STEM needs more female leaders to smash gender stereotypes

STEM needs more female leaders to smash gender stereotypes
Wanted: More female leaders. Source: Shutterstock

Gender stereotypes about women in STEM are well and alive in Malaysia and Singapore, a problem that will persist if there aren’t more female leaders in the industry.

While both countries are doing well in ensuring a gender balance in STEM classes, the same cannot said when these students graduate, according to female leaders from both countries in a panel discussion titled “Smashing Gender Stereotypes” at an education conference in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

Two major stereotypes persist about women in STEM, says Victoria O’Collins, a neuroscientist and now creative director at, a platform for science services and products.

Firstly, whether women belong in STEM and secondly, whether women can take on leadership roles in STEM. While Southeast Asia can be seen as doing greatly in dispelling the first stereotype, it is not doing so well with the latter.

“That is something, that even in Singapore, is not being addressed as much as perhaps everybody would like it to be,” O’Collins said at the Bett Asia Leadership Summit 2017.

Her observations echoed the findings of a Unesco Bangkok report in 2015, which found that female students in both Singapore and Malaysia do better than their male peers for science and mathematics in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2014. PISA comprises standardised tests on 15-year-old students’ academic performance on mathematics, science and reading in OECD member and non-member states to allow countries to track their education policies’ progress.

Having fewer women in the STEM workforce means there are fewer role models for young girls to look up to – research have shown this is a potential reason why these negative stereotypes about women entering STEM persists.

“When you look closer to home in Malaysia, we have a slightly interesting situation here. At the university level, when you look at the data at the S, T, M of STEM classes … women outnumber men. More than 50 percent of the undergraduates in S, T and M are actually women,” Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) talent development and digital entrepreneurship vice-president Sumitra Nair

“When you look at the workforce numbers, it’s a different story. Only 39 percent of S, T and M roles are women. Which means it drastically dips (after graduation),” Sumitra added.

In Singapore, less than one-third (30 percent) of researchers in science, technology and innovation are female, 2014 data by Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) show. In Malaysia, the figure is 49 percent female.

“Multi-dimensional” factors are causing this dismal lack of women to get to the top of the STEM workforce, according to Sumitra. These include the lack of policies that are friendly to mothers and absence of support from the private sector and schools, both of which continue to champion industrial-age thinking that tend to be male-dominated.

“Globally, the numbers of females in leadership roles in STEM could be increased,” O’Collins said to Study International.

“It is a challenge that needs to be addressed by everyone. Females need to see a role for themselves and follow this. Employers, male colleagues and families can play a role in supporting and facilitating this,” she added.

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