The power of mentorship: What this software engineer wants women to know about finding career success in tech

Having faced challenges due to biases against female technologists, PayPal programme manager Joanna Koh stresses the importance of role models and supportive work environments in breaking down gender barriers

Having encountered obstacles as a woman in STEM, PayPal programme manager Joanna Koh is giving back by being actively involved in enabling young female technologists to thrive. PHOTO: PAYPAL

Fresh out of university and in her early days as a software engineer, Ms Joanna Koh remembers dealing with coworkers who were dismissive about her work. She credits her boss for helping her overcome these obstacles and believes role models, as well as inclusive work environments, are essential in ensuring more women can find success in a career in technology.

Ms Koh, 41, who is now a programme manager at PayPal, is actively involved in enabling young female technologists to thrive. Recognising the need for such support, she helps them get access to advice and guidance to better navigate their own journey.

When she graduated from university with a degree in computer engineering in 2003, it was uncommon for women to pursue a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discipline. Even her mother had asked if she was sure about her choice, suggesting instead a course in accounting.

Ms Koh, though, aspired to follow in the footsteps of her older brother who studied electrical and computer engineering. She also was keen to see where a STEM degree could take her in her career.

It led to her first job as a software engineer and a realisation that, as one of few women in the industry, she would have to deal with a significant amount of "unconscious bias".

"It was typical profiling. People didn't think of women as software developers, so it was quite difficult to prove you could be a good one," she recalls.

"I found that I didn't always have a voice at the table and felt marginalized. It really affected my morale and resulted in a lot of internal struggles," she shares. "I often wondered if I was in the right industry.

Need for strong support

She says she might have given up a career in tech if not for the support of her boss, who was a much-needed pillar of strength. He encouraged her to identify and leverage her strengths as well as acquire complementary skill sets such as project management, which benefited her later in her career.

Ms Koh says: "He helped me understand it wasn't about my lack of competency, but a perception [that others held]. He gave me more opportunities to showcase my skill sets, including leading certain discussions so I wasn't just a passive participant in these meetings, which otherwise could have further enforced certain perceptions."

She also found inspiration in a female senior manager who was a veteran in the industry. "Observing how the manager conducted herself in a male-dominated environment helped me recognise it is possible to become a respected and credible female technologist."

After overcoming the initial obstacles, Ms Koh progressed steadily in her career and joined PayPal nine years ago, where her current role sees her managing programmes for the US company's Singapore Development Centre and locally based PayPal Innovation Lab, one of three worldwide and the first outside the US.

She expresses optimism over how things have improved since her early years in the industry, noting that women software developers are no longer regarded with scepticism.

"Public perceptions are very different now and I'm glad the days of unconscious bias are gone," she says.

The change, she notes, has been gradual and has taken concerted effort from different industry stakeholders, including the government and businesses, coming together to create a more vibrant and conducive ecosystem that encourages women to join, and remain in, the technology realm.

Such efforts must continue, so more youths will be motivated to consider a tech profession, says Ms Koh.

According to a study released in April by United Women Singapore and Ipsos1, 41 per cent of women, aged between 16 and 25, planned to pursue a career in STEM, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts.

The survey revealed an early interest amongst female respondents in STEM, with at least 60 per cent changing their minds about taking on STEM subjects in their studies when they were 14 to 16 years old. It highlights the need to motivate young women early in their education, so they are encouraged to retain their interest and consider a career in STEM sectors.

Ms Koh also cites the need to help young women better understand the growth potential of choosing a career in technology. She believes this requires collective effort from the industry, where businesses, schools, and governments must come together to drive a more meaningful impact.

A student visit organised by Unity, a PayPal employee resource group where members come together to create a platform and the tools to enable women to flourish in the technology sector. PHOTO: PAYPAL

"The government has good influence in rallying support and working together with schools and companies such as PayPal," she notes. "We can all start building the pipeline early, bringing in the different sectors, so children can be exposed to STEM at an early age. When they consider a career in tech at a later stage, organisations can then come in and provide the actual job opportunities."

While there now is better recognition and respect for female technologists, compared to when she first started in the industry, Ms Koh says it is still critical that companies step up to expose more young women to the possibilities a tech career can offer.

She pays tribute to organisations such as PayPal for paving the way to more inclusive workplaces that has enabled female tech professionals, in particular, to showcase their skillsets.

Inclusive workforce supporting a diverse audience

With its international headquarters located in Singapore, PayPal has introduced numerous programmes to nurture local tech talent and provide opportunities that help women tap their potential.

The digital payments company believes a diversified workforce will better support a more diverse audience across the more than 200 markets it operates in, offering a wider array of new ideas to drive improvements in legacy processes and better address customer pain points.

Amongst the various initiatives it runs, the PayPal Women Luminaries Programme (WLP) is an all-rounded programme for passionate female undergraduates to build a solid foundation for a tech career and develop the skills needed to become leaders in the field.

WLP luminaries receive a one-time scholarship covering their tuition fees for an academic year as well as a six-month internship at PayPal, during which they will learn about the inner workings of fintech and have access to mentors, internal technical courses, workshops, and networking events.

In addition, the women may be offered opportunities to take up full-time positions at PayPal upon graduation. This year, PayPal has more than tripled the number of scholarships to reach a wider number of female tech talent across all universities with eligible undergraduate programmes in Singapore.

To further ensure all its employees have the necessary support to thrive, PayPal invests resources to provide an environment that encourages diversity in experience, thoughts, opinions, and leadership styles.

One such initiative is Unity, an employee resource group that pulls together women and men to create more opportunities for their female colleagues at PayPal. The primary objective here is to provide a platform and the tools to enable women to flourish in the technology sector.

Launched in 2007, Unity has expanded to become a grassroots team with presence in 35 PayPal locations worldwide, including Singapore and India.

The international group runs various projects and initiatives, including events that enable women to access industry knowledge on current technology developments, opportunities to build critical and leadership skills, and career development programmes that encompass leadership shadowing. Female employees also can sharpen their technical skills through knowledge-sharing and hackathons.

Unity's Singapore chapter, for example, has facilitated various local events this year, including creative workshops with inspiring women who work at PayPal, and led discussions around male allyship to empower a female workforce.

Measuring and driving positive change for women

PayPal's commitment to cultivating and supporting an inclusive workforce has led to positive changes for its female employees. The company's 2020 Global Impact Report reveals that the promotion rate for women to leadership positions has doubled since 2018 and women account for 27 per cent of its technical roles worldwide.

It also has maintained 100 per cent gender pay equity globally over the last five years and offers family-focused leave policies to attract and retain its female employees. In addition, the Global Impact Report puts PayPal's diverse workforce presentation at 56 per cent, which includes women internationally.

PayPal CEO Dan Schulman (centre) visiting the company's International headquarters in Singapore. PayPal is committed to supporting an inclusive workforce, and has maintained 100 per cent gender pay equity globally over the last five years. PHOTO: PAYPAL

The annual report measures the company's performance across key pillars in its Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) strategy, spanning areas such as employees and culture, social innovation, and environmental sustainability.

Ms Koh adds: "It's important for organisations to step up and create opportunities for women who are considering a career in the industry, so they can be exposed to the possibilities, as well as those who are already in the sector. Companies need to continue to provide a conducive ecosystem within which they can grow."

Find out more about PayPal's Women Luminaries Programme here.


Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.