WOMEN ON A MISSION

Tech firm exec hopes more can be done to combat gender biases

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which was celebrated last Thursday, Shabana Begum and Cheryl Tan spoke to three women who have excelled in jobs dominated by men and who hope to inspire others to do the same.

Dr Si-Hui Tan, chief scientific officer of local start-up Horizon Quantum Computing, has studied and conducted research in the mathematics and physics fields for over 20 years.
Dr Si-Hui Tan, chief scientific officer of local start-up Horizon Quantum Computing, has studied and conducted research in the mathematics and physics fields for over 20 years.PHOTO: HORIZON QUANTUM COMPUTING

Dr Si-Hui Tan had already developed a keen interest in mathematics and science in secondary school.

After studying in Raffles Girls' School, she went on to pursue advanced mathematics and a degree in physics, and eventually earned a post-doctorate degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Today, the 40-year-old is the chief scientific officer at local start-up Horizon Quantum Computing. The firm aims to make quantum computing more accessible to software developers.

Inspired by the possibilities a quantum computer could offer in everyday use, Dr Tan is developing software that will compile or convert classical codes so that they could be run on quantum computers.

Many of her clients, such as those in the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries, encounter problems that require "high computational power" and could take a long time to process through a regular computer.

For instance, in the aerospace industry, common problems include optimising flight schedules or ensuring that aircraft are operating at optimal cargo and passenger capacity.

A quantum computer may process some of these problems much quicker, she said.

And if that proves to be the case, Dr Tan hopes her company can make the technology more accessible to these industries.

Having studied and conducted research in the fields of mathematics and physics for more than 20 years, Dr Tan is used to being one of the few women in a male-dominated field.

"By the time I got to college, only 30 per cent of the cohort was female," she said.

Of course, this came with the occasional snide remark from male counterparts.

  • 30%

    Proportion of cohort that was female when Dr Si-Hui Tan was in college.

"I was told by a fellow student in MIT that the reason why I was there was part of affirmative action, or positive discrimination as I am a woman," Ms Tan recalled.

"I brushed it aside then, but if that were to happen to me today, I would definitely take a more active stance."

Unfazed, she has continued to pursue her research interests.

Last year, she won the Silver Award for Chief Technology Officer Of The Year from the WomenTech Network for her leadership and work in innovation and for fostering diversity and inclusion.

"Overall, I think I was very lucky to have a very supportive environment that wasn't biased against women, so I'm lucky that my gender wasn't an obstacle in my career," she said.

"But in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry as a whole, I do think there are systemic biases against women, especially the assumption that when they start having children, there's a lot to juggle, so many would end up dropping out."

Dr Tan hopes that more can be done to raise awareness of gender biases in the industry.

For instance, more support should be given to both parents of young children, so that caregiving responsibilities can be more equally spread between the two.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2021, with the headline 'Tech firm exec hopes more can be done to combat gender biases'. Subscribe