Alibaba’s Selina Yuan: “The Olympic Games are one of the most powerful platforms for equality”

In the run-up to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the IOC is sharing the journeys of inspirational women and men who are dedicated to combatting gender inequality and promoting female representation in leadership roles. Here, we speak to Selina Yuan, President of International Business at Alibaba Cloud Intelligence.


Selina Yuan has been working in the information and communications technology industry for over 20 years, both in China and overseas, and since joining Worldwide Olympic Partner Alibaba in 2019 she has become an advocate for how the tech industry can address the gender gap by increasing access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers for women, as well as ensuring equality in the pursuit of senior positions in the industry.

“I have been paying attention to the subject of female leadership for some time, and I believe we should strive to give women more opportunities,” she explains. “When women are fairly represented, you’re closer to achieving the goal of having a truly diversified team.”

Yuan herself cites her mother as being an inspiration for pursuing her own career and for supporting other women in their endeavours.

“While it’s important to look ahead, you can’t forget your roots, and even now my mum is my role model,” she says. “She worked until she was over 70 years old, which really shows a commitment to hard work and service. When I was young, she told me that a woman needs to be independent and has to have her own career, and she is a great example of that. Today, my career brings me great happiness, and I have found lots of fun and challenges within it. I have enjoyed the journey, and I insist on following its path while working hard to support the careers of other women, too.”


Hashimoto Seiko was elected President of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee while Marukawa Tamayo succeeded her as Japan’s Olympics Minister. With Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, there are now three women holding key leadership positions in the organisation of the Games. Why do you feel it is important to have women in leadership positions, and what impact do you think it has on society?

It is truly inspiring to see Seiko, Tamayo and Yuriko in their respective roles, and I congratulate them on their success. Having women like them in senior leadership positions shows that the “glass ceiling” that has prevented many women from achieving their goals can be shattered. It also sends out a powerful message to all organisations that they need to revise their assumptions or preconceptions of not only what women can achieve, but what women’s expectations are in the modern workplace; that is, they expect the same opportunities as their male counterparts, and if they’re not going to get that, they will take their skills, talents and abilities elsewhere, to more progressive organisations. Therefore, I salute Seiko, Tamayo and Yuriko for sending such a strong signal to the world and for being such fantastic role models not just for women, but for equality overall.

Looking more broadly at other women leaders, we saw Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, show exceptional leadership at the start of the pandemic. Her ability to understand the pandemic’s social implications, as well as the medical ones, while empathising with the struggles and challenges her nation was experiencing, was a masterclass in decisive leadership matched with real compassion. 


Taking into account the unprecedented situation we have all been experiencing since last year, what is the significance of the Olympic Games this year? What do you think will be their legacy for Japan and for the public in general? 

Despite the challenges and tough times brought by COVID-19, the pandemic has brought out the best in many people. For example, we have seen so many acts of kindness as people work to help and support family, friends, neighbours and even strangers through the pandemic. We have seen the tireless efforts of medical professionals and those responsible for developing the vaccines. You could say that COVID-19 united us all. In fact, if you have been on any global conference call in the last 12 months, they almost always start with talk about the COVID-19 situation in our own respective countries; it’s an experience we all shared, wherever we are. COVID-19 uniting us all has parallels with sport. Our love for sporting excellence brings together fans from all walks of life, from every faith, every country and every socio-economic group. The Olympics are the ultimate expression of that unity, and I am thrilled to think that they will take place when, hopefully, the pandemic is coming to an end. For me, then, the timing of the Tokyo Olympics is symbolic because it is about unity and, hopefully, a brand-new start for us all in the COVID-19 era.


In Tokyo, for the first time ever, there will be at least one female and one male athlete in every team and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team participating at the Games. One male and one female athlete will also be allowed to jointly carry their nation’s flag during the Opening Ceremony. Why do you think it is important to have this equal representation in the spotlight? What role can the Olympic Games play to further advance gender equality on and off the field of play?

The Olympics are watched and loved by tens of millions of people across the globe, and they are one of the most powerful international platforms you can use to put a spotlight on equality in a way that creates a lasting impression and – critically – one that will drive societal change. That’s why I think Tokyo 2020 could well be a turning point for equality. I don’t think I will be the only one cheering loudly when I see a man and a woman proudly carrying their flag during the Opening Ceremony. Even off the pitch, sport can be a transformative force. Over the years, so many sporting heroes have used the power of their voice and influence to raise awareness about issues that are overlooked, bringing those issues to the fore in order to push for change and a better world for all.


The IOC has endeavoured to rally its stakeholders to implement gender equality initiatives, including ensuring that more women have access to decision-making and leadership positions. What are your thoughts on that, and how can a Worldwide Olympic Partner such as Alibaba help the IOC make a difference in the gender equality and inclusion space?

As a leading cloud service provider, Alibaba Cloud has always believed in the importance of women’s empowerment and technology as a force for change to unlock greater opportunities for the development of women. We see an emerging role for technology companies to address the gender gap by increasing access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers for women, as well as ensuring equality in the pursuit of senior positions in the industry. We see this as a fundamental social responsibility that is at the same time in our best interest. Greater gender diversity is good for business, but it is even better for society. 

As a Worldwide Olympic Partner, we share a vision with the IOC of using technology and sport to level the playing field and create equal opportunities for women. We believe technology will make the Games more inclusive and accessible to people of different genders, races and ages around the world.


Why is it important to also have men involved to address the whole gender equality cause, and what role do they play?

In order to honour the concept of equality, it is vital that men are part of the equation. Only when men and women are working together as equals will we be able to achieve greater things for all of society. However, it’s important that we pay attention to the balance – which historically has seen more men in positions of power than women – to ensure that the valuable voice of women is heard loud and clear. More importantly, men and women have different perspectives, and [learning] how to play different roles and coordinate well as one team is very important for creating diversified teams.


At the IOC, we believe that we can help set the tone as to how women and girls in sport, and athletes – globally – can and should be portrayed across all forms of media and communication channels through the Olympic Games. How important do you think it is to address gender bias, and has Alibaba taken any actions to avoid prejudice and stereotypes in the portrayal of women and men? 

The pursuit of equality for women is about removing systemic barriers and providing a pathway for women to self-determine and achieve their full potential. We are proud that women represent almost half of the Alibaba Group’s workforce, with female executives’ representation at 34 per cent. 

We have been fortunate enough to work with non-profit organisations to provide training and cloud computing resources for African women engineers, for example, to help them along their career paths towards engineering and other practical subjects. 

From a broader perspective, everyone has a role to play in ending gender stereotypes and preconceptions because gender inequality is a problem for society; that means all of society – whether that’s governments, education institutions, workplaces or the media – has a responsibility to address the issue. By working together pragmatically, I am confident that we can achieve our goals and enjoy a society where gender equality can thrive and prosper and benefit everyone.

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