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I HAD a somewhat heroic moment this year at The Business Times Leaders' Forum 2017.
As emcee of the event – which featured discussions and presentations on the theme of tech disruption and transformation – I deviated from my script and introduced a question that had been submitted by a forum attendee but was oddly removed during the Q & A segment. "Ladies and gentlemen, we will now break for coffee," I said. "But first, in the spirit of disruption, I wish to share a big question on everyone's mind which unfortunately did not make it to the Q & A, and which could perhaps make an interesting coffee conversation topic. "That is, while diversity is a big part of disruption, it was an all-male panel that we just saw – is that us actually being disruptive?"
This immediately elicited murmurs and laughter from the crowd, who had just watched a panel of five business and government leaders – all male – discuss the phenomenon of tech disruption on stage. That there was not one woman on the panel was sharply clear. Someone in the audience had coolly taken to Pigeonhole – the digital Q & A platform used at the event – to point this out, asking: "Are there no women who can give us valuable insight into the big picture?"
It was a snarky question, but nevertheless an important one. And it got the most number of upvotes on Pigeonhole, so those at the forum expected the issue to be raised at the Q & A. Only it was swiftly removed by the organisers. Was it too contentious a question to be broached in that setting?
But why is that? Why can't we seem to acknowledge the fact that there are just fewer females than males in the tech industry? Is that a consequence of biology or social systems? Is tech a place for women? Or is it sexist to be even talking about the place of women.
A 'Boys Club'?
Three in 10 - that's the female representation in Singapore's tech industry, according to a 2014 manpower survey by the then-Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. The figure may have since risen slightly, going by rough data BT obtained from tech companies operating here.
Grab, the Singapore-headquartered ride-sharing company, says almost half of its workforce (45 per cent) is made up of women. Zendesk, the New York-listed customer service firm which acquired Singapore chat startup Zopim for S$30 million, has over 1,700 employees, of which nearly 600 (35 per cent) are women. Homegrown e-commerce startup Shopback reports that half of its 120 employees are female.
Kristine Lauria, founder of WalkaboutSG, affirms that there remains a "male bias" in startups and large tech companies globally. Walkabout is an annual event where tech startups in Singapore open their doors for anyone interested in checking out the company.
A 2014 report by law firm Fenwick & West reveals that women occupy only 11 per cent of executive positions at Silicon Valley tech companies, and only 9 per cent of executive officers in Silicon Valley are women.
"This isn't too surprising," says Amy Foo, vice-president of finance and operations for the Asia-Pacific (Apac) at Zendesk. After all, "a Boys Club", "geeky" and "full of engineers" are some of the most common perceptions of what it's like to work in the tech industry, she says.
And that's what stops them at the gate, say some women - they are reluctant to join a company that they think harbours an intimidating, male-dominated environment. What's more, many think that a job in tech only involves all things programming.
But it's more than just coding, 39-year-old Ms Foo points out. "Many women say: 'But I can't code!'" Working for a tech company goes beyond coding. There are myriads of dynamic roles, including operations, finance, sales, legal and marketing."
The idea that women, or anyone who is non-technical, do not play a role at tech companies is a misconception, Ms Lauria of WalkaboutSG says.
And of course, there are women who code too. See Yishu, for instance, is a software engineer at mobile marketplace Carousell. The 29-year-old knows that she is a rare breed, citing a "distinct lack" of women in technical roles and "even fewer" women in engineering management roles.
Asked why this is so, she says: "Growing up, there was a lack of female role models in tech for girls to look up to. It probably wouldn't cross their minds to choose software engineering as a major in school too, because there were so few girls who had considered this career path."
Even women with a technical background may feel atypical in a tech company. Ms See says: "For the few of us who got a chance to dabble with coding, we definitely don't feel like we are conforming to society's image of a software engineer, or the culture of 'brogrammers'. We just feel like we are women in tech."
Moreover, female engineers tend to assume front-end or user-interface engineering roles, Ms See notes. "While it's a good start, there is a prevailing misconception that client side work is trivial and not 'real' engineering. This does not help in putting female engineers in a good light."
