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By Catherine Chen, Executive Member of the Supervisory Board, Huawei Technologies
Ada Yonath won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, the first woman in 45 years to win the Prize in that category and the first woman from the Middle East to win it in the sciences.
Huawei was therefore honored that Ada attended our largest Women in Tech conference in November 2022. Listening to her speak at the event, I was struck not only by her scientific accomplishments, but also by how hard she had to work to achieve them.
Ada was born into an extremely poor family. Her father died when she was 11. Her mother never got an education and struggled to provide for Ada and her younger sister. As a consequence, Ada began working various jobs starting at age 11. She did everything from babysitting and cleaning stairwells to tutoring classmates in chemistry and math.
To start from a childhood like that and eventually become a Nobel-Prize winning chemist is remarkable. Ada is a great role model for young women interested in science and technology.
But her story got me wondering: do things really need to be so hard? Technology is transforming our working environment and giving women more opportunities. We as a society can and should do better, equipping more women with ICT skills and serving as advocates to help women climb the ladder –
with just a bit less effort.
Although it’s tempting to focus on women who have excelled in their chosen fields after decades of work, equal attention should be paid to the early career development of young scientists, entrepreneurs, and other high-potential women. These young women, in turn, can inspire their juniors, especially girls in middle and high school, who are more likely to respond to role models closer to their own age.
Take, for example, Dr. Zheng Xi, a principal research engineer at Huawei. Dr. Zheng is lead inventor of SRCON, a digital twin for communications networks. Dr. Zheng’s invention is an extremely sophisticated tool that optimizes the performance of broadband networks, while at the same time lowering their carbon footprint.
Dr. Zheng only got her Ph.D. three years ago. But she has been fascinated since childhood by research, engineering, mathematics, and understanding how things work. Although her natural talent would have opened any number of doors for her, Huawei provided a platform that let her build upon her considerable skills.
The company is committed to advancing the careers of women in tech, and we do this for thousands of young women all over the world.
But we don’t have hiring quotas. And I don’t think we need them.
In my decades at Huawei, I have never experienced a situation where women are seen as inferior to men. Huawei is a competitive environment, but it’s a meritocracy: we discriminate on the basis of performance and hard work, not sex.
Hiring quotas make sense if you believe women have some innate disadvantage in the workplace and need special measures to help them succeed there. I don’t believe this is true. In fact, I believe women possess a number of advantages in the corporate world. Among other things, they incline naturally toward teamwork and collaboration, and are usually eager to help others succeed. If Huawei has any predilection for hiring women, it is partly because of those traits.
Hiring women also makes sense because diverse teams produce better results. Far more than just a corporate buzzword, diversity can be a point of competitive advantage. Research by Scott Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan, indicates that diverse groups tend to perform better than homogeneous ones, and that the collective ability of any group is equal to the average ability of its individual members, plus the group’s diversity.
Page calls this “a mathematical fact,” and has expressed it as an equation. It is also a source of strategic advantage for any organization willing to make use of it.
Disparities based on income, gender, or other factors have always existed, all over the world. Corporate initiatives that focus merely on achieving male-female parity are only a small step toward a meaningful solution.
At Huawei, we believe progress toward fairness requires a more ambitious mindset, one that aspires to provide a level-playing field not only for our employees, but for everyone. By using ICT to connect the unconnected, Huawei hopes to give all individuals – men and women – a chance to pursue their dreams. The key is equality of access – to education, to training, to digital resources. Women who take advantage of those things will maximize their potential without the need for any special treatment.
Some women may be deterred from pursuing a career in tech because they think it will be hard, or male-dominated, or otherwise disagreeable.
Don’t be deterred! If you’re interested in science, math, coding, or any technical subject, pursue it. To quote the writer and poet, Maya Angelou, “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.”
Your courage will inspire others, and they will inspire others in turn. Over time, this will increase the number of women working in high-tech R&D, a crucial step toward finding new and innovative solutions to global challenges.
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