Patama Chantaruck discusses what is holding women back in Thailand’s IT sector
“As a leader, I don’t count how many followers I have. I’d rather count how many female leaders I have promoted. If I can do it, so can they.”
Encouraging women to become leaders
In Thailand’s tech sector, Patama Chantaruck is one of the most powerful female Thai leaders, with extensive experience at global IT giants, such as Microsoft, in the United States and in Thailand, IBM Thailand and, currently, as the Country Managing Director of Accenture Thailand.
Patama has seen the number of female leaders in tech companies increase in the last decade.
“For example, Microsoft operates in almost 200 countries, but there were only 8 female country managers in 2011. Now, you get to see a lot of female leaders stepping up and running IT companies, which is a good trend and a positive sign.”
Apart from leading the companies, one of her missions is to encourage more women to take up senior positions, as well as mentoring them to become leaders. While hoping that her story will inspire more women to step up, the most common challenge Patama has noticed is that some are too scared.
“When we say that it’s a glass ceiling, we often find it as actually a slippery floor,” she says, adding that women tend to focus on having all the required qualifications before applying for a leadership position.
“If there are five qualifications, and they only have four, they won’t apply for the job. Women have to make sure that they have all five qualifications lined up. Compare that to men, even if they have only three qualifications, they will sell the idea of why we should pick them, even though they don’t have the other two.”
As to what is holding women back, self-esteem remains a common issue. The former Microsoft country manager explains that women often perceive themselves as not being good enough for the leadership position.
When female candidates are challenged with the question “What would you say if somebody tells you that you don’t fit the norm” in a job-interview, Patama feels that most people try to “fit into the mold” instead of trying to stand out.
“A lot of them keep talking about how “we will work hard”, “we are good learners” and “we’ll try harder”. Rather than focusing on strengths that are not necessary and trying to fit into the mold, [I think] there is nothing wrong with being different.”
Never be afraid of being different
Born in Thailand’s southern province of Songkhla, and with an MBA in International Finance from Washington State University, Patama told us, humbly, that for some people, she may not be their ideal image of a female leader.
“I remember walking into the room and, when I introduced myself as the country managing director, the comment I got back was that I didn’t “look like” a country manager. So I asked them, ‘What do you expect me to look like?’”
Overcoming people’s fixed perceptions, along with any stereotypical prejudice against her was, of course, not at all easy. Not only that, there weren’t any female leaders like her for her to look up to at the time.
“As a female, it’s already hard enough to get people to listen to you. Being an Asian woman is not easy.”
Despite being told that she will never become a manager because she’s Asian, speaks English with an accent or even because she is “too short” to be a leader, none of these things bothered her. Patama is never afraid to be different and she would rather be the best version of herself. That inner self-confidence has kept her moving forward.
“This is who I am,” she said firmly. In fact, all of the characteristics which seem problematic for certain people can be enhanced. As Patama explains, her height can be fixed with her 5-inch heels and she would rather focus on getting her message across than trying to perfect her accent.
Patama also recalled the moment when she was first promoted, back in the States, where a few men in the meeting room asked her to get them a cup of coffee, mistakenly assuming that she was only a general member of staff, possibly due to her ethnicity.
“I actually took the order of what coffee they wanted. I walked out and got the coffee, I came back and I put the coffee down and told them ‘Please help yourself’, and I walked over to sit at the head of the table.”
Reflecting back on how she responded to those men, Patama proudly described the moment when they found out that she was the boss, without having to say anything, as the “best two minutes of her life”.
Considering that the IT and tech industries are naturally fast-changing, with new technological developments popping up here and there, Patama revealed that her leadership style has changed tremendously, in order to keep up with the rapid changes.
“I often make jokes when people ask me what degree I have. I said I have “History of IT”, because I graduated a long time ago with a computer engineering degree.”
Graduating that long ago means that you can’t use the knowledge you studied 10-20 years in the past, as technologies nowadays are way more advanced.
Therefore, the most important part, even for tech leaders, is to have a growth mindset and be willing to learn new things, with Patama explaining that they used to have a “reverse mentorship”, with the younger generation mentoring her instead.
“We can’t pretend that we know it all,” she said. “You have to be open-minded and be willing to listen. So, instead of being somebody who knows-it-all, I have to make sure that I learn it all. I learn from the younger generation and that’s how I keep up with the changes occurring in the IT sector.”
Despite being a leader, Patama still reads a lot, listens to podcasts and attends summits, in order to get inspired and to learn something new. At the same time, she often reminds her younger employees to keep up with new knowledge.
“You just have to make sure that you open your heart and mind to learn something new,” she said. “When you actually work for quite some time, if you don’t learn new things, all of the knowledge and skills that you have will be outdated one day.”
If I can do it, so can you
When asked about changes she would like to see in female leadership, especially after the Global Summit of Women, Patama thinks that Thailand is doing well, in terms of having female leaders. There are still, however, neither enough women in the boardroom nor at the decision-making level.
“I’m a firm believer that a company will be much better if you have a diverse group of people. We can disagree on some things, but that makes the company better, because we can then discuss, debate and decide together. So, I hope that, in Thailand, we can have more female leaders in the boardroom, and that’s something we are pushing for.”
As for Patama’s final piece of advice to all women, she says “Be the best version of you, focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses, and it’s okay to be different.”
By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World