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'Women need to speak up in the boardroom' says Shopee's head of data science

Dr. Pan Yaozhang started her career as a research scientist at the A*Star

As a woman working in the male-dominated tech space, Dr. Pan Yaozhang, the head of data science at Shopee, the Tencent-backed e-commerce platform, has found herself on occasion having to modify her behavior to become more assertive and straightforward to fit in.

However, she has come to realize that her insights would be valued if she was not afraid to speak up and have confidence in her knowledge and skills.

That is why, for International Women’s Day in 2019, she hopes to see more women make their voices heard. In fact, making sure your voice is heard in the industry and in the boardroom, even if you the minority, is one of her first pieces of advice. Secondly, she says, is the need to always keep a rational mind when making decisions.

“Women and girls represent two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population, resulting in lesser women working in formal corporations and leading to fewer females in more senior leadership roles in said companies,” Pan tells The Drum, in reference to research by the UN Women organization.

“Other possible reasons include being overly concerned about public opinion, pre-judgment from employers based on gender stereotypes, and unbalanced family commitments. Furthermore, many companies do not intentionally set policies to include women and make them feel valued in the workplace, such as benefits and spaces for working mothers to accommodate their maternal needs.”

To combat this, she says Shopee has formed a working mothers’ group, where participants from all levels within the industry gather together regularly to discuss new policies for working mothers. This includes issues like flexible working hours and meeting remotely.

Improving gender equality at the top

Having started her career as a research scientist at the Singapore government’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Pan became motivated to use tech to improve the lives of people when one of her research works became patented and put into production. It inspired and excited her to know that people were benefiting from the algorithm she designed.

That led her to pursue a new career track in the tech industry and when Shopee came calling in 2016 as they were looking for someone to start building its data science team from scratch, Pan jumped at the chance because she felt she was a good fit for the platform’s data-driven culture.

“Because of this culture, we were able to build up a comprehensive in-house data tracking and monitoring system, while ensuring proper data storage. This formed a solid foundation on which we could employ data analytics to bring actionable business insights, and data science to bring business optimization,” she explains.

“I am grateful to Shopee’s executive team for giving my team and I space and freedom to plan Shopee’s data roadmap and to decide on the ways we could use artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to drive and improve on key business metrics and business processes.”

While Pan’s story at Shopee is encouraging, similar stories in other businesses in Singapore are far and few between. A report by the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI and BoardAgender) in 2018 urged Singapore businesses to take a more proactive outlook on increasing the gender balance in board rooms, with many businesses becoming slow to react.

According to the data, 10% of businesses were classed as resistive deniers, 7% passive onlookers, 54% a meritocracy onlooker and just 29% leading the charge as conscious champions.

Data from the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) in 2017 also found Singapore’s female board representation to sit at around 12.2% (from 9.7% in 2016), needing firms to increase this by over 7% in two years for Singapore reach its target of 20% representation by 2020.

Encouraging businesses to improve their gender diversity, Pan points out without women, the tech and other industries miss out on much-needed diversity that can bring about a wider range of skills and approaches. She adds that women form half the world’s population, which means more effort needs to be undertaken to ensure that females are proportionately represented in the workplace.

“Companies need to understand the level of gender diversity in their businesses and then try to help women feel valued in the workplace by offering coaching and development programmes, with a view to progress women towards more senior or managerial roles. This can not only help to increase the number of women leaders in the industry, but also retain current employees and attract more women to follow in their footsteps,” she explains.

“I believe that equality is the way forward, and the onus is on business leaders to set the tone at their workplaces. At Shopee, diversity and inclusion are embedded into our culture, and every employee - from the highest levels of senior management down to our new hires - embraces it.”

She continues: “Employees receive equal chances to develop and have equal access to opportunities. These policies are reflected in the numerous women leaders whom we have managing various departments across Shopee.”

Parents can also play a part in the gender diversity conversation to improve the gender ratio in the tech-space, suggests Pan, as they are hugely influential in a young child's life. Parents can help to foster interest in tech by encouraging their children to explore more tech-related activities from an early age.

In addition, the media also has a huge role to play in influencing young girls’ perceptions of tech, she says. For example, introducing more tech-savvy girl characters into children’s programmes can help portray tech roles as more gender-balanced, rather than male-centric.

Finding future talent

Ahead of the growing importance of data and analytics that marketers are applying to understand consumer behavior, Pan believes that data science literacy is essential for a future-ready Singapore, regardless of gender.

She says the business is committed to equipping the public with the relevant skills and have been doing so through strategic partnerships with key industry stakeholders to promote data science and coding through talks, workshops, mentoring clinics and internships.

This is similar to what schools like Singapore Management University are doing for its students in programmes with industry partners like Google to experience the industry outside of the lecture halls.

For its part, Shopee organized the National Data Science Challenge (NDSC) in early 2019 to showcase the ubiquity and usefulness of data in getting insights to reinforce Singapore’s emphasis on driving the digital economy and the use of big data.

It has a beginner category, which is targeted at those with little to no programming and/or data science experience, and an advanced category, which is open to all including tech professionals. It also offered complimentary and paid training workshops organized by some of its partners including YiDu AI, Upcode Academy, Hackwagon Academy, General Assembly, and Code Gakko.

“Through NDSC, we hope to equip students and professionals with essential technical skills and expertise to prepare them for the digital and data-driven economy, bring the tech community closer through working together and knowledge sharing, and provide an environment for the development of creative new ideas in data science,” explains Pan.

Internally, the company regularly conducts training sessions on communication and presentation, stakeholder management and create more opportunities for its data scientists to communicate directly with its business stakeholders, in order to help them gain a better understanding of the e-commerce business.

It also invites professors from local universities for sharing sessions at its offices to ensure its data scientists’ knowledge of data science and big data technology are up-to-date.

Pan says this is important because Shopee believes that innovation in this digital economy requires varied expertise and experiences as data science is a multidisciplinary area, functioning across three major domains of business understanding, mathematical expertise and engineering capability.

“We provide opportunities for our data scientists to work on end-to-end data science projects - from receiving business requests, communicating with business stakeholders and problem analysis, algorithm development and evaluation, to service deployment and optimisation. With all these measures in place, we are doing our best to prepare Shopee’s talents to become full-stack data scientists for the future of the data science industry in Singapore,” she explains.

Read more about The Drum's coverage on the gender conversation in the industry here.

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