Beating the odds on gender stats: Schneider’s Susan Uthayakumar on diversity, sustainability and paying it forward

The career path of Susan Uthayakumar, newly installed leader of Schneider Electric’s new Global Sustainability Business Division, tells us much about the personal qualities and institutional supports needed to move the needle on gender parity in the tech world.

Women’s experience in the technology world is a mixed bag. Despite years of focus on barriers to broader engagement of women in ICT, efforts to improve diversity in the industry have produced uneven results. While stats on women’s participation in ICT continue to mark decline from an apex in the 80s, lack of progress on gender inclusion in leadership roles tells an even starker tale: only 2.9% of global CEOs in ICT today are women, and a new UN report has found that on a global basis, female enrolment in STEM education, widely viewed as a proxy for ensuring career success in IT, is lagging at 3 percent of the total. In IT, progress towards parity in career development remains illusive in an industry that has been criticized for male bias, inequity, and in some cases, downright hostility towards women. A recent survey of Canadian women has found that female tech workers continue to view technology companies as reluctant employers, and, as compared with women workers more broadly, feel unmotivated in their careers, stifled in their goals, and negatively impacted by the pandemic.

At the same time, women are developing strategies for success in IT, and individuals are carving out career pathways that may deviate from an ideal model, but which are helping to advance gender parity in the industry. But what accounts for an individual’s ability to shine as an outlier? To learn more about the diverse ways that women are contributing to, and benefiting from professional careers in ICT, InsightaaS spoke with Susan Uthayakumar, Global Sustainability Business Division Leader at Schneider Electric.

Susan Uthayakumar, Global Sustainability Business Division Leader, Schneider Electric
Susan Uthayakumar, Global Sustainability Business Division Leader, Schneider Electric

Born in Sri Lanka, Uthayakumar immigrated with her family at an early age to Canada. She completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in finance at the University of Waterloo, and began to develop a long-term interest in acquisitions with her first employer, Deloitte. Uthayakumar built on her knowledge of acquisitions and manufacturing operations working with McCain Foods Canada, and then with Crowe Capital in the US. In 2004, she joined Schneider Electric, and worked initially on various acquisitions, including Power Measurement in Canada. Over a 17-year-career with Schneider Electric, Uthayakumar carved out opportunity to work in finance (as CFO), sales, and in senior management roles (Country President and CEO for Schneider Canada), and she is recognized as a key player in Schneider Electric’s transformation from a product manufacturer to a provider of digital energy management and efficiency solutions. In January 2021, she moved into a new position, and now serves as leader in the company’s new Global Sustainability Business Division, a group that offers end-to-end solutions to help customers (including Schneider operations!) achieve science-based targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction. To help pay it forward, Uthayakumar has championed programs such as the WiSE (Women in Schneider Electric), and the Schneider Women Leaders Program, where she mentors high potential women talent on career growth, on navigating various career paths, on work-life balance.

In the edited version of the InsightaaS conversation that follows, Uthayakumar offers perspective on her own career success and structural contributors to it.

Mary Allen, Chief Content Officer, InsightaaS: ICT industry observers are often told that the low level of female participation in the industry is due to girls’ lack of interest in STEM subjects. But you took an alternate path. How did your studies at the University of Waterloo, and your early work with Deloitte and McCain translate to the ICT industry? And what challenges did you face?

Susan Uthayakumar, Global Sustainability Business Division Leader at Schneider Electric:

Let me start with my coming into that field without a STEM background. It is a challenge that you must overcome because when you’re in front of your team, when you’re problem solving in front of your customers, you are effectively learning on the job. That takes a lot of effort. But the interesting thing is that when I was growing up, when I was in high school, I was really good at science and math. My father was an engineer, and I was going to be one.

I chose to go to the University of Waterloo because it’s known for engineering. But I changed my mind when I visited the university, as there weren’t that many women in the engineering discipline that I wanted to apply to. If I were to speak to my younger self, I would tell myself that you don’t do something just because others are there. You just do something because that’s what you really want to do. You are accountable and responsible for what you should do. And if you let that be influenced, or impacted by what others do, then you’re walking away from the table. We will always have challenges – men, women, anyone – but’s it’s what you do that really matters. So I decided not to walk away from the table.

Allen: That must be why you are now the global lead in Schneider’s new Sustainability Division. Congratulations, by the way!

