As part of Primeast’s Women in Leadership series, we interviewed Pauline Yau, director for central government at Microsoft UK. Pauline shared with us her journey, the experiences she’s had being a woman in the workplace, the challenges she’s encountered as a female leader, and her thoughts on the current environment for professional women.
Primeast (P): What is your current role?
Pauline Yau (PY): I am the director for central government at Microsoft UK. What this means in plain English is I have a team of people that are all selling to central government organisations, which are Whitehall departments and central government agencies.
I have a team of 12 people that report into me. I have a mix of sales people and also technology specialists. This means there is a mix of extrovert sales people and then more introvert technology specialists and all of them are out dealing with central government people every single day.
P: It must be an interesting dynamic to manage?
PY: Yeah it is and I think this is where some of your EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) really comes into play because I think personally it’s a very female trait being able to manage this sort of dynamic. We’re very good at empathising, sensing and putting ourselves in the shoes of others. And so a lot of my role is adapting any messages I need to deliver to the team to individuals in a way that will resonate best for them. For example, whereas I might be a bit more to the point and harsh with my sales people, I’ll maybe go into the reasoning and the data with the more technical folks because they respond better to understanding the reasons why something is happening.
P: What journey did you have to get to where you are?
PY: I left school at 16. One of the best bits of my job is standing in front of teenage girls and telling them that my highest qualification is a GCSE. I have to say it’s not something I’m immensely proud about. I left school with seven grade A GCSEs but it was never presented to me as an option to go to college or university. Nobody in my family had ever done it and I went to a school where that aspiration was just never presented to you, so I just assumed – and my family assumed – that at 16 you’d go out to work.
When I’m talking to young girls I’m always very transparent about the size of the business I run and then I go “but I left school at 16” and you can see their teachers flinching in the background going “don’t tell them that, don’t tell them that”, but actually it seems to resonate really well with them that there is a different option, there is a different path. While I would absolutely hugely encourage any school leaver to continue into further and higher education, it’s not for everyone and there are different options available.
I kind of fell into the technology industry by accident. The first company I worked for was WordPerfect UK and I worked as a telesales person. That was really the start of my technology sales career. I moved to various companies, most recently I was with Adobe running their UK education business. I then had my daughter and decided that actually I just wanted to work for myself and pick and choose the times that I work a bit better so I freelanced for a while, then I went to a start up, then I came to Microsoft two years ago. I never set out to sell technology for a living; it’s just what I ended up doing.
I have a lot of girls coming into Microsoft and they talk to various women and learn about what they do and part of that is about helping people understand that working in the tech industry doesn’t mean that you have to be technical. I am the least technical person on the planet I’m sure but I’ve spent god knows how many years working in the technology industry. And I think it’s important that we show that to work in the technology industry you don’t have to be technical.
When you leave school at 16 what you need is just an enormous amount of drive and ambition because you’re relying on that, you’re not relying on any form of formal education to get you a foot in the door anywhere.
During my time in the start-up world I was exposed to a lot of folks who’d chosen entrepreneurship as their career path. They didn’t want to work for anyone else, they wanted to start their own business. I think kids that leave school, college or university with that aspiration have to be commended because it’s tough. But I think we’ve got a long way to go to recognise that as a career choice that we should encourage and support in our young people.
P: What were the main challenges you’ve encountered over the years?
PY: I guess it changes over time. I very vividly remember when I was starting out and in my early 20s, age was always the barrier. You were told you were too young to do things but I never listened to that. After having my daughter – who’s seven now – one of the challenges was ‘what do I do now’. I was unfortunately made redundant when I was on maternity leave and that was tough. There I was with a small baby thinking I want to work and I think it’s very difficult. This is why organisations need to change because it’s very difficult for external candidates to negotiate flexible working. I really wanted to work but as an external candidate it was really hard for me to be able to negotiate any type of flexible working arrangements. And I think it’s much easier if you’re already working inside an organisation and suddenly you need to have that flexible working. So that was a real barrier for me around that time and that’s when I started freelancing. I set up my own business and just did contract work for various organisations. I’d work with them for a three month period, set them up and move onto the next one. So that was a challenge because suddenly I had to build my own business.
P: How did you balance being a mum with your work?
PY: I’m incredibly fortunate in that I have my own mum without whom I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. Thank god for the mums. I watch friends of mine who have a career but who don’t have a mum or don’t have a mum near them and they struggle with that. I’m a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg and her call for men to lean in as well because in order for a woman to lean in, you need a man to lean in too. Again, I’m incredibly fortunate that my husband is a very hands-on dad, we split everything down the middle. I start work early, he works late. So I think that you really do have to have that support network behind you in order for you to do what you chose to do.
P: Now you’re in Microsoft are they more accommodating?
