It may be 2021 but it can still be challenging for a woman to climb her way to the top in the workplace. After all, there’s a reason for the present-day influx of articles on female leadership: it maintains top-of-mind awareness on why it’s important to have gendered diversity in upper management, and how women (and men as male allies) can go about making it happen.

That said, there has been significant progress in gender equality and there has never been as many women spearheading teams in the professional landscape. And apart from the blood, sweat and tears of women, this change is made possible by the advocacy efforts of companies that want to do their part for gender equality. One such company is Impact Investment Exchange (IIX), and the global organisation recently held a She Is More campaign backed by Japan Airlines.

Want to stay inspired? We got Yap Sze Hunn, the Regional Manager APAC of Global Marketing at Japan Airlines, to tell us how she managed to climb the ranks within a social structure typically known for being patriarchal, and what being a leader means to her. The Singaporean was at one point not only the youngest on her team, but also the only woman and the only non-Japanese staffer.

What about Japan Airlines made you want to be a part of the company?

I’ve been with Japan Airlines (JAL) for almost 15 years and the first leg of my journey began in the sales and marketing department of the Singapore branch office. I was subsequently offered roles that provided a great opportunity to learn about the different aspects of marketing before my current one that oversees brand advertising campaigns and marketing initiatives across offices in the Asia and Oceania regions.

There are many reasons to stay in a company for as long as I have but frankly, my colleagues and mentors are the biggest factor. I also feel the ethos espoused as stated in the JAL Group Corporate Policy, “to contribute to the betterment of society”, is a value that I share wholeheartedly.

What does it mean to be culturally intelligent? How did you hone cultural intelligence, and what ways has it benefited your career and networking abilities?

To me, it’s about being cognizant and appreciative of our surroundings, especially when we are in someone else’s country, as we would in their homes. When our words and deeds stem from gratitude, there is non-verbal communication that conveys goodwill–this transcends spoken language and it is the flow of this positivity that strengthens the bonds. I see it as an instinct perhaps and I attribute it to my upbringing in Singapore. I’ve been taught from a young age to be considerate towards feelings of others and to see pass physical, cultural and even religious differences.

The Japanese social structure is known to be patriarchal – have you ever experienced gender inequality or discrimination in the workplace?

In Singapore, I was brought up to believe in meritocracy. I focused on the work at hand so you could say I was subconsciously oblivious to, or chose to ignore, any gender discrimination directed at me. I did not allow anyone’s perception to hinder me from doing my job. I did not hold back from speaking up when I felt I had to nor hesitate to pursue ideas that I believed in.

That said, I can confidently proclaim that the times when I was met with resistance was due to the quality of ideas what I was putting forth. There have been many occasions when the men on my team embraced and fully supported initiatives that I started, and as a team helped me take it to fruition with great success. Perhaps, to expect equality is to first have the courage to behave equally.

Whether I was the only woman, the only foreigner or the youngest person on the team, it did not matter to me as long as I was fulfilled my responsibilities. I think this mindset put me on the same page with my colleagues as we worked, complementing one another towards a shared objective, and so I never felt like I had to deal with gender discrimination. I was most certainly not expected nor asked to make tea!

What advice do you have for women struggling with gender equality in the workplace?

Gender biases can manifest in many ways. Sometimes, it is systemic while other times, it is outright discrimination due to views formed throughout the course of a person’s life. Either way, we will never have control over other people’s values and belief systems–we are in control only of ourselves.

If you’re struggling with gender biases, I would say, know your worth and keep your head held high. Channel your energy into demonstrating strength and fortitude to continue contributing to your surroundings in positive ways. Those deserving of it will appreciate and embrace it and that is the type of company you want to be in.

In what ways does Japan Airlines empower its female employees?

Japan Airlines has been very progressive in its efforts towards female empowerment. Perhaps the most significant initiative is the JAL D&I Lab–a cross-functional team with a mission to promote gender equality in addition to diversity across all JAL divisions. The company also advocates for psychological safety, so no one will be humiliated for their ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Women are also provided with the opportunity to be part of the Japan Institute for Women’s Empowerment & Diversity Management, which helps female employees build confidence, encourage work-life balance, and have zero-tolerance for harassment. And while not limited to women, we have made breakthroughs in work-style management by allowing flexible working hours. This gives employees the freedom to choose the number of hours a day they’re able to work as long as they fulfil the weekly minimum of 40 hours. So, if a parent needs to take their child to the doctor, they need not apply for annual leave and only need to plan their work hours accordingly.

What does leadership mean to you? What does being “more”, for the She Is More campaign, mean to you?

It means taking responsibility for the welfare and development of my teammates as individuals and the outcome of our endeavours as a group. I am thankful to be in a role that allows me to create learning opportunities for people around me.

To me, “more” is a wild card that can be replaced with just about anything a woman wants to be, and so much more than the roles that history and society in the past have defined for her. It encompasses her nature of what she already is, as well as her aspirations of what she wants to become.

Personally, I want “more” to equate to being more compassionate and nurturing when it comes to managing my team, and being more innovative and fearless when it comes to seeking new solutions to the challenges posed by the ever-changing landscapes of marketing and the aviation industry.