Monday 26 May 2014

Steps are being taken to get women interested in science and engineering jobs

It's a man's world and it needs women
By Grace Chua, The Sunday Times, 25 May 2014

A conference room on the 21st floor of research and development complex Fusionopolis is packed with some 50 men in suits.

One man gives a speech, followed by another.

There are perhaps two women researchers present.

This was the scene at the recent opening of a laboratory for marine and offshore engineering research.

And it is all too familiar in many research institutes both here and abroad.

In 2012, the last year for which data is available, women made up just 28.1 per cent of research scientists and engineers in Singapore, according to figures compiled by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

The numbers shrink even further at the top.

For instance, just two of 19 A*Star research institutes are currently led by women.

The Sunday Times spoke to 15 female researchers in various science and engineering fields. Although most said they had not personally faced discrimination, 13 felt that more women were needed in such fields.

Said National University of Singapore (NUS) associate professor of mechanical engineering Ong Soh Khim, 45: "If we do not engage women in the science and engineering enterprises, we are ignoring at least 50 per cent of Singapore's intellectual talent."

Getting more women into the field would provide paths to high-paying science and engineering jobs, and relieve a manpower crunch in these industries, she added.

Associate Professor Low Hong Yee, 43, who spent more than a decade at A*Star's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering before joining the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), said that while in A*Star, she was responsible for a group of more than 50 scientists.

"If one of the women was planning for a family, she could come and talk to me. But would you be able to do that with a male supervisor?" she asked.

"That's why it's good to have a balance of men and women in management. If the management is male-dominated, this would not even be thought of as an issue."

But planning for a family isn't the only challenge women scientists face.

When SUTD lecturer Dawn Koh, 34, first enrolled in a biology degree, relatives expected her to become a science teacher, rather than doing research and a PhD.

Another researcher said male colleagues passed comments like "the award or appointment must be because she's good at teaching" - implying her deficiencies in research.

And NUS computing student Sarah Tan, 21, who volunteers at the school's open house each year, said girls she approaches tend to rule themselves out of the field.

"The problem here is that females are saying they're not interested before they even know what computing and engineering is about," she said.

In fact, it can be applied to various fields such as business, interactive media and computational biology, added Ms Tan, who had her first taste of computing when she topped a course that famed game development institute DigiPen offered with her school, Anglo-Chinese Junior College.

A report released in March by the Boston Consulting Group and the L'Oreal Foundation, the charitable foundation of cosmetics firm L'Oreal, paints a similar picture globally.

Worldwide, less than a third of scientists are women, and the numbers drop off over the course of a career: from 32 per cent of science undergraduates, to 30 per cent of master's degree holders and 25 per cent of those who are awarded doctorates. Just 3 per cent of Nobel Prizes in the sciences have been awarded to women.

And top-rated research journal Nature did not mince its words when it said that science remains institutionally sexist.

"Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less frequently, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men," it said in an issue last year.

While most people would not consciously discriminate, sometimes the stereotypes can be invisible. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in March, three US business-school professors set up a lab experiment in which "managers" had to choose who to hire for mathematical tasks that men and women could do equally well. Given only photos of the applicants, both male and female volunteers were more likely to hire a man. This applied even when they were given hard data about the applicants' performance.

Noted Professor Linda Kenney, 57, a principal investigator at the Mechanobiology Institute of Singapore (MBI): "People are always going to say that you got the job because your partner is so and so, or they recruited him first."

The good news, however, is that the numbers are looking more hopeful.

From 2008 to 2012, the proportion of women research scientists and engineers in Singapore went up slightly, from 26 per cent to 28.1 per cent.

Perhaps earlier generations in Singapore had fewer women scientists because fewer women attended university or stayed on for post-graduate research, most researchers suggest.

Also, science and engineering research here ramped up only in the last 20 to 30 years.

So it will be interesting to watch how the gender balance in Singapore science - especially at the top - shifts over the next decade or so, they said.

And while none of the universities had a specific programme to support women in science, individual institutes have done so.

At MBI, Prof Kenney started a women in science group early this year to help researchers articulate their career goals, while the Singapore Immunology Network at A*Star offers parents flexible hours, a nursing room for mothers, and mentorship programmes.

For now, it's up to the next generation of scientists to forge ahead and help reach out to younger women.

Said Centre for Quantum Technology principal investigator Stephanie Wehner, 36: "I think it's important to show that there are women in science, not just to kids but to their parents and peers, so that doing science becomes an acceptable thing for women."

Wanted: More locals, women in built environment sector
Carrots include better work conditions and flexible hours
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 23 May 2014

THE built environment sector - responsible for creating homes, roads and MRT lines, hospitals and other structures, is set to beef up its workforce by recruiting more Singaporeans and more women over the next five years.

And it hopes to entice them with a better work environment and enhanced human resource practices such as flexible working hours.

This was announced yesterday by Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan during the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Awards ceremony at Resorts World Sentosa.

"To further enhance Singapore's urban development, we will need high quality human resources in the built sector," said Mr Lee, noting that women account for only 25 per cent of the local built environment workforce.

"We need to make a special effort to improve work-life balance so that younger Singaporeans, including women, would find professions in the sector attractive," he said.

The move comes as part of the sector's five-year rebranding road map, which was formulated by the Ministry of National Development, the BCA, industry associations and institutes of higher learning.

According to Mr Neo Choon Keong, BCA's group director of manpower and strategic policy, there are around 500,000 people in the built environment sector, which includes builders, developers and consultants such as architects and engineers.

Singaporeans, most of whom are professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), make up less than one-third of this number.

Some ways it plans to attract and retain more Singaporeans is by engaging a consultant to promote the industry more aggressively, introducing structured internships to allow students to get a taste of a career in the industry and getting teachers familiar with developments in the sector through attachment programmes so they can give their students career guidance.

Mr Neo added that there is a need to correct the perception that the industry is a male-only domain.

Recognising that staff would be better motivated with incentives such as flexible working hours for mothers who have families to look after, the BCA has also introduced a HR pledge, encouraging firms to adopt policies with more benefits and which are more pro-family.

The goal is for 500 firms to sign the pledge by 2020.

There are also plans to increasingly move construction activity away from worksites and into pre-fabrication factories. Mr Neo noted that this would not only make for a cleaner working environment, but also improve safety conditions.

Ms Joy Esther Gai, 30, a senior engineer with urban solutions consultancy firm Surbana International Consultants, recalled how she appreciated having a nursing room in the office so she had a private place to pump breastmilk for her baby son.

"Organisations that have a supportive mindset and flexibility towards working mothers will definitely attract and retain their talents," said the mother of two.

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