Women’s Day: Lenovo India’s Sumati Sahgal on Women in Tech

By Jayesh Shinde | Published 08 Mar 2023 08:53 IST
Women’s Day: Lenovo India’s Sumati Sahgal on Women in Tech

Sumati Sahgal is the Head of Tablets and Smart Devices at Lenovo India, with over 15 years of experience across multiple domains. I interviewed her over email on the occasion of International Women’s Day to understand her views on women in tech in India, and request her to share her experiences and journey trying to build a career in tech. Edited excerpts follow:

Can you describe your tech career journey? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

My early career spanned diverse industries. I have worked in the telecom, banking, and technology sectors, which has taught me invaluable lessons and shaped who I am today. I recall constantly battling the credibility gap, which unfortunately, many women face, especially early in their careers. Women are often expected to prove themselves over and over again. This, to me, was the biggest challenge I faced.

How have you seen the tech industry in India evolve, and what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities for growth in the future?

The shift from a hardware focus, to a solutions-oriented approach is one big shift we’re seeing in the technology sector. Tech, today, touches every part of a consumer’s life–from smart homes and workplaces to education and healthcare. And women are important consumers of these touchpoints. For instance, education is a big segment in India and given that women are the primary caregivers for our children, we understand the challenges and opportunities of the education sector better. Similarly, we are seeing more women entrepreneurs and are able to relate to their challenges. We understand women consumers better and address our requirements in a more sensitive manner, which is a very unique opportunity.

What steps have you taken to ensure a diverse and inclusive workplace, and what have been some of the outcomes of these efforts in terms of impact?

For me, inclusivity doesn’t mean just gender inclusivity. Instead, it is about welcoming people from different backgrounds and presenting them with opportunities that help them grow. Even as a manager, I ensure that deserving people evolve alongside me and explore more opportunities that expand their avenues. I ensure that my team is given adequate resources necessary to develop their skills and talents. At Lenovo, we hire or promote candidates who are 70% ready for their roles. It is up to the organization and managers to give them the remaining capabilities and help them grow to fully embrace the role.  As long as they have the aptitude and the attitude for learning, the skills can be picked up. 

In terms of outcomes, as a leader, I am glad to have the maximum number of people who moved from my team to other roles within the organization. And I stand firm in my resolve that it's important to give them these opportunities. 

Can you share an example when you had to navigate a difficult situation or decision as a leader? How did you approach it?

There was a situation where I was working with a senior male colleague. That experience gap made him contest my decisions and opinions at all times; I did feel it was exacerbated by the fact I was also a woman. I promised myself I would not get my emotions entangled in this situation; instead I weighed the facts of the case, kept my cool, and also gave the other person a fair hearing. I believe that as long as I am convinced that recommendation or solution is the best in the situation, I will stand my ground and build consensus so that enough people buy into my decision. I will encourage all women leaders to display resolve and be assertive. 

How do you stay current with emerging technologies and industry trends, and what resources do you rely on?

In today’s time, there is no dearth of resources. Be it online courses, publications, or other credible media, we have enough material to refer to. For me, a staple read is the Harvard Business Review. Lenovo, internally, has a great repository of content that is built around the latest technologies for content and training purposes. 

Apart from this, engaging with relevant industry stakeholders and peers across organizations across industries helps build a more holistic perspective rather than limiting it to only technology.

What's your approach to mentorship and supporting development of future leaders in the Indian tech ecosystem?

Personally, I feel mentorship needs to be structured in order for it to be meaningful. At Lenovo, we have specific mentorship programs for the individuals that we identify as potential leaders and it is important to follow through on that. The responsibility for the success of a mentorship programme lies a lot on the mentee and not on the mentor.  

In today’s digital times, I would again reiterate, building your skill sets and working on developing yourself is of utmost importance. It is crucial for all future leaders to understand what the future of tech looks like, in terms of automation, digitalization, and transformation. The ability to expand one’s skills to encompass all of this is critical. 

What are some of the biggest challenges that women face in the tech industry, and how can senior leaders help address these challenges?

I have seen that in their mid-career, right before they get into leadership roles, women face the peak of balancing work and home responsibilities, which results in a stagnant, horizontal curve in their career growth. Unable to find the right balance, they either step out of the working environment or have constraints that limit them. This is when it becomes important for leaders to start building a conducive environment which means hiring women who are coming back into the workforce or creating policies that support women to have flexible working hours or workplaces. Another important aspect is to sensitize internal employees towards embracing diversity. And if, as leaders, we make a conscious choice, then we are sending the right message to the organization.

Can you discuss a specific example of how a more diverse and inclusive workforce has helped drive innovation and business success within the company?

Normally, women are seen as contributors to support functions. Having women in front-end business roles helps bring across a unique perspective which I've seen emerge very well in real business situations. We possess an understanding of what today’s consumer wants. And because the end-user has now become a woman, a decision-maker on the other side– the salesperson or the business leader, brings in that perspective and is able to therefore offer the right solution.

Can you discuss any initiatives or projects you have been involved in to give back to the community?

At Lenovo, we take volunteering very seriously, at an individual level and as an organization. We have various tie-ups with NGOs, and I make it a point to volunteer at least twice or thrice a quarter. I do book-readings and recordings for visually challenged students. This is not just a great storytelling opportunity but also one learns so much through the stories one reads or records. 

How did you navigate gender-related challenges and other forms of bias at work, and what advice would you give to others facing similar challenges?

The first part is to recognize that there is a challenge that may come up and prepare myself for it. Of course, there will be team members who may want to push you around or overrule a decision. I remember an instance where a woman employee was not even asked to join a meeting, assuming that she would be unavailable.

You have to go out and make the effort initially to be seen as someone who's willing to go the extra mile as any other person doing the job. As a woman, you need to be assertive and not worry about being seen as aggressive. I think that's important and largely, that's what my approach has been.

And that's the advice I would give others as well – don’t be shy of raising your voice. Make yourself heard in a larger group with confidence. 

What advice would you give to women who aspire to leadership roles in the tech industry, particularly in India?

Circling back to the same thing–upskilling and preparing yourself for the future of tech are the most meaningful practices you can start with. Set a goal, reach out to others for a helping hand, and do not hesitate to look out for better opportunities. We cannot expect the world to do us favors. So, we need to be prepared for the opportunity, which means having the right skill sets and investing in ourselves. 

What are some of the biggest myths and stereotypes about women in tech that you've encountered or heard of?

The bizarre myth I have heard is that women are not tech-savvy and have worse technical skills than their male counterparts. It is presumed their EQ is better than their analytical understanding, hence, they wouldn’t have a good grasp of the technical side of things. In terms of general management, I know another firm social stereotype regarding masculinity of certain roles or professions. Women themselves feel a male dominance in certain frontend roles like sales and shy away from them, further strengthening the vicious circle.

Being a woman in tech, what do most people don't understand, get wrong or underestimate about women in our digital workforce?

The post-pandemic digital workforce has the flexibility to work from anywhere. Especially, Gen Z is absolutely okay to work in any space from anywhere and therefore it gives them far greater avenues. With work from home, there is a blurring of boundaries between work and personal life and a reduction in travel time. Ironically, the amount of work women can do at home is underestimated, under the assumption that women get more time to look after their families.

Jayesh Shinde
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