Toy trucks used to be for boys, Barbie Dolls for girls. This was the message that Carolyn Chin-Parry, Digital Accelerator Leader at PwC Singapore and Board Director of EQUAL-ARK Singapore, grew up in the 1980s.
At the recent Women in STEM event organised by Michael Page Singapore, Chin-Parry and three other prominent women leaders shared how mainstream media, among other things, have tended to reinforce gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries – as well as what employers can do to support women’s advancement in these crucial workplaces.
Covering female participation in STEM, the event was attended by more than 40 guests from various industries. The panel discussion was moderated by Christine Liu, Founder and Chairwoman of sHero, a non-profit organisation that train and support women at the workplace. Liu and Chin-Parry were joined by K. Thanaletchimi, Chairperson of NTUC Women’s Committee and Honorary Secretary of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations; Dr Vera Jin, CEO of Sopra Steria Asia; and Yvonne Han, Senior Vice President Business Management & Transformation, APAC, at Bank of America.
On stereotypes and fear
Liu asked the panel why there continues to be a lack of women in STEM-related industries. For many, including Chin-Parry, the seemingly innocuous stereotypes in the media perpetuate existing gender divisions and inequality in the workplace. For instance, she critiqued US sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and other popular TV shows, portraying female protagonists as unschooled love interests. In contrast, male protagonists are educated (though socially inept) scientists.
Dr Jin approached the question from the standpoint of a company’s leadership attitude. “I would say company culture and the board members’ attitude are key reasons,” Dr Jin shared. “Company culture [determines] whether a woman is motivated to speak for herself, or if she has the opportunity to rise through the ranks.”
As a former Nominated Member of Parliament of Singapore between 2016 and 2018, Thanaletchimi believed that society had a part to play. “We have to change the cultural norm. A lot of women are fearful of their male counterparts and are afraid to take career breaks,” she said. “We need to lift that fear. Everybody has a stake.”
Many women in attendance verbally confirmed this fear perception. For instance, in Singapore alone, Thanaletchimi revealed that while 80–90% of women in their 20s are employed, the number drop significantly when they hit their 30s, often due to caregiving needs. What is even more troubling is that many women grow fearful of returning after the caregiving needs pass.
“They develop this fear of returning to work because of the knowledge and experience gap,” Thanaletchimi said. “Some women even forget how to write a resume.” She noted that in STEM, where everything is moving at a break-neck speed, months away could at times be all it takes for someone to feel left out of the loop.
The global numbers paint a similar picture. According to the UNESCO Science Report, women account for 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates in STEM. Yet the same report notes that just 30% of active researchers are women. And while the gender balance has improved for specific fields such as maths, life sciences, health sciences and physical sciences, the number of women in engineering and computer science has actually decreased over the years. Thanaletchimi shared that in Singapore, only 25–30% of the STEM workforce are women. “We can do better,” she stressed.
Mentors and allies
Despite the numbers, the high calibre panel agreed that there are positive signs on the horizon, with support coming in the form of mentors, allies and inclusive company policies.
Han shared a personal experience of being transferred to a tech-heavy department within the company: and finding herself the only woman on the team. “I became a little worried,” she joked. After 15 years of working in companies with well-balanced gender ratios, it seemed a stark contrast. “My bubble burst.” Complicating matters further, she became pregnant a month into her new role. However, what ultimately helped her transition back to work was support from her manager: “I have to credit my male manager here,” Han recalled. “He made sure that I had a buddy – to not just talk about work, but someone who’d gone through the challenges of a returning mother. That really helped.”
Chin-Parry too had a female mentor early on in her career. After graduation, she joined an Australian utility company, which by its nature was filled with men from the engineering field. Since she joined the IT team, there was nary a woman in sight. Fortunately, the company was inclusive enough to arrange a female mentor. “She had no egos, no airs about her, and she took the time to nurture me,” Chin-Parry shared. “She gave me some great advice also. She told me to always dress professionally and for the job I wanted.”
Speaking of champions, her husband too was a real ally. “My husband works for a tech firm, and he can stay at home 100% of the time. I’m the one coming out to work,” Chin-Parry explained. “That’s why, in the past year, I was able to take up a job in Malaysia while he stayed in Singapore to look after our children.”
Beyond quotas and tokenism
During the Q&A portion of the discussion, one question that got panellists abuzz with discussion was gender quotas in the workplace. Chin-Parry is vehemently against the idea. “I don’t want to make it to C-suite just because I wear a skirt.”
Thanaletchimi echoed this sentiment, describing a recent experience of hers at Singapore’s National Day Parade (NDP), an annual event involving performances, air shows, fireworks and marches by those ranging from military personnel to school students. NTUC is a mainstay at the Parade, and Thanaletchimi was the NTUC Marching Contingent leader in 2019. During rehearsals (“an arduous 16 weeks”), the 47-strong marching contingent was trained and drilled by commanders from the Singapore Armed Forces. “The people training us were all men because the army was the one in charge,” she recalled. “But all the women were treated equally, and I was very happy about that. We should not get discounts and special treatment just because we are women.”
The panellists welcomed the idea of numeric balancing objectives for companies to reach towards. “Aspirations are good,” Thanaletchimi said. “You need to create awareness. If no one talks about it, no one will work on it. It’s like when we were in school. If the teacher didn’t tell you that the passing mark was 60, you wouldn’t work for it. But if you had that awareness, you would work harder.”
Liu asked the panellists to give their younger selves a one-sentence suggestion around thriving in the STEM industry. Han kicked things off: “Be bold and authentic”. Dr Jin followed up with “Be determined and not afraid”. Thanaletchimi went with a single word: “Resilience”. The longest advice of all, however, went to Chin-Parry, when she said, “The higher up you go, look around you and look below you, and hold those hands so that they can come up with you.”
In the meantime, those working within industries that are change-resistant need to stand firm, and support one another. “You need to be resilient,” Thanaletchimi noted. “There’s fear, there’s intimidation, and there’s discrimination. How do you overcome it? Do you become an introvert and shy away – or do you confront and stand up for it?”
“Only women can determine the answer to that question,” she noted. “If every woman stood up and spoke out about equal treatment and a fair share of opportunities, society would be better.”
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