S'pore must do more to empower women to pursue Stem careers: Heng Swee Keat

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat at the World Engineers Summit on Nov 10, 2021. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Despite moves to get more women into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) fields, there is still a gender gap in these sectors, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

And that is why Singapore must make a concerted effort to empower women to pursue careers in these fields, he said at the launch of the World Engineers Summit on Wednesday (Nov 10).

He added that fewer women who graduate with Stem qualifications pursue a career in a related field, compared to the proportion of men. In March, a survey by Nanyang Technological University found that just 58 per cent of women who graduate with Stem degrees or diplomas go on to have related careers.

Singapore has been doing more to encourage women to join these fields, he said, giving the example of the Powers Programme launched this year, which is meant to create a supportive environment for female industry leaders in Stem, and ground efforts like a new bursary in East Coast, Mr Heng's constituency, supporting women who choose to study in these fields.

Mr Heng also spoke on the possibilities of technology and how it must be used to solve problems and improve lives - addressing the theme of this year's summit on "Engineering towards a post-pandemic sustainable world".

He noted how engineering has come to the fore during the current Covid-19 pandemic, from contact-tracing apps and machines that can automate the extraction of vaccines from their vials to the 3D printing of critical components.

The world is on the cusp of another engineering renaissance - the Fourth Industrial Revolution - he added, saying that a host of transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing will change the way people work, live and play.

"But technology is ultimately a tool. The critical question is how we can harness its potential to engineer solutions to improve lives," said Mr Heng.

"Thinking long term, one clear challenge that we must tackle is sustainability. Climate change and its impact on biodiversity are critical issues."

He added that a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach is required to tackle future challenges.

"Over time, various branches of engineering developed, each with its own deep specialisation… These deep specialisations have also resulted in deep innovation. But the boundaries around these various disciplines are blurring."

Mr Heng said that to tackle the complex challenges of the future, a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach is needed.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat viewing an exhibit at the World Engineers Summit on Nov 10, 2021. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

To this end, Singapore's universities are encouraging an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research, he said, integrating arts and humanities into Stem subjects.

Mr Heng also addressed the issue of ageing infrastructure in Singapore and globally and the important role engineers play in keeping things running.

He said: "Keeping existing infrastructure going is often more complex than we give our engineers credit for.

"Thank you for keeping the light bulbs going and the pipes flowing."

The summit, which is organised by the Institution of Engineers, Singapore and runs until Friday, features speakers on topics such as sustainable living through technology, engineering education, artificial intelligence and digitalisation.

This is the fifth edition of the biennial event, a platform for engineers, researchers and business leaders to exchange views and forge collaborations.

The launch was held as a hybrid event in Resorts World Sentosa, with 200 people there in person and 800 from around the world attending online.

A panel discussion held at the World Engineers Summit on Nov 10, 2021. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Systems engineer Kaori Sudo, who was at the opening ceremony, said the issue of a gender gap in Stem is improving, noting that there are more women in her younger sister's engineering class in university than during her time.

The statistics bear this out. Based on the combined university intake data from 2019, women accounted for 41 per cent of the cohort in Stem courses, up from 38 per cent in 2017.

But the next step is to address the false perception that jobs in engineering are physically intensive and hence not suitable for women, which prevents them from going into these jobs, said Ms Sudo, 26, a Malaysian working in Singapore.

She added: "Especially in Singapore, women tend to think engineering work is more hands on and requires more on-site work than other careers, which is not necessarily true."

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