Your early career was all about mergers and acquisitions. Was your lack of STEM education an issue for you, as you rose to and held the position of CEO for Schneider Canada, or were there other issues?

Uthayakumar: As I progressed through my career, I have had challenges like everybody else. But I would say that most have come from the fact that I have a non-technology background but stepped into a technology company.

When I joined Schneider sixteen years back, I had a lot of competency in acquisitions, and led this area.  I was in my comfort zone and, and I really liked it. I wanted to stay in that space, but Schneider are really good about coming and having career discussions with you, and asking “what do you want to do next?” Typically, when you have expertise in an area, you go up that chain. But I had a mentor who asked, “Is that the only thing that you want to do? You don’t you want to branch off into something else?”

So to appear open, I picked finance, which, given my background, is something I could easily step into. But at Schneider, when you step into the CFO role, it’s very operational, meaning you have to understand the business, you have to drive the elements of the business. I was involved in leadership roles in finance for North America for several years, but when I came back to Canada, my mentor explained that in shifting from an $8 billion operation [US] to a $1 billion operation [Canada], I would have to become more hands on. I would have to build my knowledge.

At the same time, the former CEO of Canada said, “Hey, I think you have strong business acumen, you should really push yourself.” As I sat and reflected, I looked around and I didn’t see many women leaders. To be super transparent, that drove my decision to go into the technology side. I thought that I had benefited from a lot of things in my life. I had was able to move countries with a great company and I thought that I should be a role model and should pave the way.

Switching from a non-technical, non-technology role into a technology position was very hard because when you’re managing the largest business unit for the country, you don’t have room to make mistakes. People in the company really took a risk on me, but I also came to the table to say, “Okay, I’ll take a personal risk and I will put in a lot of effort to make sure that I deliver success.”

Allen: What do women who make that kind of commitment need in order to be successful?

Uthayakumar: When you go down this path and you accept the challenge, it has a personal element to it as well because you’re always trading your time between a number of priorities. For me, personal success means that my family and professional success are equally important, so I have had to make some very tough choices.

Today, you do see women going into STEM programs, but the challenge is when they come out, will they stick it out in the post to develop successful careers? Will they come through the ranks in these fields? Because you don’t see as many women in higher level management – 2.9 percent, as you say.

As noted earlier, many women are having difficulties; they are not making it up through the ranks. When you ask, how do I pay it forward, my effort is focused on understanding what we need to do as an organization and as a community to bring up women through the ranks. They require different levels of support, right? The reality is that a man and a woman go through different life stages – a woman may step out of their career for a period of time if they want to have children, and then they will have to reenter a technical field. There are challenges around that path.

I’m on the Diversity and Inclusion Board for Schneider globally, and we focus on what environment we need to create to support women and men so that inclusiveness is possible. We have come up with a first in our industry, a married family policy, as opposed to an eight-week maternity policy or a woman only program, which is called the Global Family Leave Policy. Our family policy is based on the notion that one person has to be at home when you have a young child. We look at how we can provide support, how we can facilitate that in a way that there’s no bias against anyone stepping out and doing what is required.

And we also support work flexibility through the Global Flexibility at Work Policy, which helps employees to meet unique life and work requirements, and a New Ways of Working initiative that allows an employee to work from home two days a week. Sometime people ask why does this include a man or a woman? But we think about a family unit; if one partner could be home, the other could be at work. We have been thinking a lot about inclusive policies when it comes to these things. And to address wage gaps, we have established a Global Pay Equity Framework that identifies gaps among comparable groups of employees as a first step towards correcting these, and we have a Global Anti-Harassment Policy that specifies zero tolerance for any form of harassment.

We’ve also put focus on how we support women as they reenter the workforce. How do we make sure they stay on top of whatever changes are happening in the industry? How do they feel when they come back? To help, we provide extensive mentorship. When I personally look at my frontline pipeline, this is super important to me.

Allen: This sounds very helpful to individuals who are current employees, and a good foundation to establishing gender equity or gender equivalency. But how do you ensure that overall that you have equal representation of gender within Schneider, which ultimately drives gender parity?

Uthayakumar: When I was in the Canadian role, we started a commercial leadership program, working with universities to bring young people into the STEM field, which specifically targets women. We were heavily focused on recruiting women that we could bring through the organization and through the different areas that are relevant to career success – for example, sales or marketing roles, or technical support – all of the experiences women would need to become good or even great leaders in the future. And focused on ensuring that we found the right opportunity for women emerging from the two-and-a-half-year rotational program.

