusion Consulting (DNIC)”.  I guess we could be more creative (laughs).  We created it because when we were partnering with companies in Shanghai, we realized they wanted to do more for LGBT inclusion in the workplace.  These companies have global policies for inclusion, but when it comes to localizing them, they need help on how to proceed.  We are here to help.

We mostly work with international companies based in Shanghai and have offices in other parts of China.  I think companies with a more global view have global policies and tend to understand diversity and inclusion much earlier.

What are the main activities at DNIC?

We recommend companies on how to move forward giving awareness to management and employees on what diversity and inclusion is.  Then we advise on how the companies can create a safer and inclusive workplace.  Knowing diversity exists, learning more about it, and understanding it, and being inclusive, It is a long journey.

On a personal point of view, why did you feel the need to create this organisation?

I have been in the workplace for two decades and for most part of it I was in a closet and it was very uncomfortable.  For example, if you accidentally reveal something about your personal life there is always the fear of being discriminated against, being fired or being treated in a nasty way by colleagues.  I didn’t want anyone to know anything about my personal life at work.

Nobody needs to go through this.  First, it is kind of hiding and secondly kind of lying because sometimes your coworkers ask you questions you don’t want to answer to, and you lie.  Lying sucks! 

For example, people ask, “What did you do this weekend”, and then you answer, “I went somewhere with my boyfriend”, instead of saying “girlfriend”. But why should you hide the truth?  Even if you say, “I am seeing someone”, people are always assuming that it is with the opposite gender.

So being part of LGBT myself and being an employee before, I wanted to improve inclusion for LGBT employees at the workplace.  Also, it has been proven that diversity is good for businesses.  

By experience, the more you hide things, the more people start assuming.  So, you have to show who you truly are, otherwise people think too much and create worse assumptions.

It could be worse, it could be better, but most of the time we don’t know because there are many cases where people get fired for being LGBT.  The fact is no matter who you are married to, it should not affect your performance at work.  Work is work.

Moreover, many people spend most of their lifetime at work, with their colleagues, more than with their family.  So, you should feel comfortable where you work, not worried all the time about being “outed”.

You also organized events in various venues in Shanghai, how does that fit into the work that you do?

Well, it is another business (laughs).  This is my party business, my partner handles that because I can’t handle everything.  Besides, she knows my standards, so she runs that side of things.  Thank God that I found someone who I can work with and I am still married to.

What are your upcoming events? 

Ladies Who Tech STEM Drinks Night

The next one is a Ladies Who Tech event happening on the 18th of November. It is a networking event, for connecting women and other women communities. We came up with this event because there are so many communities for women here, but there are still so much discrimination and biased against women. I think women should have a louder voice and although being in different communities the path of each community may be different, but the purpose is the same.  So we have to get together, create a more conducive and far-reaching network, to create bridges among women communities.

Red Ribbon Gala 

We are also organizing a fundraiser happening on the 5th of December - the Red Ribbon Gala for World AIDS Day.  It was started in 2009 but some of the original founders left Shanghai, then one of them came back and in 2015 asked me to pick up the baton.  I agreed because of several reasons.

The first one is because there is a bias that HIV/AIDS is always related to the gay community, but in reality, it is not.  It can happen to anybody regardless of gender, background, etc.. So, by focusing on World AIDS Day, we want to raise awareness for everybody. 

Raising Awareness among Young Adults

The organization that we are supporting for this fundraiser, Shanghai Qingai Health Center, is focused on raising awareness and promoting HIV/AIDS prevention for young adults, assisting those who are affected by HIV/AIDS in terms of counseling and medication.  We hope that supporting this charity will help to raise awareness and prevention among students. 

I have been very busy selling tables and seats to fill up the ballroom and planning every detail of the Gala.  At the Gala, we will have raffles and auctions.  It will be really fun.  This is the 5th year we are organizing the event.  I like doing events even if sometimes it is a bit difficult especially this year with Covid still lurking and people are less willing to invest or spend money in general.  But, we think that contributing to charity is a continuous activity and eradicating HIV/AIDS has to continuous.

Ladies Who Tech Founders Series: Architecture Tech 

On the 10th of December, we are also hosting a founders series session on Architecture Tech (laughs).

Stay tuned to all that’s happening on Charlene’s LinkedIn page -