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Tackling the question of diversity

TO banish misconceptions that the elderly cannot pick up new technology, Jacqueline Poh, chief executive officer of GovTech Singapore, recently shared a tidbit about a 75-year-old man here who has proudly attested to being an advocate of cloud technology.

"Because that was where they put his karaoke songs," said Ms Poh at the Women in Tech conference. She also recounted how elderly people have clustered around wifi access points to play mahjong on their iPads.

As Singapore tries to blaze ahead with its Smart Financial Centre ambitions, the fintech hub is also tackling a bigger question of digital inclusiveness across different demographics. In the area of drawing more elderly into the digital economy, Ms Poh argues that senior citizens are adept at picking up technology too. The problem is that the design around the technology has not been user-friendly for them.

"There is a stereotyping that your grandmother can't go cashless," said Ms Poh, pointing out that senior citizens can take well to social-media platforms if they can use it to bond with their family by sharing pictures of their grandchildren. "There is a way of getting through if they are interested."

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Singapore is also seeing a surprising downtrend of women in universities taking on areas of software development, computer engineering, and other IT fields. This comes despite there being more women in leadership, and more women in university, with the trend apparent not just in Singapore, but also in Silicon Valley, Ms Poh pointed out. "I'm just surmising that part of the reason is that men flood into any subject that is hot and pays a lot," she quipped, adding that the numbers are perhaps indicating that more men than women are transferring into the IT sector. "The same thing happened in banking."

The trend is unfortunate, considering a Morgan Stanley study in May showed global-technology companies that have a highly gender-diverse mix return on average 5.4 per cent more on an annual basis when compared to technology peers with poor gender diversity.

Accenture said in June this year that it wants a "gender-balanced" workforce - that is 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men - by 2025, said Accenture's senior managing director of Asean Teo Lay Lim at the Women in Tech conference. This has meant sponsoring the company's most senior women to advance in P&L (profit-and-loss) roles, and putting high-performing women on a fast track to build in-demand technology skills under the firm's Women in Technology programme.

Martin Mackay, CA Technologies' president and general manager of its Asia-Pacific and Japanese operations, noted at the Women in Tech conference that diversity is important today as employers need to respond to changing demands from younger job applicants who want a career that bears purpose beyond profit.

"They are looking for different sets of experiences. They are not prepared to dedicate 30 years of service to a single organisation," he said. "If we don't embrace diversity, we'd have a real problem in that we would limit the pool of talent that we work with."

Even as there remain broad challenges to tackle in the area of inclusiveness in technology, there also stands a much larger question of job losses linked to technology. Accenture's Ms Teo sums up the problem of displacement when the society has to consider "Baxter the robot", who is willing to work for four dollars an hour. Indeed, it is a world where the now-defunct Kodak once had as many as 145,000 employees, while Instagram was run by about 10 people at one point.

The issue takes on a more philosophical bent for Ms Teo. Amid the sea change brought on by technology, the use of technology must be considered by thinking through the unique human condition, she noted. "If you look at our careers and our life experiences, it's about collecting Lego bricks along the way. What creates a unique individual is the sum total of the bricks you've collected along the way," said Ms Teo.

"Humans should be at the centre of everything that we design."