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Gender disparity in the workforce has become a growing point of contention over the years.

Although there has been a slight growth in the women within the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) sectors — 38 per cent in 2017 compared to 41 per cent in 2019 — women graduating with STEM degrees or diplomas still pale in comparison to men at 50 per cent in 2017, to 70 per cent in 2019.

Equality in the workforce isn’t solved overnight. In fact, there is a push within the industry to advocate for women in the STEM fields.

Some government initiatives include the Cross-Polytechnic Girls in Tech (CP-GIT) in conjunction with Singapore Women in Tech (SGWiT), and some corporate efforts include DBS’ women-only hiring initiative.

Despite these initiatives, honest conversations still need to be had about the key barriers in STEM that affect its progress.

Gender education starts young

Alena Salakhova, Regional Director of SThree Singapore and Hong Kong, Chairman for APSCo in Singapore and Internal Regional Lead for Diversity and Inclusion committee, observed that the STEM focus in education might not be as equal amongst schools, and parents themselves may not be advocating for their girls to go for it as well.

stem education children
STEM for children at a young age / Image Credit: TheAsianParent

A perfect example is my son’s nursery. It offers STEM enrichment classes, and these classes are a chance for them to play with robotics and LEGO at a young age. I learnt recently that the only kids enrolled are him and two other boys.

Why are there no girls in this class? I spoke to other parents and they said that it’s very math-driven and not very creative for their girls to take interest in.

Alena Salakhova, Regional Director of SThree Singapore and Hong Kong, Chairman for APSCo in Singapore and Internal Regional Lead for Diversity and Inclusion committee

Based on a survey conducted by the Asian Scientist Magazine in collaboration with international market research firm YouGov, it found that STEM was the most popular career choice for local parents with children under 18 with 36 per cent male and 28 per cent female.

However, parents still perceive ‘hard’ science subjects such as A-Maths and Design and Technology (D&T) to be more suitable for boys compared to girls. 

stem education singapore schools
STEM in schools / Image Credit: BurnPavement

There is a false, yet prevalent, belief in society that boys are “naturally” better at STEM subjects.

Such negative stereotypes and beliefs remain pervasive and influential, reducing the confidence in girls, leading to reduced test scores. Over time, girls’ interest and aspirations in STEM careers decline or disappear altogether.

STEM careers painted as “masculine” careers, combined with the lack of visible female role models, ultimately make STEM careers generally less attractive to girls than boys.

Gladys Choo, STEM educator on the Science Centre Board, recounts her time in school.

We didn’t have many opportunities to be exposed to STEM-related subjects and careers. I felt I wasn’t able to make an informed decision of choosing a course apart from pure sciences and maths, because I didn’t believe I could go into an engineering course as a girl.

There weren’t as many resources available or voices to empower girls to consider all the possibilities of the STEM industry.

– Gladys Choo, STEM educator on the Science Centre Board

Lack of flexibility in organisations

Although the obstacles begin in childhood, they continue on into the workforce in various forms.

Among the many reasons why women face a roadblock in their careers is due to their caregiving needs, and time spent away looking after their children and families. 

Women are often questioned about their commitment to their careers, and are assumed that in the near future, they will permanently depart. Perceptions of a woman’s work as a hobby, rather than as a lifelong calling or profession due to their motherhood responsibilities is also a commonality. 

Nominated Member of Parliament of Singapore (between 2016 and 2018), K. Thanaletchimi, observed that in their 20s, 80 to 90 per cent of women remain employed. However, the number drops significantly when they hit their 30s, often due to caregiving needs.

Similarly, a report entitled “Retaining Women in STEM Careers” pointed out that women with children are 28 per cent less likely than those without to be placed in tenure-track positions.

The right support helps foster the right mindset

Another predominant obstacle is the lack of mentorship in the STEM industry for women. Professional mentorships are vitally important in fields where the odds are stacked against rising individuals.

Being in a male-dominated industry such as STEM, women have to jump multiple hurdles.

Having the advice of a woman who has already “been there, done that” can vastly improve the ability of other women who are new to, or rising up, within their fields. It encourages them to stay the course and provides them with a newfound hope that success in the industry is possible.

