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Science And Tech

Grace Chua
Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Science And Tech

It's a man's world and it needs women

The Straits Times | Grace Chua | Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In 2012, the proportion of women research scientists and engineers in Singapore was 28.1 per cent, a slight rise from 26 per cent in 2008.

SINGAPORE - 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.

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