She adds: "At Carousell, although the majority of the development team are still male, it's encouraging to see quite a few women in technical roles. One of our engineering managers is also a woman, and it's great to see women being given the same opportunities here."
In Singapore, women with a technical background are in fact given more opportunities in the tech sector compared to other sectors, says Joyce Huang, co-organiser of Singapore Geek Girls, a volunteer-based platform that connects local women in tech. "They get even more respect, because they are rare to find!"
Vara Lakshmi, 31, has been working in tech for eight years in Singapore, India and the US, and has a degree in computer science and information technology. Her job at Shopback is to check the quality of codes in a product before the latter is launched.
She says: "My experience as a female working in a male-dominated industry has been smooth. My colleagues and I have lively discussions and debates at work, but they're always held on a professional level. At the end of the day, a good quality code is a good quality code. A bad quality code is a bad quality code. There's no such thing as a female or a male quality code."
Candice Ong, 33, chief commercial officer of Shopback, notes that skills are gender blind and a product of training and experience. "It's limiting and self-defeating for any organisation to assume that certain genders are better suited for the development of specific skills."
Tech companies are increasingly recognising this - that every employee brings a different set of skills to the workplace. Grab, for instance, will be rolling out a series of programmes in the fourth quarter of 2017 to encourage inclusiveness.
Ong Chin Yin, 43, Grab's head of people, says: "At Grab, we emphasise values, capability and growth agility rather than gender, race or age. These programmes are to help Grabbers understand where their unconscious bias may lie and how to overcome them."
Zendesk allows both mums and dads to take up to 16 fully-paid weeks for the birth of their child. (In Singapore, working mums get 16 weeks and dads two weeks.) Ms Foo says: "We value parents equally and prefer to give families a choice of who works when, rather than the forced career hiatus for new mothers."
Google, too, is working hard to boost diversity at its workplace. Efforts include recruiting women for technical positions, providing professional development programmes to help women advance their careers in tech, and launching initiatives such as Women Techmakers and Made with Code to help make the tech industry more welcoming and accessible to women.
A Google spokeswoman says: "In Singapore, we launched Code in the Community (a multi-year, multi-level computer science and computational thinking course) this year to ensure that girls and boys from less well-to-do backgrounds have an equal opportunity at pursuing a career in tech. We will continue to focus on efforts to build an inclusive environment for all."
The fairer sex
Even with such affirmative action, many tech companies are quick to proclaim that they do not give thought to gender when it comes to hiring. But the fact is that men and women are different.
Women are said to be more empathetic, meticulous, collaborative and able to multitask - traits that make them good at project management, human resources and sales in the tech industry. Men, on the other hand, are said to be more rugged, persistent, individual and quick at making decisions, making them good for business development and the launching of overseas offices.
Eugene Wong, 49, managing director of tech venture capital (VC) firm Sirius Ventures, says: "In general, females have more soft skills. They sometimes underestimate themselves and are more conservative about their capabilities." His company has two employees, one of whom is female.
Isaac Ho, 41, chief of another tech VC firm Venturecraft, adds that female employees are great at executing plans and bringing structure to a company - managing a company just as attentively as they would their families. Of his 18 employees, 12 (67 per cent) are female.
Ms Lauria, who works for herself at WalkaboutSG, recognises that women tend to let their feelings determine their actions. Her solution: hard numbers.
"The huge benefit of working for a tech company is when you state your case analytically, using clear numbers and projections, you're often able to push a project forward.
"I had to tie concepts back to hard numbers. I had to learn to translate my feelings into actionable figures, such as spikes in support requests, complaints across social media, and drop in time spent on-site. This was a good lesson."
Ms Lauria, previously the Singapore country manager for US freelancing platform Upwork, notes that her advice is especially relevant to women in tech, as tech companies are always willing to explore new things to see if they bring value to the company. These companies are nimble and flat, such that even their youngest employees can push new ideas.
Tech under fire
Ironically, that very flat structure can become exactly what exacerbates conflict and tension. Earlier last month, a Google engineer, in a 10-page memo, argued that women are under-represented in tech not because of prejudice, but because of inherent differences between the sexes, and that the company's affirmative action-type of hiring and education programmes were misplaced. The document - and its backlash - went viral. He was swiftly fired.
