Stem the loss of tech talent with women

Holding its No. 2 ranking five years in a row in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Report, compiled by the World Economic Forum, Singapore was recently praised for having the best higher education and training system in the world. Yet in the same breath, it was said that its female workforce participation remained relatively low. Let's consider the situation and factors at play.

Born and raised in Singapore, Ms Krystal Choo taught herself how to code HTML and JavaScript at the age of 12. By age 15, she was designing websites.

Today, at 28, Ms Choo is the creator and founder of Wander, an app which brings together like-minded individuals. Although there is a growing number of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) sectors in Singapore - such as Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling, Hyflux founder Olivia Lum and JobsCentral co-founder Huang Shao-Ning - there are still very few like Ms Choo out there, in the fields of Stem.

In the 2016 Gartner CIO Agenda Report, 48 per cent of chief information officers in South-east Asia feel that they are suffering from talent shortages in the Stem field and 10 per cent believe the scarcity of talent is reaching crisis proportions. On top of this, there's that longstanding issue of an alarmingly low number of women pursuing a career in Stem - only 23 per cent of Stem researchers in East Asia and the Pacific are women, as reported by Unesco.

CALLING FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE

Singapore's educational infrastructure is world acclaimed in providing a grounding in Stem and while the country's leadership is encouraging Stem capabilities, there are still relatively few women in the field. Although a growing number of women are studying Stem subjects, many opt out at the highest levels, either in academics or the workplace.

Ms Choo is the creator and founder of Wander, an app which brings together like-minded individuals. She taught herself how to code HTML and JavaScript at the age of 12. By age 15, she was designing websites.
Ms Choo is the creator and founder of Wander, an app which brings together like-minded individuals. She taught herself how to code HTML and JavaScript at the age of 12. By age 15, she was designing websites. PHOTO: WANDER

In the 2016 Gartner CIO Agenda Report, 48 per cent of chief information officers in South-east Asia feel that they are suffering from talent shortages in the Stem field and 10 per cent believe the scarcity of talent is reaching crisis proportions. On top of this, there's that longstanding issue of an alarmingly low number of women pursuing a career in Stem - only 23 per cent of Stem researchers in East Asia and the Pacific are women, as reported by Unesco.

Recent data from an Asia-Pacific study, commissioned by MasterCard, revealed that one in five females said gender bias is a reason why they would not consider a Stem career.

Indubitably, the under-representation of women in Stem sectors is compounding the shortage of tech talent. This trend will harm the technology industry in the long run if the potential of women is not harnessed.

Singapore faces three large challenges in maintaining a healthy pool of tech talent to fuel the digital transformation of the nation. One is attracting children, especially girls, to take up Stem subjects; the second is encouraging fresh graduates to pursue a career in technology; and the third critical challenge is ensuring the IT workforce stays relevant. Addressing these challenges requires a ground-up approach which can consist of the following:

• Establish local role models in tech. A quarter of 17- to 19-year- olds in the Asia-Pacific have shared that profiling successful women in Stem sectors as role models encourages them to consider Stem careers.

There's an opportunity for the Government to leverage the growing desirability of local digital start-ups and feature women tech entrepreneurs as role models and local heroes, helping to tilt the balance towards a technology career.

• Plant Stem seeds from young. According to the MasterCard study, 68 per cent of girls in Asia (aged 12 to 19) overwhelmingly responded that their parents are the most influential on their decision to study Stem subjects or pursue Stem careers.

In Singapore, academics, corporates and the Government are coming together to create a slew of educational activities, giving parents a plethora of options to engage their children and kindle a lifelong interest in technology.

These include robotics immersion courses using Lego to create a hands-on learning experience, and local programmes such as Girls2Pioneer, Singapore-based day camps for girls to learn and cultivate their technical skills and, ultimately explore careers in Stem. Other relevant activities are the Maker Faire Singapore, a family-friendly showcase of do-it-yourself creations that promotes the spirit of invention, creativity and resourcefulness.

• Adopt a lifelong learning mantra. With advancements in technology sprouting ever so often, it is absolutely necessary to be abreast of the latest trends to stay relevant at every stage of our career. Learning should not stop at graduation but instead spur people to continue building on their learning journey.

For instance, structured internship programmes facilitated by educational institutes or industry organisations and corporates offer valuable hands-on projects to graduating students and give employers a chance to groom potential talent.

Corporates play a significant role in building and maintaining a pipeline of talent from diverse backgrounds. In-house training and diversity and inclusion programmes not only help employees stay relevant to industry trends but help overcome unconscious biases to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

Singapore governmental organisations are also engaging technology professionals to boost their tech skills with the TechSkills Accelerator programme.

• Advocate real change to stem the loss. A real change should start from the leadership - be it through parents, educators or employers breaking the stereotypes of this male-dominated industry. As a first step, parents can plant the seeds to expose their children to the world of Stem and spark their curiosity. Educators provide the fodder to nourish interest and opportunities in the sector. Finally, employers need to play the role of a gardener to identify the potential among their talent pool to grow and flourish in new positions and markets. Any pre-conceived notions or assumptions would result in stunted growth, leading to a dearth of tech talent which will ultimately impact business outcomes.

So what led Ms Krystal Choo, Ms Olivia Lum, Ms Tan Hooi Ling and Ms Huang Shao-Ning to work in the field of technology?

There is a commonality in their stories - their determination in solving today's problems with technology.

Not all possessed a background in science, technology, engineering or mathematics but discovered the potential to disrupt their respective industries by the innovative use of Stem.

Just as they uncovered the potential of Stem to realise their dreams, there is vast untapped potential in today's youth to build a lifelong passion in Stem.

• The writer is senior vice-president and managing director for South Asia and Korea at Dell EMC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Stem the loss of tech talent with women'. Print Edition | Subscribe