PY: Very much so but I do see young girls who want it all, they want the career, they want to climb the ladder but they also want to do all the school runs as well and be at every single school performance and it’s just never going to happen. And while we would love to say yes you can have it all, the reality is that you can’t and you have to make some choices. My trade-off is that yes I have a fantastic career and I’m really pleased with how that’s going but I don’t see my daughter in the mornings and I probably see her for about an hour and a half a day during the week. I see her in the evenings so I probably get the grumpy half of her as well. I think you have to make your peace with your choices. I see a lot of women in particular struggling with the choices they make but you have to make your peace with it and you have to love what you do. If you don’t, you’ll always have that guilt and that battle going on.
P:Who has helped you most on your career journey?
PY: There hasn’t really been a constant person. I’m hugely self-motivated. I have my own drive and ambition spurring me along every second of the day. I wish I could tell you there’s been a single mentor throughout that journey. I think there have been different people at different stages and as corny as this might sound, I’ve been married for nine years so probably my husband in terms of just that cheerleading from the side-lines and allowing me to pursue what I wanted to pursue and supporting that. He’s had to step up massively since I joined Microsoft. I’ll go away for two weeks at a time and I can be away from home at least one night a week and that puts pressures on him. He’s very good at making sure our daughter isn’t exposed to any gender messages.
When I was in the start-up community my CEO was a huge support to me and a huge inspiration as well as I very much admired his entrepreneurial spirit and his risk taking. Now it’s probably a few other people: my boss at Microsoft, for example, who is very supportive and acts as a mentor and a coach and isn’t afraid to give me very direct feedback.
P: What are your thoughts about a recent Telegraph report about the BBC appointing a woman to the head of BBC trust and describing her as a mum of two?
PY: It’s hilarious isn’t it. I rolled my eyes and thought heaven’s sake. I think it actually annoys me that we have to discuss this stuff. We don’t have to discuss it with men. My one hope for my daughter when she grows up is that the whole term ‘working mum’, ‘stay at home mum’, is not even thought about or talked about. These articles, the fact that we have so much debate around women in leadership, I hope that it just doesn’t exist when my daughter grows up.
The whole reporting about stay at home mums versus working mums, ultimately no child of a working mum is any more damaged than a child of a stay at home mum. It’s all down to the parenting. And you never hear the term working dad and stay at home dad. One of the things that make me angry is that when I went over to the States a couple of male colleagues came up to me and said it must be hard being away from your daughter for two weeks and I always reply no more tough than it is for a dad. And I bet nobody goes up to a man and says ‘it must be tough being away from your kids’. So it’s little things like that that perpetuate this belief that it’s a really big thing for a woman to be in a leadership position. Well no, no more than it is for a dad. You make the same sacrifices. One of the things I’m a huge believer in and one of the things that drives me on enormously, is being a really good role model for my own daughter and the fact that you can make your own choices.
There is a statement from Sheryl Sandberg and it goes something like the more dads that are at the school gates the more options children have for themselves. It opens their eyes to opportunity. Because I do think – and I have the upmost respect for any stay at home mum – especially if you’ve got daughters is that they see that as the norm, especially if dad’s not leaning in. Women have a responsibility to make change happen because it’s easy to say I’ll just do the school run.
One thing we do at Microsoft is a lot of training on unconscious bias and one of the facts that I found fascinating is that if you are a man and you’re wife stays at home and your mother stays at home, you are far less likely to promote women and encourage them in your organisation.
Diversity in leadership is also important for organisations because their customers are diverse. Our customer base is full of women, young people, old people and every mix of race. So in order for us to be relevant to our customers we have to make sure we’re thinking like them and the only way we can do this is have a diverse leadership team.
P: What are your top tips for women aspiring to a leadership position?
PY: Don’t listen to the naysayers. There are certain individuals that will just sap your energy. Don’t take no for an answer, you have to be persistent. You also need to make your peace with the choices you’re making to allow you to carry on your upwards trajectory. I’d also say you should encourage other women along the way. We have a duty to encourage and support other women.
P: What advice would you give for your daughter about her career?
PY: Be happy in what you do, whatever it is that you chose to do.
P: What does the future hold for you?
PY: Since I came into Microsoft, a world of opportunity opened up to me. Before I thought my career path was very vertical. What I’ve learnt is that the world’s my oyster and if I want to diversify I can. Now I’m thinking ‘what do I want to do next?’. I honestly don’t know but the way that I come at it is ‘what’s my long-term plan? What’s the role after the next one?’ as I think this helps your thinking about what the next role should be but also what are my non-negotiables. One of mine is that it has to involve direct customer engagement as that’s where I get my energy from. If I was put into a role that was very inward looking, you never went out and saw customers, that’s not for me. Personally, I just want to continue to set that really great example for my own daughter and give her a good life in terms of exposing her to opportunities and activities that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do and continue to be really passionate about my job. It’s important that I enjoy what I do or otherwise it all starts to fall apart.
To find out more about women in leadership, read “Women in Leadership interview, Andrea Cartwright, group HR director for Supergroup”, Supporting women into leadership‘, ‘The flexible working challenge for external candidates‘ and ‘Gender parity will take 81-years – what can we do?‘