The Road Less Traveled
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Philippine Telegraph & Telephone Corporation (PT&T) has embarked on a business and tech transformation journey orchestrated by new owners determined to reestablish the company’s status as a major telco. As a key player in that transformation, Ella Mae Ortega wears a lot of hats.
She’s the company’s CIO, tasked with overseeing the internal IT needs of the company, and is responsible for providing IT solutions to external customers, as well. She’s also about to expand her team, as her company begins to roll out value-added IT services to small and medium businesses.
It’s a decidedly full plate, and that’s just the way she likes it.
An Anomaly Among Peers
With this level of responsibility in a high-tech company, Ortega is something of a rarity. Women account for just 26 percent of the computing workforce, according to McKinsey & Company. These figures, astonishingly, have been on the decline for the past quarter century. Yet Ortega has managed to land a C-level executive job at a tech firm in a country where it’s largely unheard of for women to be in top executive positions.
The gender gap is far from limited to the Philippines. Women receive only 19 percent of Bachelor’s computer and information science degrees, McKinsey estimates. That low figure is despite nearly three-fourths (74 percent) of young girls expressing interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and computer science, according to Girls Who Code. When it comes to computers, girls and women obviously become deterred somewhere along the way.
It remains something of a mystery as to why. Despite reports of diversity programs and commitments to gender equality, the proportion of women in the workplace overall has stalled, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2018 report. The study reports: “Women continue to be vastly underrepresented at every level. For women of color, it’s even worse. Only about one in five senior leaders is a woman, and one in twenty-five is a woman of color.”
One stumbling block, of course, is the crossroads all workers reach when it comes to juggling career and family. More often than not, it’s the woman who makes the sacrifice: according to Pew Research, about 7 percent of stay-at-home parents are men compared with 27 percent of women.
In this regard, Ortega once again goes against the norm. It was her husband who took charge at home when the couple’s second child was born. “I tend to be someone who doesn’t want to follow the normal course of things,” she concedes.
One of the first things I learned from my regional manager is that you have to hit the ground flying - not just running. You're surrounded by people who can help you, but you have to stay resourceful, to think out of the box, and survive on your own, without relying too much on others.
Bucking The Odds
Ortega hasn’t let the gender gap get in her way. She describes simply “being herself” in an industry where women often report having to struggle against established old-boy networks, clichéd labels, and time-worn prejudices to make their mark..
In this respect, knowingly or not, Ortega may subscribe to the escalating mantra for so-called “authentic leadership.” It’s a leadership style that, in a nutshell, demands leaders who are comfortable in their own skin at work, embrace emotion as a positive trait, know their strengths and weaknesses, and put the mission and the goals of the organization ahead of their own self-interest.
Indeed, says Ortega: “What has helped me is a strong personality. I know I can do the same job others can. I don’t overthink the fact that I’m different. I guess you’d just call that having confidence.”
She also credits her mentors and training program at IBM Global Services where she cut her teeth on tech. “One of the first things I learned from my regional manager is that you have to hit the ground flying—not just running. You’re surrounded by people who can help you, but you have to stay resourceful, to think out of the box, and survive on your own, without relying too much on others. I had to really study and learn the ropes about the IBM hardware, the software and services business, and the company’s partner ecosystem, as well.”
Though she started out in the sales and marketing field, “I had to thoroughly learn tech to be able to sell and to support customers. And I was surrounded by engineers.” While most of her male peers would question her credentials or experience in the early part of her career, she says, she never found the need to be dominating or aggressive in her behavior, believing that firm and honest opinions would take her to where she is today.
When Ortega became a sales manager and found herself managing people older than she was, for example, “building their trust was #1,” she says. “One thing I learned as a manager is that you really have to understand the people around you, especially people you manage, professionally and personally. Because every person is different.”
And she feels that leaders are only as good as the people who support them. “I have a strong belief that the people you work with are the ones who enable the execution of your business plan,” she says. “No matter how good a plan is, you need to get your team on board with the plan early on.”
Providing these people with specific responsibilities and tasks gives them some skin in the game to succeed, according to Ortega. Their success, she says, flows along to their managers, company executives, and the business as a whole, like a series of dominoes.
Inspiration: Mom And Office Automation
The eldest child born in the Philippines, Ortega always looked up to her mother, who ran her own business and often had her young daughter type up correspondence, purchase orders, and invoices.
“I could see where word processing and other office automation changed the way my mom operated her business and made life easier back in the early 1990s. I got intrigued,” she says. “I wanted to be part of the IT revolution and do something that would really transform the way companies do business.”
Like many of her Filipino peers, she got her degree in business administration. But while many of her friends took the finance and banking career path, she decided to try her luck at an IT curriculum that was available to BA majors. “I took the hardest courses as electives: engineering, management information systems, and so forth. I like math and numbers.”
In fact, at around age 10 or 11, she told her parents that she wanted to be an engineer in a culture that she says overwhelmingly prefers children to become doctors and nurses.
She describes herself as the sibling with “the strongest personality. I was always outgoing and active in school and extracurricular activities.” Keeping herself well-rounded continues to pay off in her current role, where she says, “there’s lots of room for growth and improvement.”
One growth area she describes is aligning tech with the business at PT&T. She says analytics is playing a big role in that and is currently one of the telco’s biggest initiatives.
“We’re starting with using analytics to improve internal operations for greater efficiencies.” She says she’s very interested in applying the same technology to share with her PT&T customers and for building smart cities down the road.
Analytics also plays a role in understanding customer behaviors and buying patterns, for improved and better targeted marketing. To that end, “We’re also running a mini data governance project for standardizing the way we capture customer data that we store,” Ortega explains.
Compared to the U.S. and Japan, says Ortega, “the Philippines is a late adopter of technology. There is still much to be done. If you don’t adapt, you’ll be left behind by your competitors who can do things better than you.”
And what advice does she have for those few women who stick it out with IT careers?
“Be confident enough to show everyone that you can do a lot of things concurrently and do them well. It’s possible to be a leader and follower at the same time.”
Ella Mae Ortega is General Manager, IT Services, at PT&T in the National Capital Region, Philippines. Since graduating Cum Laude at the University of the Philippines Diliman, she has gained more than 22 years of leadership experience in multinational businesses in the information technology and services industry.