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Doing it differently

GC explores what corporate counsel can do to further diversity – in their in-house legal department, the wider organisation, or throughout the business world. We pick the brains of general counsel across the globe about programmes they’ve pioneered or adopted to create a diverse workplace. In the first in a series of case studies, this issue we look at gender diversity.


It’s good to talk

Yibing Mao, Asia Pacific chief legal counsel at Marriott International, explains the company’s annual women’s leadership conference and ‘evenings of engagement’ programme, designed to support women in achieving senior leadership roles.

‘In Hong Kong, female attorneys face very similar issues to women in other parts of the world. Perhaps what is more unusual for Hong Kong female attorneys, however, is that they feel less comfortable promoting themselves. Working in a western company, there is a certain company culture and leadership style that’s expected. But in Chinese culture, being humble is a key virtue – to promote yourself is not something that comes naturally. So there is a need to overcome a cultural bias to start with, to go out of your way and be assertive and have the courage to celebrate success.

At Marriott, about 52% of the workforce is women. 13% are general managers in Asia Pacific, and about 34% of the VP and above levels in Asia Pacific are represented by women. Our goal is to increase the number of female executives by another 15% over the next two years. We have looked at market research, we’ve had a lot of internal talks, and we found that women in general actually have a higher level of ambition than belief that they will attain a senior position. To build a culture of inclusion is key, so women feel empowered, they can express themselves, and they can feel comfortable about their choice of work-life balance at each stage of their career. I’ve been through it myself – when I was in my early 30s I had two very young kids and at that point I needed to dial down. You need to create a corporate culture where you allow women to have that choice.

This is the 15th anniversary of our annual global women’s leadership conference. We invite women in leadership from around the Asia Pacific region. We engage with each other, we learn from each other through sharing stories. We are hoping to inspire people, empower people and also really take the time to celebrate our successes as a group. Our president and managing director for the Asia Pacific region is the sponsor of the conference and he personally attends. All of his direct reports in the executive committee participate and are supportive – they don’t just show their faces, but are actively involved.

We recently rolled out what we call the ‘evening of engagement’. Across the company, when senior women leaders from all business departments travel to our different markets, we have a reception for all the senior women in that market. We share the challenges that we face, choices we have to make, including difficult choices we make on the family side as well. It’s a very intimate kind of sharing; it’s a supportive group. Next time we’re going to have a get-together at one of our houses, and we’re going to cook something, talk around the kitchen. We talk about things we don’t always feel comfortable sharing in a larger setting.

Obviously, we want to be as inclusive as possible, but we realised that when we invite people of different seniority, the difference between the points in their careers and their levels of experience means that they may have difficulty relating to each other effectively. So we go by groups; maybe for one event we invite women who are earlier in their careers. We then do another event with women who are a bit more established in their careers, and we talk about different types of challenges.

For women starting out, the challenges are about mentorship; about how to develop and get the necessary training so they can move ahead in their corporation. For senior women, it’s more about developing their leadership skills. A lot of times it’s not so much putting people in a certain position – you have to develop people so they feel they can be successful in that position. Some people are not as outgoing or assertive, so how do you help them come out of their shell and be comfortable with who they are, and still contribute and develop their own leadership style? This is a common theme – many women are very, very successful, but they feel insecure. Deep down sometimes they think: “Maybe I’m not very smart, maybe somebody is going to see through me”. We share those experiences. We help each other.

The other thing that we talk about is goals. Ultimately it’s about you – you need to make sure you’re comfortable in bringing yourself to the table. You need to find your own story: Who are you really? What do you want? Have you taken a look at your career progression, have you taken a step back and looked at where you’re going, what is your passion? What’s next for you? We encourage people to think more deeply about who they are; we feel that that’s a way to build confidence. We try to have constructive suggestions for people to take away. We try to come up with things to challenge people not just to come to the talks and feel good about it, but also to take action.’


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