Haiyan Zhang, innovation Director, Microsoft Research

While the advertising industry continues to debate the relative strengths of art and science, Haiyan Zhang is one Digital Maverick who represents a heady cocktail of the two.

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While the advertising industry continues to debate the relative strengths of art and science, Haiyan Zhang is one Digital Maverick who represents a heady cocktail of the two.

Zhang, who started out as a software engineer, took the leap to go back to university to study design and open up her career to more creative channels.

Don’t be afraid to speak up: it is important to have a voice, and remember what you have to say is valid

Now, as innovation director at Microsoft Research, she sits at the centre of that collision of art, science and innovation. In a male-dominated sector, she has been involved in discussions about initiatives to encourage more women into it.

"There is a lot of passion and desire to take on this particular hurdle," says Zhang. "Don’t be afraid to speak up: it is important to have a voice, and remember what you have to say is valid."

Crucially, it is a hurdle that has obvious business benefits; when a wide range of companies have been guilty of the somewhat baffling decisions that can be made when half the population is, in effect, ignored, listening to women can provide a competitive edge.

"Last year I attended an all-woman hackathon and it provided a unique perspective – the projects developed by the teams were refreshing," adds Zhang.

Reaching women

Of course, it can be a challenge to make women’s voices heard when they are so under-represented in the sector. Zhang is a passionate advocate of the potential opportunities and believes more should be done to showcase the myriad career opportunities for women in all its disciplines.

"We need to do more to talk about roles that are not science-based; when we talk about women in technology, there’s a wide range of roles such as marketing and communication," she contends.

Zhang believes the breadth of roles will only increase. "Culture and society are changing so rapidly, we are seeing lots of new career opportunities and entrepreneurialism. In the next decade, we don’t know what is on the horizon; it’s really important for young people to broaden their experience."

Having a baby and navigating a career is going to be such an important issue for me.

Just as the industry is on the cusp of great change, life is about to become very different for Zhang, too: she is expecting her first child

"Having a baby and navigating a career is going to be such an important issue for me. I feel great that workplaces are discussing this more, so women really can have both.

It is a great time to be a woman in business," she says. She recognises, however, that the issues of successfully combining work and family need to be talked about more. "It is a tricky topic – a lot of women choose to be full-time mums, and that’s great; it is up to the individual to choose.

But it is about having the opportunity to balance both sides of your life." While balance may be the most elusive of goals, Zhang has a track record of achieving success on her own terms. Long may that continue.

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