Polly Liu, a mechanical engineer at Shell, is a Shell StartUp Engine (SSE) mentor, and focuses on driving digitalisation at the Pulau Bukom manufacturing site. Her role includes the implementation of new initiatives, transforming existing work processes, and ultimately promoting a digitally-savvy workforce.

Liu volunteers as an SSE mentor to provide guidance to energy start-ups to help them grow.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t exposed to many female figures in the science and technology field. I only remember learning about Marie Curie in school.

– Polly Liu, Mechanical Engineer at Shell and Shell StartUp Engine (SSE) mentor

It’s worth noting that both formal and informal mentorships are useful. They create advantageous partnerships for women, and can improve career opportunities.

Mentors can also address situation that might not be inherently easy for newcomers such as workplace politics, negotiations for salary or promotions, as well as overall life-balancing mechanisms.

Despite the obstacles that are present in STEM careers today, there are examples of successful women within the industry. 

Women at Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) conference in 2018
Women at Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) conference in 2018 / Image Credit: ConnectedWomen.co

National University of Singapore (NUS) Professor Ho Ghim Wei is one of them. She integrates an impressive range of disciplines to design sustainable solar systems that will help Singapore meet its renewable energy goals. Currently, she is working on using functional nanomaterials to provide renewable energy.

Associate Professor Ho Ghim Wei and her team, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, NUS
Associate Professor Ho Ghim Wei and her team, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, NUS / Image Credit: NUS

Another female role model is Professor Erika Legara. Together with her team at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), they made sense of a wealth of commuter behaviour data like overcrowding to inform future strategic transport planning and urban design in Singapore.

STEM growth is a collective effort

To help facilitate the removal of barriers from women’s efforts to retain their positions in the workforce and collectively contribute to research and the economy, the government should work alongside organisations that support women.

These include Mums-At-Work, Daughters of Tomorrow, NTUC Women and Family Division, as well as Mendaki Sense.

Together, they can develop a support package to channel women to the schemes available for refresher or reskilling courses, and provide guidance in navigating the current work environment in different sectors.

Male-dominated fields also often present a closed culture where women struggle to gain recognition and get promoted. Companies should look into adopting family-friendly policies such as onsite child care, flexible scheduling and additional paid time off.

Said initiatives will help women balance work and the still-unequal demands of domestic life.

Women should stand their ground and push to be heard in the current employment climate. This means that females have to work harder and smarter than their male colleagues.

Do not be afraid to share your insights and perspectives, even if it is “different”, because a diverse workplace is found to bring about additional benefits. These include increased productivity, creativity, and employee engagement.

Alena Salakhova, Regional Director of SThree Singapore and Hong Kong, Chairman for APSCo in Singapore and Internal Regional Lead for Diversity and Inclusion committee

She also encourages companies to place more females in managerial or leadership roles, stating that it is a better fit for women to mentor women, since they understand the discrimination and will be able to provide a fair evaluation.

Lastly, Salakhova places the importance of investing to educate companies and people of all levels that the current practice should not be the way of moving forward.

“Organising diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) workshops with practical and interactive experiential learning, tools, and tips is the first step to getting both employers and employees onboard to ideate and execute the best gender-inclusive workplace practices,” she adds.

“They have to learn that a gender-inclusive workplace means committing to a culture of support, safety, and acceptance. It also means making structural and cultural changes that demonstrate this commitment.”

For women, by women

The obstacles faced by women in STEM — as with other industries — persist till this day. The STEM industry is moving slowly, but gradually improving as more women take leadership in advocating for change.

One example is POWERS (Promotion of Women in Engineering, Research, and Science), a voluntary initiative supported by Singapore’s Ministry of Education and Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) College of Engineering, College of Science, Graduate College and Women@NTU.

Its aim is to recruit and empower women with a long-term goal to increase gender diversity in STEM careers.

POWERS at NTU / Image Credit: NTU

POWERS was started on March 5 last year, and is run by two female NTU professors. They connect women with role models, mentors, conduct research to address barriers and gaps in the local context, provide education opportunities through public talks and activities to share their discoveries.

At the end of the day, women cannot solely depend on the industry to advocate for them.

Salakhova emphasises that women too have to play their own role; being determined to help themselves, being prepared to take calculated risks and develop the confidence to try, fail, and learn along on the journey.

Featured Image Credit: Asian Scientist Magazine, SThree

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