The state of STEM in Singapore: how to drive the women of tech revolution

As part of SheSays Singapore’s regular event series, the organisation gathered tech luminaries to tackle the ‘Women of the Tech Revolution’ topic, aiming to uncover why statistics still lag for females in STEM careers.

In fact, SheSays quotes that while 74% of young girls express an interest in STEM fields and computer science, only 18% of undergraduates take computer science degrees, and only 26% of computing jobs are held by women. It’s worse at the top of the corporate world — just 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women.

Beatrice Seilern, SheSays Singapore Member and managing editor or Giles Publications, wrote up the night’s best questions.

The first question to the panel was: Is the lack of women in leadership roles a problem?

Anika Grant, APAC HR director at Uber: "Absolutely. If people at leadership level cannot connect with and understand the female perspective then it is an issue. If you cannot get a diverse group of people, whether it is geographic or in terms of experience, not just gender, sitting around a table making decisions, you don't get innovation, new directions, creativity, or thinking outside of the box. More than that, you don't get diversity below. The best way to drive business performance, through innovation, is to have a diverse group of people sitting around the table at the top.

Lena Goh, chief marketing and communications officer at GovTech: "The problem I find is more at mid-level. There are more male leaders in the succession pipeline. This is a problem because we need women to advocate for each other. People tend to hire people who think and look like themselves. If you look at the stats 4 out of 10 students who attend a local poli or uni are girls (in terms of STEM/tech curriculums), but that goes down to 3 out of 10 after school, and by the time they finish their second year of a tech career that has dropped even further to 1 out of 10. This tends to happen once women realise they want to have a family and they feel tech has long hours. This is untrue, and something we need to challenge.

The fact, companies who have more female leaders are able to deliver higher profits, because women are more empathetic and can relate to the customer user experience, which translates into real financial results. Female leadership is critical to companies."

Deirdre Chew, agency lead at Google APAC: "It goes both ways. Senior leadership needs to set an example and be more open in the way they hire. But it also requires an understanding that technology and big data doesn’t just mean coding. It is everywhere. We need to start thinking about data and technology as an environment in which we all belong. Fresh graduates don't have to study coding or big data to work in tech. If we change the conversation, talk about behavioural trends in tech, that opens doors into many other industries such as marketing and communications."

Ria Hoban, APAC digital analytics alliances lead, Accenture: "Having diversity in the room means different ideas get validated. More women in leadership roles in the workforce means adding to the levels of quality assurance, not just for the sake of diversity but for the sake of performance and innovation."

Jon Neale, technology director at McGregor Boyall: "Diversity is extremely important for new ideas, but there is not a lot of strategy in place for hiring or promoting the female workforce in technology. We need to go back down to high school and look at how we market and advise kids about the industry, and let them know that there are sexy jobs in technology. It needs to be an educational process all the way from school to MNCs, and it is a process we all need to champion."

Anika: “You also need to make sure that the interview process is such that women are encouraged to take roles in tech, that are more high touch, that work with agencies so we have diversity in the pipeline - little changes like that can make a big difference in terms of the outcome."

Jon: “A lot of times it feels like a gesture when clients ask us to hire women for tech roles. However we placed 22% of women in tech roles last year which is quite respectable.”

Why do you want to be a woman in tech right now?

Anika: “It is an industry which is growing at an amazing pace, where we are creating and disrupting, not just in terms of products but in terms of approach.”

Jon: “15 years ago I thought working in tech meant programming and IT support. Now it’s all about online businesses, analytics, and behavioural patterns, which is very exciting.”

Lena: “Technology has evolved, and with it our relationships and our connection with each other, and that is powerful. In my old roles I was struggling to communicate with my son, and the arrival of Skype was priceless. Being in a technology role I have found that people don’t complain until there is a problem, so unfortunately there isn’t much recognition, but it does show the impact we have.”

Ria: “I am very interested in Artificial Intelligence. Facebook Live allowed teenagers in Chicago to steam a violent act, which was very disturbing, but Facebook is now using the same technology to predict violent feeds like that one, and shut them down immediately. The way we can use technology to solve every day problems is very exciting. For example, Philips and Google are working together on innovative technologies that can spot tumours earlier, before doctors can, thereby saving lives.”

Deirdre: “The benefits of tech are two-fold. Being able to understand human behaviour better, and the ready availability of information means we can elevate our knowledge and understanding of the world.”

How can women move up in their careers, or shift from a non-tech role into a tech business?