To make sure that we have appropriate gender balance, we have another program that we call the Schneider Sustainability Index gender balance KPI – 50/40/30, which represents our ambitions for 2025. This initiative requires that 50 percent of recruitment for any position will need to be women. To ensure that we get meet our ambition for equal opportunity, 40 percent of the hires for frontline managers have to be women. And 30 percent of the hires for senior leadership have to be women. So we’re looking at all the elements of pipeline, ranging from staff to senior leadership, working to have strong representation by women in each.

Allen: It sounds like you have personally benefited throughout your career from mentorship and that in parallel Schneider has established institutional mentorship through these formal programs. Is there also some kind of individual one-to-one mentorship program where personal connections are really helpful?

Uthayakumar: Yes. We actually call it sponsorship. There is guidance that you get from the mentorship, but there is a one-to-one sponsorship as well, which helps an individual to navigate. For example, we’re a very matrix organization, but how does a worker navigate the matrix organization? By nature, women are not self-promoters, but can you wait to get noticed if you want promotion? How do you manage that? I can clearly say that I couldn’t have done what I have done in my career without these mentorships and sponsorships.

Allen: So far, you’ve talked to me about intent and about programs. Can you describe some success metrics? What do you track in the Diversity and Inclusion Board? What share of employees are women at various levels, such as executive, senior leadership, frontline managers, or recruit? The 50/40/30 goal is your aspiration; what’s the reality?

Uthayakumar: As compared to our 2025 goals, 42 percent of all new hires are women in 2020, 25 percent of frontline managers are women, and 24 percent of senior leadership are women. In the management area it’s super difficult to achieve targets, and I can’t articulate the reason why; but we know this is where we need to put more effort to close the gap.

At Schneider, we have adopted the UN’s SDG goals, and there are six elements that we track, measure, incentivize our people on, and report on externally. One of them is related to equal work opportunity and to driving an inclusive environment in which people can just be themselves. There are a lot of reasons that I have stayed at Schneider, there are lots of opportunities and lots of different companies, but one is what I see from the top in terms of diversity. So CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire doesn’t say to us, “Hey team tried to be diverse, or try to be inclusive.” He says, “We are, if you’re not, this is not a place for you.” And I see that reflected in a specific focus on mentorship, on policies, and on how we act.

Another thing I really like is that Schneider takes risks on people, which in turn creates opportunities. If a company is willing to take risks on you, the result is you are required to drive it forward because most people want to pass on their good fortune.

Allen: I was invited to a lunch with Jean-Pascal Tricoire a few years back, where the subject was sustainability and looming climate change. I was similarly impressed that day by his commitment and his knowledge of what the real issues are on climate and energy consumption. Schneider is an energy management firm, so this makes sense as a sweet spot for you. I see an alignment between business goals for Schneider and broader social commitment to sustainability. In some ways, this commitment to sustainability in a corporate environment may be akin to challenges in the area of diversity.

This may not be the case for Schneider because sustainability is your bread and butter, but in your new position you will have to deal with clients who may see this as a kind of a touchy, feely issue or a nice to have – CSR rather than something that is not necessarily critical and or core to business strategy. As you may have to push on diversity, you may have to push on sustainability too. Are there linkages between these two issues, and commonalities in terms of approach that you might use in encouraging appropriate action?

Uthayakumar: Great, great question, actually. I’ve been thinking about it. If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have answered it differently than I will answer it today. A year ago, you would have been absolutely right. Both were issues, right? Whether it was diversity and inclusion or sustainability, the question was, what is required is for people, companies, governments to do the right thing? Sometimes doing the right thing means you have to drive change, which is difficult because we all get used to a specific standard. We have become used to just having all the things that we want, we want to enjoy the moment, and we want to enjoy it today. We don’t think about tomorrow even though prospects have changed, and as a result, we are not addressing problems collectively. The globe is not meeting the Paris Accord requirements – taking action to make sure that the temperature does not increase more than 1.5 degrees. The outcome is real: we’re seeing it in forest fires, in more hurricanes, in more natural disasters that bring risk to businesses, to the resiliency of businesses.

