By Noh Sangeun (23S06Q)
As far back as 1939, underemployment of women in scientific fields was being identified as a problem by women scientists in the United States. Though it took decades for the general public to start listening to them, the women in STEM movement has since found a considerable amount of success — the sheer number of times we use the term should be a testament to that.
So I was somewhat surprised to find that the numbers don’t paint the rosiest picture of the situation; only about 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Though that is a huge improvement from 8% of STEM workers in the United States in 1970, it is still a long way from complete parity.
Even in Singapore, where the movement is so consistently championed, girls are less likely than boys to say they want to pursue careers in STEM, and in fact lose interest as they get older.
When I spoke to Dr Ho Pin, Deputy Head of the Electronic Materials Department at the A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), she estimated that men outnumbered women three to one in her field. Ms Stella Sim, one of our Physics tutors who previously worked at IMRE as well, agreed that there were fewer women than men at the institute.
Within our school, science programmes also tend to be male-dominated. Annika Liu Xinan and Hu Xinghui (both from the Class of 2022) were enrolled in a class comprising Math and Physics Raffles Academy (RA) students, which had 15 boys but only 6 girls.
Fortunately, the ratio evens out on the other side of the classroom. Both Ms Sim and Ms Koh Khang Ling, Head of Department for Physics and Biology, commented that there was a good balance of men and women in the science department. That said, Ms Koh pointed out that this could be owed to the general predominance of women in the teaching profession.
The gaps among students seem to be closing. “When I was starting out doing Math or Computer Science in early secondary school, the gender proportion was definitely more skewed,” Xinghui said.
When asked about the catalysts for this change, Ms Sim pointed out that stereotyping in general was on a decline with the evolution of education.
She also felt that technological advancements played a part in shifting the emphasis from physical work to soft skills, where “both men and women can excel given the right opportunities.” The onset of Industry 4.0, for instance, has automated many processes that previously involved heavy machinery.
“What we are after now is the ways of thinking, how we think such that we can achieve the results, and that thought process is not unique to any gender.”Ms Sim
Crucially, changing policies within institutions lend fresh impetus to gender equality. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Xinghui now attends school, periodically sends out name lists of ‘Women in Math’ to “make it clear that students should be able to do whatever you want”. For the Computer Science students, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) also gives women an opportunity to connect with other women in the field.
Similarly, Dr Ho Pin shared about how A*STAR devotes “deliberate efforts to be inclusive by ensuring a gender balance of invited keynote speakers” in its international scientific conferences.
Ms Sim commented about the efforts of her previous company towards having women in leadership roles and the consequent wealth of opportunities now open to women engineers. Even in postgraduate diploma courses in NIE, she said, talks are chaired by women leaders who invite other women to share the challenges and breakthroughs they experienced as pioneers in their field.
The prevalence of such programmes is perhaps no surprise given the gains the scientific community has to reap from having women join the field. Many of the interviewees spoke about their value in bringing “fresh viewpoints” to the field, ensuring a balance of perspectives.
“As with all forms of diversity, women in STEM can contribute new perspectives, ideas and approaches … which can possibly enable new research breakthroughs.” – Dr Ho Pin, IMRE, A*STAR
Indeed, students like Annika and Xinghui felt the growing presence of women in STEM fields created a “positive feedback loop” as well, encouraging girls to take on such careers in the future.
In particular, Annika recalled being inspired by the girls in her class, who regularly outperformed the boys. This year, she presented at the Raffles Science Symposium, where two of the three student presenters were girls.
Xinghui was encouraged by seniors who had set the precedent for girls in the Math Olympiad national team as well as girls from other countries who had garnered top prizes in the International Mathematical Olympiad. She observed that many more girls began trying for the national team after seeing her do so.
Women’s success in STEM fields has impacts beyond the student community. The most inspiring moment of Dr Ho Pin’s career was working alongside Prof. Caroline Ross, a leading female researcher in the field of magnetism and nanotechnology and the associate head of department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. The opportunity came in the form of an A*STAR fellowship.
Dr Ho Pin herself hopes to be a role model for the students at the International Science Youth Forum and Singapore Science and Engineering Fair, where she judges research projects on a volunteer basis.
Beyond the topic of gender equality, the interviews were also striking in the level of passion they revealed. While many of the interviewees were drawn to their fields of study by the relevance and practical applicability of science in the current age, their personal motivations kept them going.
While in the private sector, Ms Sim realised that she enjoyed sharing what she learnt with her peers after she reached out to process technicians to explain why things were done in a certain way. The discovery eventually led to her career shift into education.
On the other hand, as a veteran teacher with twenty years of experience, what impacts Ms Koh the most is being able to see students appreciate Physics, “more than being able to solve [A level] questions”.
As an educator, Ms Koh appreciates the fact that her student life gave her the experience of understanding and engaging people. The key to good teaching, she felt, came from being able to “put herself in the shoes of someone learning the subject” such that she could articulate her thoughts in a way so as to be understood.
Meanwhile, asked about the secret to their success, Dr Ho Pin, Ms Sim, and Xinghui highlighted the value of perseverance. In the face of failures and setbacks, research requires discipline and resilience, Dr Ho Pin said.
For Xinghui, perseverance meant the capacity to convince herself that “this is what you want to keep doing” when exposed to a number of people she felt were more accomplished than herself. “A career in STEM may seem like a challenge,” said Ms Sim. “But just don’t give up.”
Ms Koh added her hopes that Physics students would learn to be curious and to care about the details. For her, it was important that more students would have the courage to pursue science, regardless of gender. “It’s always good to have more people in science,” she said.
That sentiment is echoed by many in a time characterised by rapid advancements in science, technology, engineering, and math. It is also unfailingly relevant in a world pressing for greater diversity and empowerment.
Cognisant of the immense gains the field has seen in gender equality, it’s hopefully not too far-fetched to anticipate a near future where the women in STEM movement is a thing of the past: when efforts to encourage girls to join STEM are looked back upon as a milestone, just as protests for women’s suffrage are today.