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Women's empowerment


Breaking barriers: Women leading the charge in traditionally male industries

8 March 2024 • by Öykü Işık, Sarah E. Toms, Josefine van Zanten in Women's empowerment

Through the lenses of global corporations, small businesses, and academia, we delve into the progress made by integrating more women into these sectors – and identify areas needing further improvement....

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day 2024, we’re shining a spotlight on the remarkable strides made by women in traditional industries mostly led by men.

Against a backdrop of evolving societal norms and shifting workplace dynamics, we brought together leaders from various sectors to share their insights and experiences in an IMD webinar.

Celebrating Progress: Women Shaping Traditional Industries illuminated the paths forged by women who have defied the odds and shattered barriers in their respective fields – from elevator and escalator manufacturing to wine production and artificial intelligence – along with insights from a male leader stepping up as an ally.

Here’s a glimpse into the enriching exchange of viewpoints and impactful information shared during the interactive session.

Paving the way in priority male fields

Coraline de Wurstemberger, owner of the wine domain Les Dames de Hautecour, underscored the challenges and biases women face when entering fields like wine production, suggesting that women were uncommon or viewed as outsiders.

She added that many men in the industry have inherited their positions from their fathers, highlighting a paternal lineage and tradition of passing down roles within the wine industry from father to son.

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

By contrast, she said, women often choose to enter the wine industry because of their genuine passion and love for wine – and, as such, can bring a fresh perspective and innovative ideas to the field.

While there may be women working as winemakers, she noted, they are often underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership, suggesting that there are barriers preventing women from advancing despite their presence and contributions to the field.

Overcoming obstacles in technology and engineering

Donato Carparelli, Chief Technology Officer at Swiss elevator maker Schindler, noted that there are still significant challenges to overcome in achieving gender equality, particularly in priority male industries like technology and engineering.

He acknowledged that certain barriers persist in the mindset of some individuals, which can hinder progress toward greater gender diversity and inclusion. These barriers include ingrained biases, stereotypes, and resistance to change.

Carparelli underlined the dynamics of power and leadership within teams, adding that some men may feel threatened by the presence of strong female colleagues. He stressed the importance of leadership in addressing these dynamics.

However, the senior executive noted that appointments and promotions should be based on merit, meaning that individuals should be selected for positions based on their qualifications, skills, and performance – thereby creating a more inclusive and equitable environment.

Carparelli added that women themselves may not want to be hired purely because of their gender and that doing so can create tension and undermine their credibility and abilities in the workplace. That said, he expressed a desire for a workplace culture where women do not have to go above and beyond or demonstrate anything special to attain positions of leadership or recognition.

“I am unapologetic about the need for social change, greater inclusion, and equity.”
- Marley Dias, American activist and writer

Fostering inclusivity and psychological safety

Building on this, Head Product Configurator at Schindler Juliana Torreão Brito e Silva said that focusing on inclusivity rather than differences is key to fostering a thriving workplace culture. By ensuring that diverse voices are represented at the table, organizations can benefit from a variety of perspectives and experiences, leading to better decision-making and outcomes.

Additionally, Brito e Silva stressed the importance of psychological safety – feeling comfortable taking interpersonal risks, such as speaking up or sharing ideas, without fear of negative consequences. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to engage in open and honest communication, leading to increased collaboration and innovation.

Furthermore, Brito e Silva rejected the idea of women needing to conform to traditional male norms or behaviors to succeed in the workplace. She believes in celebrating everyone’s uniqueness and recognizing the value that each person brings to the table.

She also highlighted the pivotal role that cohesive and aligned leadership plays in fostering this inclusive environment within organizations. When the leadership team is in concert, it makes it easier to implement initiatives related to diversity and inclusion – because there is consistency in messaging, decision-making, and actions.

Integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) principles

As academics, we strongly agree with the idea that everyone should have an equal opportunity to contribute their ideas and perspectives at the table. It’s worth noting that it’s not only women who may face challenges in speaking up but also introverted men who may struggle to voice their opinions in group settings.

It’s also important to address imposter syndrome – where individuals doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of their competence – by providing reassurance and support to individuals who may be experiencing it.

“I never dreamed about success. I worked for it.”
- Estée Lauder, American businesswoman

However, it’s worth noting there’s often a double standard in how failure is perceived based on gender. Men are often afforded more leeway to fail without facing significant consequences, and their failures may even be seen as a sign of innovation and risk-taking. In contrast, women who fail may be judged more harshly and seen as incompetent or inadequate.

