Ask Twitter's VP of Global Strategy & Operations Maya Hari about gender parity in the workplace, and she points to the importance of role models...
“If you have relatable role models who are in your vicinity, it becomes a lot more interesting because you can see yourself in them and that then makes that ambition and that aspiration surface sooner.” She was one of the 2,079 YPO members who took part in the recent YPO, Financial Times and UN Women HeForShe Business Leader Survey – entitled The Global Chief Executive Gender Equality Survey. The survey explored how work ethic, an ability to build relationships and passion are key drivers to becoming a business leader. “The two things I want us as a society to work on is the judgment and the stigma around ambition and building more relatable role models,” she says.
We caught up with this dynamic leader to learn more about her career journey, the bold moves she’s made, and why ambition is a word we need to get comfortable with.
You’ve said that your parents really made a point of encouraging you and your sister to be ambitious and chase your dreams. How did they foster that?
With my parents, growing up our conversations were always around how do you be independent? This notion of independence is where the seeds of ambition really came from. Independence was in one way independence of personality and independence of thought, but in other ways it was about economic independence. At eight years old, I learnt to deposit my first cheque in a bank. I also remember, I'd just started learning to play chess. I was learning the first move and my dad was saying, "if you're really good at this, you can be state level, or maybe national level". I didn't quite pick up on these things when I was growing up, but the ambitions and the aspirations were framed in a much larger canvas from our parents, and so I have the gift of that now to look back on. Of course, it comes with pressure and trying to prove yourself, so it's never all one way, but that's really the upbringing that we grew up with.
You loved both math and writing, and when it came time to go to college you were tossing up between Engineering and Journalism before deciding to go with Engineering. What was that crossroad like, and how did you come to your decision?
I have to say that was the toughest crossroad. I had just finished high school and I'd done really well in mathematics. I loved algebra and it was a strength. Then came journalism, which came from the heart. I loved journalism but I had no evidence at that time to show I would be any good at it. Growing up in India, the decision of what you go study is not just your own, it is a collective family affair and so I looked around at my family and the majority of people, the men and women around me, my uncles, my parents, were all engineers. There's a comfort, in some way, of knowing what the trajectory of being an engineer was. I wasn't surrounded with journalists.
So ultimately, I think I made the slightly safer choice of picking engineering, but that love for journalism never went away and came back to me many times in my career and I went on to work in media.
You’ve had quite a global upbringing - you were born in India, but you have also lived in the US, France and Singapore. How do you think these experiences have shaped you?
I feel like this journey of being a global nomad has probably been the biggest gift I have had. There are not many instances where I feel like I don't have something in common with someone that I'm talking to, or I'm meeting or I'm working with. It's a great way to open a conversation, talking to someone who's lived in some part of the world where I've been. It brings that camaraderie and that warmth and that conversation much sooner, and not just for work or career related reasons, but in life, as we think about inclusion and finding things that are common, versus things that are different between us. It brings a ton of empathy in knowing each other, so I feel like I've benefited from that particular piece of being a global nomad, just from being able to empathise and see different points of view.
Let’s talk about your move from the US to Asia, because you were in the workforce at this time, and you said that “Taking that risk at that point of time made me a person that had skills that I was bringing back to this region that were not common.” So firstly tell me about what those skills were, and secondly how did you feel about taking that risk at the time? What were you worried about, and what did you hope the move would do for your career?
The first six years of my career were spent in Silicon Valley, and it's a great learning school, it was a great time to be there. Ironically it was the time of the dotcom bust and the few years after that, so you only heard stories of the amazing dotcom boom before that, but it's also a very humbling experience to start at a time when people are re-building. I got the chance to work with and see people who were restarting in some ways and continuing to take the things, like thinking big, from their experiences before that.
So coming off of those six years and then going into an MBA and then moving back to Asia, it was a very interesting time. The three skills that I felt I brought back with me were, firstly, thinking long term and being able to plan in a more sophisticated, nitty gritty fashion for the long term from a business standpoint. The second was thinking about, I call it finishing school, I worked with a lot of clients, I worked with a lot of senior internal stakeholders at the time in my career, and it was almost finishing school of how to communicate well, how to get your point across, how to present well.
