More women moving into fields of science and engineering

SINGAPORE - Women in Singapore may be making slow progress in winning more seats in corporate boardrooms but in the fields of science and engineering, they appear to have it easier.

The number of women in the community of research scientists and engineers (RSEs) has been steadily going up by a few hundred each year since 2008, making more progress than their sisters elsewhere in Asia.

A recent report by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) says that in 2008, women comprised 26 per cent of all RSEs, and numbered 6,697.

By 2011, their numbers had gone up to 8,137 (27.6 per cent of all RSEs); in 2012, there were 8,462 women RSEs, making up 28.1 per cent of the traditionally male-dominated community.

As at 2012, there were 30,109 RSEs of both sexes here. This figure excludes full-time post-graduate level students.

A*Star's managing director Raj Thampuran said: "A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) found that the participation rate of women in the Singapore RSE workforce is ahead of places such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but lower than in Finland."

In the boardrooms of listed companies here, however, women take up only 7.9 per cent of the seats, according to the third edition of the annual Singapore Board Diversity Report published in 2013.

In the UK, the corresponding figure is 17.3 per cent; in the US, 16.6 per cent, and in Hong Kong, 9.4 per cent.

The MSD Translational Medicine Research Centre in Biopolis is a shining example of the rise of women in the RSE sector. Seventy per cent of its total research workforce is female, and about 45 per cent of them are in management positions.

These numbers put them ahead of the average in Singapore, pointing to a trend of more women joining the industry.

Human resource specialists The Business Times spoke to said they have seen more women take up positions in science and engineering.

Joshua Yim, chief executive officer of the Achieve Group, said: "I say that there's a moderate rise in the number of women entering the science and engineering industry. We observe that the talent pool of qualified women has grown, and this is due to the fact that women are becoming more well-educated across the board."

Mark Hall, vice-president and a country manager with Kelly Services, said the increasing numbers of women can be attributed to the government's efforts to revamp and increase the number of classes and to invest in research and development in areas such as biomedical engineering.

"These initiatives have encouraged more women to consider a career in this field. Some engineering sub-disciplines, such as biomedical, life sciences and bioengineering, are now attracting more women than men."

As Singapore grows into a hub for biomedical sciences, women are becoming aware of the opportunities available in these fields, which pay them good salaries and enable them to achieve a work-life balance, he added.

Further upstream, however, when one considers younger women pursuing their first or subsequent degrees in science and engineering, the rise in the number of women is not discernible.

At Nanyang Technological University, the ratio of male to female students pursuing bachelor degrees in science and engineering has been quite stable at 60:40 in the last five years. Its spokesman added that at the post-graduate degree level, the ratio of males to females has stood at about 70:30.

At both levels, the raw number of women has fluctuated within a narrow range between 2009 and last year, with no clear rise in their number.

Over at the National University of Singapore, the gender ratio for the faculty of engineering graduates and post-graduates has also remained constant at 70:30 in the last five years, the university said.

It added, however, that its total number of female research and academic staff is now higher than five years ago.

A faculty of engineering spokesman said: "One reason more females are interested in engineering may be our outreach programmes, which are customised for women.

"For example, the faculty organises an annual event called 'Women in Engineering' which reaches out to female junior college and upper secondary school students, to raise their awareness of engineering and to promote the discipline as a very suitable profession worthy of their consideration."

Mr Hall from Kelly Services said offering more opportunities and creating a conducive workplace may further reduce existing barriers that hinder the progress of women in the field.

"To increase the presence of women, more can be done to reframe the existing perception of the industry as being male-dominated to one that is progressive, one in which both men and women can thrive.

"Women are also more likely to consider a career in this field if companies increase their support to train and expose them to the range of opportunities available in the sector."

He added that women will be more attracted to companies that cultivate a more inclusive environment and adopt flexible work schedules.

Dr Thampuran of A*Star said that one of the most effective ways to encourage women to pursue science and engineering is to showcase role models who inspire and who are rewarded for their contributions.

"It is also important to convey that good-quality, well-remunerated jobs exist for those interested in the field. The future remains promising as R&D is expanding in all areas, and we have a diverse ecosystem of research organisations seeking talent," he said.

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