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The fight for gender equity should not rest on women’s shoulders alone: Zendesk’s Wendy Johnstone

Wendy Johnstone is the Chief Operating Officer for Zendesk APAC, based in Singapore. A business leader with more than 25 years’ experience in the technology sector, Wendy is responsible for driving operational excellence across Asia Pacific and ensuring global and regional alignment for all of Zendesk’s business functions and offices in APAC.

With an excellent track record in transformational leadership, driving growth and building high-performing teams, Wendy is driven by putting the customer at the heart of the business and helping them embrace digital transformation.

She is passionate about diversity and inclusion and is a fierce advocate for women in leadership and technology, currently serving as the global executive sponsor for the Women at Zendesk Employee Resource Group (ERG). She also serves on the President’s Leadership Council at The Asia Foundation, helping to increase its profile, resources and effectiveness. As a leader, Wendy empowers her team to challenge the status quo, take risks and try new things by creating an atmosphere of trust and transparency while prioritizing team and cultural development.

Prior to joining Zendesk, Wendy led teams across both APAC and EMEA and worked at leading technology companies, including IBM, EMC, and Salesforce, where she was the Vice President of Marketing for APAC for three years. Most recently, she was the General Manager of Marketing and Operations at Microsoft Asia Pacific.

In this exclusive interview with CXO Today, Wendy highlights the role of women in tech, difficulties they face and measures organisations should follow to improve opportunities for women.
  1. Firstly, I would like to know more about you, talk to me about your childhood, your dreams and passions growing up.

While I’m originally from Scotland, I’ve lived, worked and travelled all over the world. I am currently based in Singapore for my role as COO at Zendesk APAC.

Growing up, I watched both of my parents work hard to provide for my brother and I – my father was an electrician and my mother was a teacher. The lessons I’ve learned from both parents are around the value of hard work and creating your own success, and to never give up on your dreams

I always wanted to travel and see the world. I love visiting new places, learning about and experiencing different cultures. After university when I got the chance to travel around Australia I knew it was somewhere I wanted to live. So in 2000 I emigrated to the other side of the world on my own. Achieving my Australian Citizenship 4 years later was a huge moment for me as I achieved one of my life goals.


  1. What made you choose this industry?

I didn’t deliberately seek out a career in STEM, but once I got my first job at a tech company I’ve never looked back. Other than the fast pace of the industry and the constant innovation, I’m particularly inspired by the positive impact technology can have on people’s lives. On top of the dynamic nature of the industry, I’ve also always been driven by the potential of what can be achieved from a diversity and inclusion perspective. My experience of becoming a mother and needing to better balance family and work life has taught me a lot. I gained the realization I have a responsibility to speak up and help drive change.


  1. Can you talk about your journey in this industry?

In over 25 years of my career, change has been a common thread. From my first job at IBM to my current one at Zendesk, I have worked in three different continents, led teams across EMEA and APAC, and been responsible for a good deal of transformation within each role.

Having held several senior marketing leadership roles at major tech companies like IBM, EMC, and Salesforce, I always knew I wanted to transition from being a CMO. So, over the years, I sought out opportunities to learn new skills in other areas like strategy and planning, business development, sales enablement and productivity. These efforts paid off when I was appointed General Manager and COO of APAC at Microsoft.

It’s important to me as a leader to create an atmosphere of trust and transparency while prioritising learning, open communication, inclusion and creating the right culture for success.


  1. What are the difficulties you faced after you entered this industry and while climbing up the ranks?

When I first stepped into the field, I was much less comfortable with the idea of putting myself out there, asking for help, or even meeting new people. And when I first returned to work after my maternity leave, the re-adjustment was tough. These are not unique to me; many women encounter the same challenges – as I learned from women’s networks. These have had a massive impact on how I have negotiated challenges and seized opportunities.


  1. What are the differences between the time you started your career and now – for women who want to become a tech mogul?

To some extent it’s easier for women today. For a start we have so many more role models – and they provide inspiration in so many different ways. Whether as working mums successfully navigating the balance, young women being trailblazers in their own right or as you’ve asked about tech moguls – women today certainly have fewer limitations than before. I think what we’re doing differently now is, instead of adapting to a work environment that wasn’t really set up to support women’s success, we are building the environments that enable success. We are also tuned now to changing dynamics in the world. For example, the pandemic opened up digital opportunities that provide a more robust environment for change and innovation.


  1. Do you feel there has been an increase in opportunities for women at workplace? Irrespective of the industry. 

It’s well documented that the tech and STEM fields have traditionally been male-dominated. With every untapped female talent excluded from the field, the industry loses an opportunity to grow and progress. Organisations are recognising and accounting for this in their strategies around hiring and the way they support the progression of women. While this is an encouraging step in the right direction, the road ahead is still long on equality in the workplace. And in a region like Asia particularly, where there are diverse rates of growth and progress, the path towards creating opportunity for women is going to need a nuanced approach.


  1. Can you walk me through your mindset when you started out and now?

Early on in my career, I was often the only woman in the room – and back then I accepted that was just the way things were. I have a less acquiescent approach to things now. Gender diversity is good for business – and this is something I have become increasingly passionate about over the course of my career. Right now something I feel particularly strongly about is that the fight for gender equity should not rest on women’s shoulders alone. Allyship is crucial to any efforts in breaking down barriers, ultimately removing the threat of discrimination or bias. At the end of the day, having a diverse workforce brings a wonderful mix of differences and perspectives to the table, from culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. It enhances creativity and encourages dialogue, which ultimately leads to better decision making and outcomes.


  1. What can be done to improve the number of opportunities for women?

If a leader is serious about eradicating discrimination in the workplace, they must start by acknowledging the existing issues, and how they intersect with one another. This is more than being generally aware of discrimination and stigma, but rather truly listening to employees and  gathering collective data from every level and department. Only with this knowledge can we work with employee representatives to create and implement the right strategies to close the gender gap. From seemingly small details, like the language used for internal communication, to bigger matters, such as deliberately lowering entry barriers for diverse hires, businesses must start by looking at the heart of the issue in their organization. A company’s commitment to long-term and realistic policies and performance expectations also helps women to stay longer in the workforce, reducing the need to give up or downsize our careers to make things work.


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