"We have to work hard on not stereotyping leadership," Preeti Bajaj, who took over as chief executive in September last year, told iTWire as part of an interview to mark International Women's Day which falls on Monday.
Bajaj is also the managing director of Modis Australia, an Adecco Group company that uses data, cloud and AI services to improve tasks in existing enterprise systems and processes.
She is not sold on emphasising differences in the kind of leadership that men and women bring to a role, saying that one cannot "take experiences in your career journey and review it from a one-dimensional lens of gender".
Before Bajaj joined Modis, she was the chief executive at Clipsal Solar and, prior to that, the vice-president of Strategy and Commercial Operations [Transformation] at Schneider Electric.
She has been an energetic leader and business transformer with more than 15 years' experience in the Australian and Asian business environments, developing and executing strategies to set the pace for sustainable growth.
She was interviewed by email. Edited excerpts:
iTWire: How does the experience of a female leader in the tech industry differ from that of a male?
Preeti Bajaj: I don’t believe you can take experiences in your career journey and review it from a one-dimensional lens of gender. There are so many factors that contribute to someone’s career trajectory and experience within the technology industry. For me, my learning has been about diversity of skillsets.
I want to ensure that the technology industry remains open to the opportunities offered through the diversity of ideas. We’ve seen this happen across other industries like marketing and sales.
By embracing a broader range of skills and attributes within teams, we can build a diverse and gender balanced industry, which is ultimately good for business and good for society. This development is a two-way street and I believe the call to action for women is to embrace this opportunity and pursue a fulfilling career in the tech industry.
What pluses do you see in being a female in this role?
Leadership to me is gender-neutral. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, what matters is the job that you do and the way you inspire your team. In the rapidly moving tech sector, to be a successful leader you must consider diversity of sector, business, and knowledge. You need to have the ability to read the market to ensure a customer-centric approach.
Furthermore, learning agility is a must in tech. For such a fast-paced sector, you must be willing to continuously learn and challenge yourself.
And the downsides?
The lack of females in the tech industry is overall a downside as at a bare minimum we don’t have diversity of thought. I encourage women to learn STEM skills - don’t hold back from entering the tech industry because you don’t think you can do it. Bring the full version of you and apply yourself to a career in tech. An increase of women within the technology industry will mitigate any potential downsides.
Any particular successes, where you have managed to change attitudes, work practices and the like?
As chief executive of Clipsal Solar, I was a first-time venture chief executive in a large organisation that set up a software services company. It was an unproven concept, and I was leading a young team across three different continents - Australia, India, and the US.
It was a diverse group, and by embracing our diversity we were able to not only change perceptions but to also innovate within the business. We grew from being an unusual concept to becoming a highly successful part of the business.
My team taught me that a good group of people with a shared purpose is critical to success. Purpose is also gender-neutral. The team came from different backgrounds and skillsets and that is what I believe made it a success. If you show faith in people, they perform.
What is the most difficult aspect of working as a leader in the male-dominated tech industry?
The challenge for the sector as a whole is to stay away from bias – we have to work hard on not stereotyping leadership. There are an increasing number of tech role models for young people to look up to - and these can be gender neutral.
Some fantastic women who are working in tech such as Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and chief executive of Bumble, and the chairwoman of Tesla, Robyn Denholm, are inspirations of mine in the tech space.
Given the need of the hour is creating new businesses which thrive in the new economy – we would do well to support entrepreneurial and leadership talents as corporate and investment community without bias.
International Women's Day seems to be a sop to keep women happy (my cynical view). What's yours?
I think International Women’s Day is a day to reflect and celebrate the tough journey we have had towards building an equitable society, which is important for the safety and progress of our nation.
We know that International Women’s Day started in Russia, as a push for women to be included in politics. It was always a phenomenon, but the roots of it started due to the need to form an equitable society. A demonstration led by Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai in February 1917 proved to be a link in the chain of events that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution. After the Czar’s abdication, women achieved the right to vote.
International Women’s Day reminds us of the many female heroes and previously unsung heroes whom many of us can refer to as role models today.
Would you support the introduction of quotas for women in the tech industry?
I think that COVID-19 proved that businesses with diverse teams have sustained strategies and succeeded throughout the pandemic better than those businesses that are not as well balanced in terms of diversity. Reports from McKinsey outline that companies with more than 30% women on their executive teams are more likely to outperform those with fewer women. New Women, New Men, New Economy research shows “…gender balanced teams are twice as innovative and deliver superior financial performance…”.
It is a commercial imperative and there is a growing need in a creative skills economy to have balanced companies for better outcomes. So, the conversation has moved on from whether we should have quotas, to how do we build diverse organisations to meet the needs of the market and consumers.
What kind of differences have you seen in the attitudes towards women tech leaders in Switzerland and Australia?
If we look at Europe and Australia there are differences to be aware of.
Switzerland is ranked second in the 2018 Green Economy Index, whereas Australia is ranked 111. In the 2020 Global Innovation Index for high income group Switzerland is ranked first with Australia behind them at number 22. In the WEF Global Gender Gap index 2020 Switzerland is ranked 18 and Australia is 44. You can see we have some room here to learn from our European friends.
I think the European approach to economy and innovation clusters could help us here in Australia to achieve a better future. Clusters accelerate innovation. They ooze a creative stickiness that provides the glue that holds companies together in highly collaborative networks operating in high trust environments that speed up the transfer and diffusion technology.
A total of 61.8 million people are employed in European clusters, delivering high-tech exports and baked-in current account surpluses. Productivity in clusters is much higher than average productivity, corresponding to a 25% above-average productivity effect.
Unfortunately, Australia does not have a national industry cluster policy. Even LA, with a surrounding population of some 20 million people, has major clusters from aerospace to transport and logistics, so I think this is an area that Australia can learn more on from our European counterparts.
If there are differences, to what do you attribute this?
In Australia, our innovation investment has decreased year-on-year for the past five years.
In the World Intellectual Property Organisation annual innovation rankings, Australia is underperforming in linking innovation, across university/industry collaboration, and cluster development. Government funding per pupil as a percentage of GDP is also low compared to the top 25 counterparts, with low graduate numbers in the STEM fields.
As a country we are falling down on the gender gap and there is a desperate need to reinvent post COVID-19. We need to learn and then execute to build a better environment and a better future for Australia.
Finally, what are your immediate goals in your current job and what is your long-term goal?
Modis is a Smart Industry services provider with a focus on Cognitive Technologies, Digital Transformation, Cloud & Infrastructure, Smart Ecosystem, and Industry 4.0. We work dynamically with our customers to provide actionable insights and flexible solutions platform.
We actively work in the area of capability development for our teams and customers through our Global Modis Academy and we are at the cutting edge of using the power of analytics/AI to help businesses drive value. Accelerating these skills and outcomes for our customers in Smart Industry is the mission I am committed to.
My long-term goals remain open – I am keeping an open mind in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world.