In this workplace context, we advocate for integrating DE&I principles into all aspects of organizational operations rather than treating it as a separate initiative or siloed effort. By embedding DE&I into the fabric of the organization, it becomes an inherent part of decision-making processes, policies, and practices.

Adding to this, we outlined practical steps to address diversity and inclusion issues in the tech field, including “affinity groups” as a tool to create safe spaces for minorities to connect, share experiences, and support each other. There are lots of microaggressions in the workplace, which are subtle behaviors or comments that reinforce stereotypes or marginalize certain groups.

Driving change: Practical steps for inclusive workplaces

It’s important to note that everyone can contribute to creating a more inclusive workplace environment every single day in everything they say and do, whether they are individual contributors or leaders within the organization.

By taking small, everyday actions to support diversity and inclusion, individuals can collectively make a positive impact and drive meaningful change within their organizations.

We also encourage individuals, especially senior leaders, to actively sponsor employee networks that support DE&I initiatives. This will demonstrate their commitment to fostering a more inclusive workplace culture.

women speaking up
“Everyone can contribute to creating a more inclusive workplace environment every single day in everything they say and do.”

Furthermore, we stressed the importance of diversity in the hiring process by ensuring that interview panels include a broad variety of people. This helps to minimize bias and ensure that candidates from all backgrounds have a fair chance of being evaluated and selected for positions.

Shaping the future: Encouraging women in tech

Another barrier could be the biases present in job advertisements, which may inadvertently discourage women from applying for positions, especially in the tech field. These biases could manifest in language or requirements that unintentionally favor male applicants or reinforce stereotypes about the types of individuals who are perceived as suitable for tech roles.

We also advocate for starting efforts to encourage women to pursue careers in tech at a younger age, focusing on school-aged girls. By exposing them to the opportunities and possibilities within the tech industry and highlighting the creative and impactful aspects of tech careers beyond just coding, we believe that more young women may become excited about pursuing careers in tech. Take, for instance, the field of cybersecurity. In 2013, only 10% of the workforce in cyber was women. As of 2022, this percentage has reached 25% and the predictions suggest we will reach 35% in 2031. With only one-third of the workforce, we still have a long way to go, but we celebrate this progress.

Ending on a pragmatic note, we envisioned a future where discussions about DE&I are no longer necessary because inclusive practices are ingrained in the organizational culture – a “matrix moment” where DE&I becomes intrinsic to everything organizations do.


Oyku Isik IMD

Öykü Işık

Professor of Digital Strategy and Cybersecurity at IMD

Öykü Işık is Professor of Digital Strategy and Cybersecurity at IMD, where she leads the Cybersecurity Risk and Strategy program. She is an expert on digital resilience and the ways in which disruptive technologies challenge our society and organizations. Named on the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 list of up-and-coming global thought leaders, she helps businesses to tackle cybersecurity, data privacy, and digital ethics challenges, and enables CEOs and other executives to understand these issues.

Sarah Toms

Sarah E. Toms

Chief Learning Innovation Officer

Sarah Toms is Chief Learning Innovation Officer at IMD where she leads the Learning Innovation and AI strategy. Sarah previously co-founded Wharton Interactive, an initiative at the Wharton School that has scaled globally. A demonstrated thought leader in the educational technology field, she is fueled by a passion to find and develop innovative ways to make every learning environment active, engaging, more meaningful, and learner-centric. Sarah is an AWS Education Champion, and has been on the Executive Committee of Reimagine Education for 8 years. She has spent more than 25 years working at the bleeding edge of technology, and was an entrepreneur for over a decade, founding companies that built global CRM, product development, productivity management, and financial systems. In addition, Sarah is coauthor of The Customer Centricity Playbook, the Digital Book Awards 2019 Best Business Book.

Chief Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Officer at IMD - Josefine van Zanten

Josefine van Zanten

Chief Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Officer, IMD

Josefine has been active as an HR Executive most of her global career, working in Fortune 500 organizations; as a Senior Vice President, she was in charge of departments of D&I, Culture Change and Leadership and Organizational development. Her experience spans across various industries with HP (IT), Royal Dutch Shell (Oil and Gas), Royal DSM (life sciences and chemicals), and Holcim (Construction). She currently is the Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) officer at IMD, and works as a Senior Advisor, EI&D, with global organizations.

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