Now governments are finally recognizing that they have to do something. Just in the last quarter, 110 governments have said, “Look, you know what? We will be carbon zero emissions by 2050.” China, which is the largest emitter, has said that it will be zero emissions by 2060. That is a momentous change. And you have the Biden administration in the US, the second largest emitter in the world, saying, we are going to base our platform on clean energy to address climate change. So the landscape has changed.

We can also tie in the fact that companies are organizing themselves and investors are driving change. They are beginning to recognize that if you don’t address climate change, it’s risk to your business, which means investment will be impacted. Take Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, as an example. At Schneider, we’ve been doing sustainability for 10 years and, so we took a close look at his 2017 letter to shareholders. I think climate and climate change risk was mentioned six times. If you look at the letter that he put out a few weeks ago where he’s really calling for action, it’s mentioned about 57 times.

We are also seeing change through social pressure as people come out of COVID. The pandemic has made people think about doing things that are sustainable for the future, about the survival of humanity. We are definitely seeing a push to build back a better, greener show. So the times have made it easier for our team to push on sustainability, and I would love to see the same push, the same change momentum accelerating progress on diversity.

Allen: I agree with you absolutely, 100 percent. There have been waves of interest in sustainability that have waxed and waned in the several years that I have been researching green IT, but there is certainly more interest now. At InsightaaS, we are in the midst of organizing what we’re calling the Net Zero Data Centre Coalition in Canada, which has been inspired by a similar reporting initiative launched in the EU this January, the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact. The time is right today, but if we had tried to do this last year, I don’t think we would have seen the same interest.

Uthayakumar: What we’re going to see in the future is a real push for disclosure on the potential risk to finance. New Zealand has already adopted a requirement for disclosure related to climate change, and this really accelerates a trend towards investor preference for investing in companies that are disclosing, measuring, and taking concrete actions to mitigate impact. And when the money moves, the needle moves, right?

Companies need to realize that sustainability and profitability are not mutually exclusive. When you reduce resource consumption, you’re going to be more profitable and you’re going to decarbonize. I’ve loved a lot of the jobs that I’ve had for different reasons. But what I love about the job I currently have is that I get to do this every day with my team. I get to advise clients on how to decarbonize, and even on those difficult days, I can always say, “I’m doing this to save the planet,” and so I’ve made myself feel good at the end of the day.

Allen: Your professional biography says that you have been instrumental in Schneider’s transition to a digital solution organization. Can you describe your involvement in this transition, and how did it prepare you for your current role in sustainability? There appears to be close alignment with the push on sustainability because when you digitize, when you use data to monitor, and when you achieve digital transformation, you’re more likely to be a sustainable organization. But can you describe how you have been a participant in that transition?

Uthayakumar: If you look at our history, Schneider was initially a producer of cannonballs. But the company has been impressive in that it has always transformed itself, and leaders have had the vision needed to effect transformation. When I joined Schneider, it was a manufacturer of electrical distribution and automation equipment. When Jean-Pascal became the CEO, he saw that if you want to be relevant in the marketplace, you needed to transform to a solutions company. This was a big shift as it involved touching the end customer.

Once we were a solution provider, the next step was to ask, how do we digitize ourselves and our customer? Because data drives efficiency, data drives the sound business decision and sustainability. But if leaders don’t help drive this, it’s super difficult. So that’s where I have always been involved – in making sure we are occupying the space that we should in the market that we’re serving, and that we are providing a full range of capability, rather than just a product. And every country leader, every business unit leader needed to be a part of that second shift. Your people won’t change just because you state it, you have to actually explain the story, the strategy to your team so that they come along with you. When you have to make tough decisions, for example, on where you align your resources, and you don’t know the outcome, that’s hard. But I’ve been a proponent of digitization, and a proponent of sustainability for 10 years, and you just have to put your faith in what you believe in. If I and other colleagues had not done this, Schneider would not be where it is today. And I really credit Jean-Pascal with having the vision and driving it forward globally.

So how has Susan Uthayakumar managed to beat the odds on gender success in the tech world? Her ability to drive a solutions orientation at Schneider, to effect change on the diversity front, and to push the sustainability agenda on behalf of customers and the company itself, can be attributed to personal ability, to her tenacity and willingness to take on new roles in new areas. But her career success also speaks to organizational supports that she benefited from as she moved through the ranks, including management interest in developing female talent, and mentoring that was both nurturing and challenging. Paying it forward, Uthayakumar has helped to institutionalize several diversity programs that we celebrate on International Women’s Day 2020. Well worth the risk….




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