Despite a successful career as a woman in the field of science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM), like many other women, I did not have it easy when I first started out as an ambitious graduate in the construction industry.
When it came to deciding where I should apply for my first job, my parents were very hesitant that the construction sector was the right field for a young woman. The industry had long been seen as a male-dominated sector that was labour intensive and had an expectation of long working hours.
Nonetheless, in spite of my parents’ recommendations I was drawn to the technical side of construction, and what I saw as the inherent beauty of the underlying calculations, and so was determined to challenge the stereotype.
Take the first step
From my beginnings as a junior architectural technician, I have gone on to diversify my experience and build up considerable knowledge in construction projects.
I am proud to be continuing to pursue my passion for numbers and engineering as the leading senior female asset valuer at my current employer, where I conduct site inspections and collect and analyse data to assess replacement costs for different types of buildings.
It is also exciting to be a senior member of a cutting-edge team using new cloud and analytics technologies and data to build models that automate valuations for large projects.
But like so many other women in STEM will have experienced, my career has been one full of challenges as I faced numerous cultural and workplace hurdles.
Despite the industry’s best efforts, women remain under-represented and I think now is the right moment for a new push to encourage female talent into roles including surveying and asset valuation– a career path too many women are still unaware of.
A just cause for Singapore to champion
Although more women are pursuing degrees in STEM courses at Singapore universities, there is still a leaky pipeline of talent in related jobs, as noted in a recent study by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
In fact, only 58 per cent of women with STEM qualifications continued to work in related jobs after graduation compared with 70 per cent for men– a phenomenon that is true globally.
Data from UNESCO, meanwhile, showed that only 33 per cent of researchers are women though they represent 45 per cent of students at the Bachelor’s level of study.
The same study from NTU found that women leave STEM careers, not because of a lack of interest or confidence, but because they encounter barriers of diversity and inclusion.
Women often feel marginalised at work as their male counterparts are more likely to be employed and make career progress than they are.
A US$13T opportunity hiding in plain sight
While fortunately, this has not happened to me personally, many women do face discrimination as colleagues question or do things that do not respect them and undermine their authority in the workplace.
Unfortunately, it remains the case that many parents still think that STEM fields are more suitable for men rather than for women, an attitude that can strongly influence the psychology of developing young minds.
These gender biases lead too many women to feel as if they do not belong in their jobs, even as the under-representation of women remains concerning and has real economic consequences.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the global GDP could increase as much as $13 trillion in 2030 if we took action now to close the gender gap.
Women are important contributors to the discovery and development of new technologies in jobs such as architecture, real estate, information technology, and the natural physical and mathematical sciences that are central to innovation and economic growth.
My position is clear: more can and must be done to balance gender equality in STEM in Singapore and elsewhere.
Closing the STEM gap
My advice to talented young women looking to develop a fulfilling career in STEM may seem obvious but it is nonetheless important to reiterate – you must be willing to follow your passions and put in the hard work.
Closing the gender gap will take more than grit and an individual’s initiative; it requires the collective action of the industry as a whole to deliver real and lasting change.
Employers are central to helping tackle negative stereotypes at the workplace by listening more to women and encouraging equality and diversity in their hiring practices.
By encouraging regular discussions on gender inequity and proactively putting systems and practices in place that recognise and remove conscious and implicit bias, they can begin to shift cultural norms and help promote careers that talented female graduates will be drawn to.
Men must also act as compelling catalysts for other men in positions of power to engage in equitable workplace practices that support women through recognition and promotion where earned.
Seizing this moment of global transformation
Various programmes in the industry, including here in Singapore, are already helping to create a supportive ecosystem that empowers women to pursue their dreams in this exciting field that I am so thrilled to work in.
These initiatives create awareness around the importance of inclusivity and representation, while also providing inspiring role models and networking opportunities for young women.
Gender bias is a systemic issue that will take time to change, but I am optimistic now is the right moment to redouble our efforts as the world starts afresh after a deadly pandemic.
So much of our old thinking has already been challenged and gone out the window; so much of the way we work and assumptions we held just twelve months ago will never be the same again.
Getting more women into STEM is a just cause for Singapore and other leading innovation hubs to champion – I hope only to serve as a reminder to the Class of 2021 that it is possible.
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