International Women’s Day 2023 at Rakuten: Building a culture of allyship

International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8th each year to commemorate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women worldwide. It’s also a day to raise awareness about gender inequality and advocate for women’s rights. This year, the theme of International Women’s Day is “Embrace Equity”, which spotlights the importance of achieving gender equity to create a more just and equal world for women.

Throughout the month of March, which is also recognized as Women’s History Month, Rakuten employees in the EMEA region came together to emphasize the critical role women have in leadership and tech. In two separate panel discussions, speakers from both inside and outside the company challenged existing gender biases, shared perspectives and ideas on how the corporate world can achieve equity and discussed the importance of building a culture of allyship.

Building a Culture of Allyship

One of the most effective ways to challenge gender inequality is through allyship. Allyship is the act of standing in solidarity with marginalized groups and using one’s privilege to advocate for their rights. In the context of gender equality, allyship means supporting women in their fight for equal rights and opportunities, especially in the workplace.

Clockwise from top left: Rakuten leaders Kaia Kont-Kontson, Fergal Downey and Sara Ariafar.
Clockwise from top left: Rakuten’s Kaia Kont-Kontson, Fergal Downey and Sara Ariafar.

“As a leader, I have an active role to play in helping to correct the imbalanced representation of women in leadership,” said Fergal Downey, Regional Director at Rakuten Blockchain Lab on being an ally. “Everyone has an active role to play as an ally to empower women in leadership. The key word for me is active. You cannot be passive. If you are not actively supporting, then you are not an ally.”

Women in Leadership

Kaia Kont-Kontson, Regional Manager, Rakuten Estonia, amplified the importance of allies: from family members to teams. Her most important allies were her father and her partner. “He has always pushed me to start new things, even when that meant facing my fears,” she said about the encouragement her partner gave her.

Kaia Kont-Kontson, Regional Manager, Rakuten Estonia
Kaia Kont-Kontson, Regional Manager, Rakuten Estonia

Leading a team of 13 employees, Kont-Konston quickly learned that to be a good leader, you don’t have to know it all, and that allyship is multidirectional. She further stated on her role as a leader: “I believe it is important that things move forward, and that you find ways to continue to grow, having the mindset that maybe it is my time to step up and take on this (leadership) role. I had so many doubts about what would happen if I fail. Then I decided to take that step and realized that I don’t need to know everything, I need to build a supportive team around me.”

Sarah Ariafar, IT Project Manager and PMO for the Corporate IT Department at Rakuten mentioned the effect stereotypes and expectations can have on women who even aspire to attain positions of leadership. Upbringing can also play a role in shaping women’s career aspirations and opportunities. For example, girls may be socialized to prioritize caregiving and domestic responsibilities over career ambitions. Stereotypes about gender roles and expectations can limit girls’ access to certain career paths and opportunities. “I was privileged to have my family as key allies”, shared Ariafar. “Trust and support are important to help people realize that they can choose any direction and path. Because of this, I had no limitations in going for the things that I want to go for. I have had amazing managers, who gave me the space to speak out and to choose the way I believe in and they believed in me.”

Women in Tech

Clockwise from top left: Rakuten's Cera McArdle, Sophie Barrett, Yuko Oki and Eren Ilayda.
Clockwise from top left: Rakuten’s Cera McArdle, Sophie Barrett, Yuko Oki and World Benchmark Alliance’s İlayda Eren.

Women still face barriers when it comes to thriving in tech. “I think the outstanding problem is traditional norms and power dynamics. Gender equality for women in tech is generally understood as increasing the number of women in technical roles however from my research and my background I think the thing we need to transform is the whole value chain and power dynamic and make them more gender inclusive,” said İlayda Eren, a guest speaker from the World Benchmark Alliance (WBA).

To start a career in tech, women need allies and the feeling of being empowered. “I believe empowerment comes from capability,” said Cera McArdle, Senior Staff Software Engineer at Rakuten Blockchain Lab. “Build your skills, your competence, your intellect, pick the tasks that stretch your intellect, that will push you forward, go to the right company where you will learn a lot, pick challenges.”

But to overcome structural inequality for women in tech, it needs more. “First, we need data to understand why women are not able to enter in IT industry and why they are leaving this industry, and after they leave, how we can make them return back to the industry,” said Eren, explaining what is needed to overcome inequality for women in tech.

Sophie Barrett, Senior Manager and Tech PMO at Rakuten Advertising further added to the conversation, “a focus on inclusion, and not just on diversity, is needed to overcome inequality for women in tech. Making sure that women’s voices are heard, they feel included, they understand that their opinion and experience are valued.”

Rakuten Advertising has launched several initiatives to increase the number of women on its tech teams, such as improving the guidelines and wording of job descriptions to ensure they are more inclusive. Additionally, a mentoring program was launched to add a pathway for women in the company in other areas if they want to move to a technical role.

But the most important part of overcoming all the obstacles that women face when seeking roles in tech and leadership is honesty, “with a genuine desire to change for everybody,” shared McArdle. “I don’t say that it’s a problem of women, or something women should be fighting for, I think that it’s something everybody should be fighting for, male and female. Everybody should want to do better.”

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