The third piece was really thinking about efficiency and productivity, because working in that environment in America, there was so much automation and efficiency and a focus on that. Coming back to Asia, I thought there was a ton of economic growth happening in Asia and moving back you could see people in companies be incredibly ambitious. Marrying that environment of ambition and fast pace of growth and entrepreneurial nature, but bringing that sophisticated planning mindset with this ability to communicate and articulate well, put me in a position that was quite unique in being able to bring the best of both worlds together. It was of the best risks I took in my career.
Nobody else understood it at the time, all of my peers were "You're in Silicon Valley, you're at a really interesting tech company, why would you leave at this point? And why would you go back? You should you do more, you should you achieve more before you go back" But I think it was just the infusing of the right type of skill sets and thought processes and ideologies that brought it together and really helped my own career growth and my trajectory because of the risks that I took. So I'm always so glad I took that risk, it wasn't an obvious move, but sometimes these risks pay off well.
"Women have to feel unapologetically ambitious – it’s not a bad thing. There should be no apology for the ambition."
You’re a part of YPO (Young President’s Organisation) and in the recent YPO Gender Parity report they found that while 51% of male respondents knew early in their careers they wanted to be chief executives, only one-third of female respondents knew. What do you think we need to do to empower women to feel this is something they can aspire to?
I thought that finding on the YPO survey was incredible. The YPO group is an incredible peer group for leaders around the world to come and be able to share problems, opportunities, challenges quite openly. This particular piece on the gender parity survey was interesting, it pointed to something that I think we all knew but hadn't put our finger on, that perhaps aspiration needs to start building sooner, if people are not thinking about this sooner.
I think the reason why this phenomenon of men knowing they want to be CEOs sooner than women in their career happens due to two things. One is this discomfort with ambition for women, there's almost either a self-imposed stigma, or a society imposed judgment. So that to me is one, and that is a problem that society has to tackle, but also women have to feel unapologetically ambitious – it’s not a bad thing. There should be no apology for the ambition. We should be able to talk about it absolutely openly, without casting that stigma on us or others.
The second piece to it, is that there is a need and hasn't been enough of relatable mentors, or relatable people that you look up to among women. There have been role models that are far away, that don't look like you but you sort of look at that and say "That's great, I'm inspired by that story but that's nothing like me". But if you have relatable role models who are in your vicinity, it becomes a lot more interesting because you can see yourself in them and that then makes that ambition and that aspiration surface sooner. These are the two things that I would want us as a society to work on, the judgment and the stigma around ambition and building more relatable role models.
"I feel like this journey of being a global nomad has probably been the biggest gift I have had. There are not many instances where I feel like I don't have something in common with someone that I'm talking to."
You were asked about your child-rearing plans by a prospective employer in India. How did you respond to this?
It was absolutely shocking. I was speechless for a moment, and I have to say I looked at the guy and said "Don't you think I should be having this conversation with my husband first before you and I talk about whether I plan to have kids?". I would feel like I almost cheated on my husband by even having a conversation about when I would want to have a child. My husband and I hadn't talked about it yet, so I was flabbergasted. He smiled but he didn't let up: "No, you understand we're a small team, so we do need to know." Needless to say, that's not a company that I went and worked for. But it also made me think very deeply about every time in the future, as a manager, I was hiring people.
We've promoted people knowing that they are going to have a baby, and it has come to a point where we're starting to see signs of us not holding that as a gate in our decision making and I just breathe better now, and I at least have an experience to compare back to and say "You know, as humanity, we're making some progress".
You’ve described the tech industry as “more meritocratic than most others.” What do you mean by that and why do you think that is?
I think the tech industry is more meritocratic because the culture in tech has generally been built around 'I care about the results' and 'I care less about the process of it'. I think that has been a nice background to why we are a bit more meritocratic as an industry. It doesn't mean we're perfect but I think the fact that there is an outcome-based mentality, it enables people to have and frame a conversation around "Let's talk about results, what do we care about, and are we achieving that?" It matters less on who is achieving that, or how old or how experienced they are.
