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Wanted: women in STEM

More needs to be done to overcome biases towards women working in the science and technology fields.

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Ms Soh of DBS

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Prof Ying from A*STAR

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Ms Yim of IBM

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Dr Tan of Nestlé

AS Singapore moves towards becoming a smart nation, there is a need to encourage more women to enter science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields to help develop solutions for a digital age. Yet, the under-representation of women in STEM careers has not changed much in the last few decades. Globally, women account for only 20-25 per cent of the STEM workforce, especially in engineering and computer science.

In Singapore, the intake of women in STEM degrees account for around 25-35 per cent of the total intake for engineering and computing degrees, statistics from the Ministry of Education showed. Furthermore, out of the 200,000 infocomm employees in Singapore, only 60,000, or 30 per cent, were women in 2016, according to the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

"In the last 5 years, we saw very marginal increase in women pursuing STEM careers, if any. I believe the main reason for the gap starts from the lack of women taking up STEM as a field of study. This is mainly driven by aspirations moulded by social norms and parental influence, that boys are better than girls in subjects such as mathematics and science - with biases leading to natural selection and dropouts of women in these fields," says Soh Siew Choo, DBS' group head of consumer banking and big data analytics technology.

As research shows a positive link between increased gender diversity and financial results across different industries and countries, it makes sense to make gender diversity a priority in general and STEM in particular, observers say.

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For example, a recent Catalyst study found that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women on their board outperform their competitors with 53 per cent more returns on equities, 42 per cent more return on sales and 66 per cent more return on capital investments.

In Singapore, female representation on the boards of listed companies here rose to 10.8 per cent in 2017, up from 9.9 per cent in 2016, statistics from the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) showed.

"Diversity leads to innovation and productivity. Furthermore, the world today emphasises creating great client experiences, which is something I believe plays to the strength of women. Greater representation of women in the STEM industries will definitely help in creating digital solutions that not only cater to women, but may also provide richer experiences," says Ms Soh.

Women can also bring a different perspective from men when it comes to solving problems and crafting solutions, says Jackie Ying, a Senior Fellow at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*STAR) NanoBio Lab, which focuses on nanotechnology and biotechnology. She had headed A*STAR's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) since its founding in 2003 till she stepped down earlier this year.

"When attempting a complex scientific or engineering problem, it is important to approach it from different angles so that we can develop a comprehensive understanding and come up with a more effective solution. This is where women can provide valuable contributions. Due to our unique experiences, we are able to offer a different perspective than men," says Prof Ying, who was named a Fellow of the prestigious United States National Academy of Inventors last year.

She adds: "Having more women in STEM, especially in leadership roles, would also help to bridge the gender gap for future generations."

Overcoming perception

Recognising the benefits of having diverse teams, more companies are working to overcome biases that women may have towards pursuing STEM careers. IBM, for instance, has initiatives such as EXITE, which stands for "exploring careers in technology and engineering".

The global programme is designed to give young girls an insight into careers in STEM by exposing them to topics ranging from analytics and robots to artificial intelligence. In Singapore, IBM staff have also volunteered their time to share perspectives about careers in STEM at primary and secondary schools across the island.

"The vast majority of girls aren't choosing to study science or maths at school. This is often for a number of reasons - the first being the perception that careers in engineering or computer science are just for the geeks who want to sit in a dim room, tapping away at a computer. Secondly, there is a perception that girls tend to be more interested in design, creative or nurturing type careers and don't see STEM as fitting in that sphere," says Patricia Yim, general manager at IBM Asean.

"This is where important initiatives such as IBM's EXITE and other programmes to expose girls to STEM education and careers are important. Organisations such as Women Who Code Singapore also play an important role to nurture technical talent among women."

Observers also proposed teaching STEM subjects in a way that would allow students to view them in the context of real-world applications. This could involve more frequent quizzes and unit tests to provide teachers with regular feedback on whether the students are following their lectures, rather than over-emphasising examinations.

"When students can grasp the context of what they are learning and digest difficult topics, they will feel much more motivated to learn. It would be important to give students more opportunities to do experimental work. Such hands-on learning will give them a deeper appreciation of the physical context of the subjects in addition to just understanding them from a theoretical standpoint," says Prof Ying.

Providing female role models or a support community to help young women build up their personal confidence in succeeding in these careers may also be helpful.

"Perhaps in certain societies where gender discrimination is still pervasive or access to education is limited, more support is needed for women. Sometimes, obstacles may be stigma in society or pressure from families to get a "feminine" job. In such cases, more can be done to develop stronger support networks - whether it's women supporting younger women in the same industries or getting men involved in mentoring and advocating for women," says Sze Tan, managing director at the Nestlé R&D Centre in Singapore.

Is the tide turning?

While the official data regarding women in STEM may be lacklustre, there is anecdotal evidence that the situation is improving. In recent years, Prof Ying has met more young women at international conferences who are pursuing scientific research. "In particular, I have noticed more women interested in research from the developing world. This is certainly very encouraging," she says.

To encourage greater participation among women, Prof Ying and her IBN colleague Noreena AbuBakar had established the Youth Research Program in 2003 to promote scientific research to young people. Through open houses, workshops, science camps and career talks, the programme has reached out to over 112,900 students and teachers from 290 schools, junior colleges, polytechnics and universities.

Indeed, with Singapore's high-quality and affordable education, women in Singapore are more likely to find opportunities rather than obstacles here if they wanted to pursue a career in STEM. In addition, the Singapore government offers strong support through various schemes and initiatives to encourage talent development in these areas.

Ultimately, however, it will be women's passion for STEM that will see them beating the odds to pursue the career of their choice.

Says Dr Tan: "In today's world, we face urgent issues such as food security, environmental sustainability, urban housing, ageing population and many others. We need to build competency and knowledge in STEM because the world needs practical, actionable solutions. Whether you are male or female, I firmly believe that if you have conviction and passion for what you do, you will be able to overcome any stigma or obstacle in your way."

 

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