Wanted: Female Stem professionals

Girls2Pioneers draws girls to science, technology, engineering and maths

Above: Students from Tanjong Katong Girls School trying out a prototype of an aqueduct at a day camp organised by Girls2Pioneers.
Above: Students from Tanjong Katong Girls School trying out a prototype of an aqueduct at a day camp organised by Girls2Pioneers.ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH
Above: Google sales strategy and operations associate Cassie Chan, a volunteer with Girls2Pioneers, guiding a group of Secondary 2 students at the camp.
Above: Google sales strategy and operations associate Cassie Chan, a volunteer with Girls2Pioneers, guiding a group of Secondary 2 students at the camp. ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

TODAY, they are young girls taking apart printers and doodling designs for drones.

Tomorrow, they could be making the next great scientific breakthrough.

Such is the vision of Girls2Pioneers, a campaign to get more young girls in Singapore interested in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).

Founded last year by the Singapore Committee for UN Women, the programme holds day camps and field trips for girls aged 10 to 15, exposing them to fields that range from engineering and cyber security to astrobiology.

Girls2Pioneers organiser Mrinalini Venkatachalam said that gender stereotypes and a lack of female role models can discourage girls from taking the courses necessary to enter these fields.

According to a 2010 survey by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), the proportion of men outweighed women by 30 per cent in Singapore's engineering and technology sectors.

There were about 19,000 male Stem researchers and scientists to about 6,700 female ones, and only 27 per cent of IT professionals were women.

  • Mentors out to debunk stereotypes

  • THE Girls2Pioneers campaign has mustered a roster of 23 prominent women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) to act as programme ambassadors and mentors to the girls.

    A*Star researcher Yeo Sze Ling became an ambassador last January. Dr Yeo, 37, who is also an adjunct assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University, said: "To me, it's not so much about the Stem field specifically, but to learn not to be constrained by general stereotypes to pursue our aspirations."

    She lost her sight at the age of four after being diagnosed with glaucoma, but went on to get her PhD in Mathematics.

    For Dr Melissa Fullwood, 31, volunteering as an ambassador is a way to become the role model she wishes she had had.

    The junior principal investigator at the Cancer Science Institute said: "There are very few senior female scientists, role models whom you can look up to and say, 'I could be like her'."

    Google sales strategy and operations associate Cassie Chan has volunteered at four day camps so far, including a recent one at Tanjong Katong Girls' School last month.

    Said the 30-year-old: "I do strongly believe that as women in technology or in Stem, we have a strong role to play to show people we're not your stereotypical scientist. We don't just talk code, we are fun, normal and just like them. Stem is not narrow. There's a role in Stem for everyone."


Ms Venkatachalam, 30, said: "We're keen to empower the next-generation workforce in Stem.

"So much innovation and change is coming out of these four areas and it's appalling that half the population might not have the access to becoming a key part of those solutions."

The programme organised about 30 day camps for 3,000 girls last year.

Sponsored this year by MasterCard, it aims to reach out to another 3,000.

During the camps, the girls try their hand at activities such as building aqueducts from recycled materials, learning to write computer code, and even designing alien life forms.

They also get to go on field trips to Stem facilities.

On a visit to a cancer research lab, they experimented with cell samples. On another to the Hewlett-Packard factory, they discovered how printer parts are manufactured.

Although the programme involves girls from all walks of life, Ms Venkatachalam said it is especially crucial for them to reach out to girls from low-income or at-risk backgrounds.

The group contacts them through family service centres and shelters.

She said: "These girls are doubly disadvantaged because their parents can't afford to send them for programmes or give them the same level of privilege as other students."

Girls2Pioneers also works with parents, teachers and employers to challenge existing stereotypes about women's roles in Stem.

Ms Venkatachalam said many parents she met worry that their daughters may not have a full family life if they enter demanding fields like Stem.

"But what if by doing this, you're restricting the next Marie Curie?"

Tanjong Katong Girls' School student Sneha Babu, who attended a recent programme, has decided she wants to be a stem cell expert.

"Science is really an interesting topic, as you can ask a lot of questions about it and you can theorise answers, discover and explore," said the 14-year-old.

"I would be the first girl in my family to go to college and study. I want to help the community and pursue my dreams."

Added Da Qiao Primary pupil Rachel Foo, 11, who attended a Girls2Pioneers day camp: "I like technology because with technology, you can make things, that you could only imagine, real."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Wanted: Female Stem professionals'. Subscribe