The reason that the episode was such a shock to the system was perhaps because it struck a raw nerve, coming at a time when Google itself was being investigated in the US for a gender pay gap.
Reports of sexual harassment and discrimination in the tech sector also reached record levels this year as more women spoke up.
Two female entrepreneurs in Los Angeles even had to create a fake male co-founder to dodge sexism and condescension from web developers and graphic designers when they launched their e-commerce marketplace for weird art, according to an article on Fast Company.
Angela Toy, 30, head of operations and programmes at Singapore-based VC firm Golden Gate Ventures (at which she is also its first female employee), recalls her initial frustrations."When I first started, I felt powerless in meetings and discussions as someone would cut me off or speak over me when I was saying something. I came to realise that I had to hold my ground if I wanted to be heard. With that, I gained a lot of confidence and learnt to be assertive whenever I needed to and to never discount my ideas and take a back seat in discussions."
While there are no official numbers on sexual harassment in Singapore workplaces, it is believed that pay inequality exists, discrimination is "happening all the time", and harassment mostly goes unreported.
Women in tech could be paid as much as 20 per cent less than their male counterparts on average, although this is less prevalent in large corporations, says Venturecraft's Mr Ho.
Shirley Tan, 44, Zendesk's human resources director for Apac, says: "Some companies may view men as the primary breadwinner and that women's role in the workforce is not as important. Others may prefer not to hire young women, as the perception is that she will have children and be less focused at work."
Asked how women cope with mistreatment, Anne Marie Droste, 28, the Singapore-based director of Entrepreneur First (a platform that builds deep-tech companies), says that they "mostly suck it up and move on".
She explains: "The incentive structure for flagging harassment is wrong: as a victim you're expected to speak up, and most successful women in tech I know haven't worked this hard and defied all the odds just to have their reputation tarnished over a sexual discrimination case. The repercussions are real."
Empathy and grit
To reverse gender stereotypes, a cultural shift is needed within organisations, a 2017 study by recruitment specialist Talentful has found. The study Men vs Women - The Most Powerful CEOs also suggests that companies that champion diversity are more likely to flourish in an era where innovation is key to survival.
"We are living in that disruptive era," says Sheena Chin, Singapore country manager for data management company Veritas. "Tech is constantly evolving. For an industry that is driven by innovation and creativity, tech companies need to continue to encourage people to go beyond stereotypes and recognise the contributions that each individual can make to the workplace."
Empathy is important to ensure an inclusive and secure workspace, and to break down barriers and encourage the sharing of ideas, adds Ms Chin, who is in her 40s. At Zendesk, employees engage diverse communities through corporate social responsibility efforts, says Ms Foo, volunteering with organisations such as the Salvation Army and Cycling Without Age.
Interestingly, grit has emerged as the most sought-after skill in the tech industry. And this courage or resolve is not a trait unique to men or women.
Shopback's Ms Ong says: "Grit is a great skill to have, both for the company and individual. It's a mental construct cemented through actual practice. It drives one to push boundaries and never take 'can't' as an option. It's beneficial for startups as challenges and changes prevail almost on a daily basis. Grit will help push one through these barriers to achieve innovation."
Lawrence Cao, business development head for Apac at bike-sharing firm ofo, agrees. "Our rapid expansion plan (200 cities by end-2017) means we are actively looking out for and nurturing talent who display grit, which will make them invaluable as we venture into uncharted territories across Apac, the UK and US."
Mr Cao adds that daily interactions across departments in different geographies are de rigueur in startups that are expanding globally. "The ability to communicate in a concise and professional manner, and to be nimble and adaptable, are additional traits we look out for in our hires."
Today, even as the gender gap continues to be an issue that pervades the tech world, firms are working harder to bridge the divide. Grab's Ms Ong is "optimistic that tech is becoming an increasingly inclusive space".
Golden Gate Ventures' Ms Toy chimes in: "It's a great industry to be in if you love being at the forefront of new ideas and thrive in a fast-paced environment."