My first encounter with the author Ursula K Le Guin was through The Left Hand Of Darkness, which I read as a girl growing up in Penang, Malaysia.
In a society where one was defined by not only gender but also by race, my imagination was fired by her portrayal of a world without gender where one accepted people for who they are, not what they are.
“Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.”
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Perhaps subconsciously that influenced my thinking from an early age, and I’d never consider my gender a weakness, or if I did, perhaps I saw it for its advantages rather than disadvantages.
Consider my first stint as a cadet reporter in Penang. My editor put me to work covering weddings and funerals, and writing captions, but I was more interested in crime, not the committing of it but the reporting.
He told me I couldn’t be on the crime desk because no girls were allowed.
It wasn’t out of a sexist agenda, though; rather, the job was from 11pm to 7am and it involved checks on police stations, fire stations and mortuaries, and the men were probably thinking they wouldn’t want their mothers, sisters or daughters exposed to the seedier side of life.
Half full, not half empty
As a minority, you have the advantage of being first, and the responsibility of opening pathways for others. I have always seen this as a privilege, not an encumbrance.
This history ran through my head when I sat on two panels on “Women in Leadership” towards the end of the year, first at Phocuswright in Los Angeles in November and then at Explore ’18, the Expedia partner conference in Las Vegas in December.
It seemed fitting to end the year of speaking engagements and panel discussions on this note, which seems to be gaining more and more importance around the world and especially in the United States with the #metoo movement - the issue of women in leadership in business, across industries.
Mark Okerstrom, president and CEO of Expedia Group, calls it the “most important conversation of our time” when he speaks about Expedia’s initiative to have more gender diversity at the leadership level. It has set a goal of 30% women at leadership level by 2020 and it was now at 29%, “but we are not done,” he says.
The women who shared the panel with me were all amazing, inspiring individuals: Bonni Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, wanted to fly, so she became a pilot. She wanted to be an Olympic champion, so she took up luge and became an Olympian at that.
She spoke of the difference between goals and dreams. Women tend to achieve their goals, whatever they set, but dreams were different – they were loftier and more aspirational. So she encouraged women to dream big.
Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Best Western, talked about how difficult it has been for her to rise up the ranks and how her most difficult moment was when she was offered a transfer from Canada to the U.S.
Her mother-in-law had tried to dissuade her, and it was her husband who offered her the encouragement and support. It was a difficult personal moment in her life, she admitted.
Most of the women spoke about how they have to work twice as hard as (or even more than) the men to get to where they are.
Which reminded me of what John Kim, president of HomeAway, said during his talk in Las Vegas on “love in the age of machine learning,” when he spoke about how man should compete with machines in the age of artificial intelligence. “You don’t,” he said.
“Independent thinking, teamwork, care for others - these are the soft parts. We have to make sure humans are different from machines.”
Our own path
The same applies to women: We shouldn’t compete with men. We are made differently from men (thank goodness), and the only competition should be ourselves. Our quest for growth, personal development, learning - whatever it is that drives us.
As important as the issue of women in leadership is - especially when we are moving into a world ruled by tech and where big tech seems to be run by (big/small) men with (small/big) egos - the more important conversation of our time is diversity in perspectives.
Siew Hoon Yeoh
So for me, as important as I think the issue of women in leadership is - especially when we are moving into a world ruled by tech and where big tech seems to be run by (big/small) men with (small/big) egos - the more important conversation of our time is diversity in perspectives.
Growing up on a small, multi-racial island and now living on a tiny multi-racial island (Singapore) on the world’s biggest continent, I grew up with diversity, and I need diversity to work, play and live.
I remember when I first moved to Hong Kong to pursue my career as a journalist, and I was taken aback by how mono-cultural it was. I told my father, “It’s so Chinese,” to which he, who had left China for Penang as a teenager, laughed with a tinge of bitter sweetness.
I feel that if you strive for diversity in perspectives, you naturally arrive at a balance somehow.
Travel, by nature, is global, and thus companies that want to be truly global must have leaders who know how to manage diversity in cultures, beliefs and perspectives.
Some cultures do not find it so easy to speak up, especially in English at meetings but may have a lot to contribute.
Some people, regardless of culture, are introverts - how do you learn to listen to them when they are not speaking? When should you interrupt, if at all? When should you value add to people’s ideas, if at all?
These are all soft skills. In the Phocuswright Women’s Leadership Initiative Gender Parity Study 2018, shared at the panel in Los Angeles, the top three skills deemed most important in the industry were complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.
When I was asked what I considered my top skill, I had to think hard because I don’t think I am particularly good at any of those three - that it differentiates me enough - but the one quality that does drive me is curiosity, and perhaps it is curiosity that underpins those three soft skills.
So as 2018 draws to a close, I am curious about:
- How leadership in travel will evolve in 2019 as we become more aware of gender diversity and also embrace diversity in perspectives.
- How leadership that celebrates humanity will be raised in a world that’s becoming more conscious of the disenfranchised, disillusioned and disengaged among us.
- How leadership is really about individuals caring enough about something to do something about it.
Bring it on, 2019.
About the author...
Siew Hoon Yeoh is founder and managing director of WebInTravel