At Twitter you’re on a mission to become the most inclusive and diverse tech company. One of your goals is for women to account for 50% of the company’s global workforce by 2025. Currently, the figure stands at 42%. So firstly why is this so important to you, and secondly, for the other company leaders listening, what sort of steps are you taking to reach these targets?
We've been on a multi-year journey with wanting to be diverse, wanting to be inclusive as a company, and it's good to see us at this point where we've now outlined these very clear goals of getting to parity with gender by 2025. We're approaching this in three ways, I call it in three buckets. One is are we bringing the right type of talent into the company, and gender is definitely one barometer by which we look at that, there are other factors we look at too, as we think about having a diverse workforce, but diverse slates in our hiring process, not leaving it to people or their biases to decide or not decide, but actually having process state that our slates in hiring should always have us go and look for talent that comes from different background, different genders etcetera.
Then the second piece is actually once you bring women, for example, into the workforce, we have the responsibility to then create an environment of growth to develop them, to continue to have that conversation, to provide what the woman needs to be able to excel in the workforce.
The last piece I'd say is just thinking about inclusion and creating an environment where people feel like they belong emotionally. And there's a lot of work that we do around that with employee groups and bringing outside-in thinking, inspiring people, but also forming a sense of community inside so that people can find others like themselves and have conversations and be themselves.
I want to ask you about your experience of early motherhood, because I know your children are a little older now. When they were born you took 3-4 months maternity leave and you spent the whole time worrying that your career was going to stall or that you’d face the ‘motherhood penalty’. So what was the reality like when you went back to work?
I don't have many regrets in life, but I do regret how much I worried about this when I was taking my time off. It consumed me quite a bit, I would spend all the time looking at my email. It's just so counterproductive and I felt like I didn't give myself a chance to just relax and enjoy those moments at the time.
I do think that now I have the liberty of looking back at the career and saying "I feel good about where I am in my career", and I don't feel like I lost out because of the three or four months that I took with my kids. In fact, I would have loved to have taken a little bit more time, in retrospect. But it's hindsight, and if anything, I love sharing those stories and being able to help women who are now going through that process.
We're all living longer lives now. This one book that I read changed how I think about the length of time in our careers, it's called A Hundred Year Life, and it talks about how because of medicine and because of quality of living now, anybody born today is likely to live up to 100 years, on average. And so we have the gift of time. Why are we so obsessed over this three or four or five or six months that come after your child is born?
Sisterhood is a core value at AllBright. Have you found much of a sisterhood within the tech world?
I have to say, the last few years, I have really enjoyed finding sisterhood in tech, and I've found it in so many ways. I've built a network of women leaders to surround myself with. We have lunch together once in a while, we'll talk about things at a very high level that we're dealing with, and there might be these ideas from other companies, other industries that totally help frame A, the fact that you're not alone dealing with this problem but B, that there might be a different way to solve it.
I sit on a few boards, so people who have done that board directorship role and helping learn from experiences there. I've really had the benefit of finding that out. I seek it out, I help foster that community where I can, and then I also try to give back and create that within companies and within teams, but I think it's just a wonderful thing to be able to have that sisterhood. I didn't think much about it in the early parts of my career, but I have to say in the last few years I've realised that I really depend on it quite a bit.
Finally, I want to ask you about social media. We know it can connect and unite us, but it can also bring out the worst in people. So, working at Twitter, what’s your relationship with social media?
I love the fact that connections can be made. I love that fact that conversations can be had on a public level, and you can meet people who are similar to you, or different from you, and they might be miles away. I actually use social media in my own ways for professional pieces, for personal pieces, I try to be thoughtful about the privacy that I care about, so I don't necessarily post a ton of pictures of my own kids on social media, I feel like that's a decision they should have to make.
So there's a good balance between seeking that community, that in my way of doing social media for myself, versus protecting privacy and thinking thoughtfully about what you want to put out there, but I'd say it's a gift to be able to have information and connections at your fingertips. What you do with it is where responsibility for each of us lies.