Anika: “Anyone can learn technology online, and learning agility is the most important skill you can have at the moment. Women, speaking generally, also have an advantage in terms of EQ. We are more in tune to the reactions of those around us, and to what is happening and to others say. Bringing that into any industry, but especially one which is male-dominated, is a huge skill.

A very easy and tactical way to progress is to find a sponsor or a mentor within the organisation. A sponsor is someone who thinks highly of you, has your back, and will go in to bat for you. A mentor will coach you, and help you manage professional situations.”

Jon: “Ask. Ask your manager to create a career progression path for you. Unfortunately you have to rely on the creativity and good will of your manager, but you have to ask, and push for opportunities to diversify your skillset and progress. You have to be humble and ask for help. If you are ambitious and have a good attitude that will be recognised, and those are the qualities you need in order to progress.”

Does the tech industry help support women to have a family and a job?

Jon: “There are a large number of women in leadership roles who do not return to work when they start families, even though they have progressed really well in their careers. But modern industries will let people work from home – you don’t have to be in the office five days a week. That is an area every market could tap into, thereby encouraging women to come back to work. People hire what is familiar to them, but with more women in leadership positions it will hopefully become more natural to encourage progression for the female workforce, bringing them back after giving birth, and sharing the parenting responsibilities. There is an untapped resource there which we can hopefully plan to utilise.”

Anika: “Sheryl Sandberg famously said 'the most important career choice you'll make is who you marry'. Having conversations and figuring out what you need to do together is crucial.”

A community member, Claire Waring, explained her journey back into working as an ECD; “You need to find the right Boss, as well as the right husband.”

How do you balance being a mother and working?

Ria: “I’ve been very fortunate to align myself with strong and open minded leadership. Accenture is large and matrixed, you need to be very political, and deliver high results. Being a working mum means getting internal support and setting the right expectations is crucial. That’s why networking is very important. You need to expose yourself and be aware of what else is out there and working for others. You can’t make everyone happy, so don’t get down if someone has different expectations from what you have set out.”

Anika: “After I had my kids I became ten times more effective. You do what needs to be done and you get out of there as soon as possible!”

Ria: “It is about efficiency and maximising your time. The big thing is doing something that you know you are good at. One of the hesitations I had about going into AI at Accenture was not doing an excellent job. We set such high expectations for ourselves, but it doesn’t always have to be perfect. Negativity bias states that you need five positive instances to make up for one negative one, so you need to focus on what you do well, and on delivering results in a positive manner.”

Should we be gender biased? Should there be legislation put in place?

Deirdre: “There definitely has to be recognition at a senior level, but events like SheSays also give women a great platform to connect and progress.”

Anika: “At my previous company we really pushed for gender equality but the results were minimal. At another company I was told we didn’t have a diversity problem even though we did. So I think although it is complicated, if you want to drive change you need to disrupt, and have some form of intervention until the change can be enabled, and is sustainable.”

Jon: “The problem comes back to the original hiring manager. A lot of people are lazy, and will fulfill quotas without trying to achieve progress. So I don’t think a quota is the right answer.”

Lena: “When it comes to taking on a new role for example, men tend to have the confidence to package and brand themselves, whereas women are more cautious, so it goes beyond policies.”

Do you have any advice on initiatives we can put into place in our organisations?

Anika: “There does need to be programmatic initiatives in place, such as helping women adjust when they come back from maternity leave. Providing some nurturing when women come back from maternity leave is also important. I am also a huge believer in networking outside of the organisation, so you can share and learn from other people in similar situations. Lastly, putting in place formal or informal mentoring programmes, with men and women who can guide others is a great thing.”

How can young women increase their hirability and develop experience?

Anika: “Find out what your personal brand is. How are you different to all the other 20 year olds out there? What are you passionate about? What are you good at? What sets you apart? What will make your CV stand out? Think about your LinkedIn profile, the conversations you have online, and be authentic. Use all the online tools that we currently have to get your brand out there.”

I went through many lateral moves. In each move I had sponsors and mentors, and I knew what it was that I was bringing to the role that would set me apart. I knew I had experience and career capital that others might not have, and that would help me move to the next step.”

This session was led by Lizi Hamer and Meera Navaratnam; in collaboration with JustCo, Bottles XO, Dosirak and EngineersSG. The next SheSays Singapore event is on 15 March and looks at the topic of ‘Breaking barriers for women in film and animation’.

Beatrice Seilern is a SheSays Singapore member and is managing editor of Giles Publications.

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