It is quite apparent that there is lack of women joining the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries.
There could be many reasons behind the gender disparity. However, there are women who have defied the odds and found success in their careers in the respective industries.
In conjunction to International Women’s Day, TechsideTales had the opportunity to speak to several successful STEM women who are now paving the pathway for the next generation.
ACE EdVenture Founder
Anne Tham could possibly be one of the key game-changers in education and EdTech in the country.
She has developed a curriculum where it combines group’s fun and engaging teaching methods which foregoes the conventional way of teaching.
This curriculum has been adapted to both international schools she founded; Sri Emas and Dwi Emas.
In regard of EdTech, Tham has led a team of game developers and designers to create the world-first RPG chemistry-learning mobile game, ChemCaper.
“One of the best ways to encourage women to be interested to join STEM fields is to sow the interest at the education level, starting from primary to tertiary.
“Up to this point, the IT education is very much focussed on the content the content that needs to be taught. Nobody has actually looked at how the content is delivered that will engage the girls,” she said.
She added that it took a long time before laptops and other digitals products were manufactured with features that would attract women.
Tham who is an English major graduate, started her career as an educator, she has led a team of games developers to create the world-first RPG chemistry-learning mobile game, ChemCapers.
“I describe myself as an accidental game developer,” she said.
The creation behind the award-winning game was because of her eagerness to simplify the learning of Sciences to be more effective for her students.
With just about two years into the industry (the gaming developing), she has realised both gaming development and STEM industries were still very male dominated, especially at top level roles.
“In fact, it is a struggle to get girls to be interested in Information Technology-related subjects. And personally, it has nothing to do with gender biasness within the industry,” she said.
However, she believes the reason why women are not joining the industry is because the curriculums for education were not originally designed for women nor with them in mind.
“The whole industry from its inception was founded by men and that has been the direction it has taken since the beginning.”
With that said, Tham said the focus for her schools this year is to engage the girls to be more involve in both IT and Sciences.
“We are redirecting our curriculum and activities to be more suited for girls,” she said.
Some redesigning has already started as the game designers have designed cute ‘Petticles’ (creatures who represent particles) in ChemCaper to engage girls as well as boys.
“It has been done in Pokémon, so why not for ChemCaper?”
OpenLearning Communications Manager
Erica Cheong is not one to stop pursuing new things.
In fact, it is this pursuit that led her to the education technology (EdTech) industry.
“This is because I simply allowed myself to explore, to question and to change. I believe everyone should be entitled to this privilege and there are certainly policies that may encourage this,” she said.
EdTech is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.
One of the known EdTech in the country is OpenLearning which is an online learning platform that goes beyond content delivery to focus on community, connectedness, and student engagement.
And her advice to the next generation of women who are considering joining the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industry is to be bold and to aim higher.
“Be hungry, learn as much as you can about the industry, look for opportunities to get involved, volunteer and get amongst it.
“And if you are thinking of joining EdTech or any other industry – just do it. At the same time, you never know where a single conversation might lead to,” she said.
She was, however, quick to emphasise that industry players needed to give young women the chance to shine.
Cheong is where she is today because she was given the opportunities to prove herself and she hopes to continue doing so each day.
“However, at the end of the day, the STEM industry can be equally attractive to both women and men, as long you have the passion, willingness to improve your skills and to excel at what you do within the industry.”
From her experience in the EdTech industry, Cheong has met outstanding women at OpenLearning’s affiliated universities across the country.
“These group women are hungry to enter the workforce, many of whom are pursuing STEM related qualifications.
“So, yes, the future for women in this industry is exciting to say the least,” Cheong said.
However, as STEM is a disruptive industry, challenges are always to be expected.
“The two key challenges faced by women in the industry are longevity and self-confidence. Although I cannot speak for all women, we often feel disadvantaged by the need to achieve certain things by a certain age.
“This in turn shapes our educational, professional and personal decisions. It is difficult to be brave enough to explore new things, let alone be willing to embrace radical change and failure.”)
Being part of OpenLearning, Cheong works together with a team that values capabilities and fosters development regardless of gender.
“My immediate team consist of seven talented ladies where we together work hard at hacking growth by optimising data, enhancing user experience, marketing targeted content as well as breaking barriers.
“However, there is still a societal perception the numbers of women are lesser than men in the tech industry,” she said.
She added nevertheless, it is important for women to have conviction and to stand your ground, support each other as well as to always keep themselves to be well equipped and up-to-date.
At OpenLearning, Cheong said the situation here is rather unique as it converges technology with innovation and education.
“Our team has quite diverse of backgrounds as we have developers, project managers and learning designers from different industries which include computer science, education, policy, finance and engineering.
“And if we take this microcosm of the industry by itself, I would say the EdTech industry is open to anyone who seeks to join it and it is with no shortage of women.”
The OpenLearning team has twice the number of women as compared to men – even at its management level.
“More often than not, we find it harder to recruit men, which is empowering in itself.”
Dr Jane Lim
INTI International College Subang Chief Executive
Dr. Jane Lim graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Technology and Business Information Systems with 1st Class.
However, upon her return to Malaysia from the United Kingdom, Malaysia was facing an economic recession where IT vacancies were still very scarce as technology adoption had not fully developed.
“I went for numerous job interviews through which I discovered that companies either preferred to hire staff with working experience or were only willing to pay about RM1200 for a fresh graduate,” she said.
Instead, she decided to look for other options where she started her career as a lecturer.
“I gave it a shot and found my calling in the education line as an IT and Computer Science academician.”
Within the first two years into her career, Lim pursued her Masters in Computer Science and in 2015 completed her PhD in Social Media Technology for Tertiary Education.
Throughout her career she is constantly face with the challenge of how rapid technology evolve and the constant need to stay updated in knowledge and technical skills.
“Moreover, in the teaching profession, that academicians are required (and update) all our teaching materials very frequently, and doing so requires hours of research, reading, training, and testing, especially when it involves programming.”
Ironically, she felt there were more women in the industry in the past as compared to today.
“However, I have observed a slight improvement in the past two to three years of young girls showing interest in pursuing IT/tech-based programmes.
“With that said, there is still much more room for improvement and much to be done on this front,” she said
She discredited the issue of gender biasness in the industry but attributed the lack of women in the tech industries is due to its misconception being more suited for men
“The long working hours, number crunching, and the nerdy image that is so often portrayed with the industry, however I would disagree because I don’t think I look nerdy at all,” she said.
To make these changes possible, she believes education is the key.
“If we work towards enhancing the next generation of girls’ understanding of the industry and the great opportunities it brings; we will see a change.
“Parents and educators can introduce simple activities like coding, programming and the like, which can pique their interests in the industry.
“Beyond that, my advice to girls is to follow their passion and not your friends. Also, don’t just depend on what people say but spend a bit of time to some research to understand what the industry is all about,” she said.
She added the best way would be to experience the industry is by diving right into it.
“In fact, I believe many companies are looking for female tech-professionals to join their organisations as women are more detail-oriented and meticulous when carrying out their duties.
“The tech industry is one of the most exciting industries to work in because of its ever-evolving nature,” Lim added.
iOli Communications CEO & HerChannel Co-founder/Chief
Two years ago, Yan Lim described herself being a non-tech savvy person.
In fact, she was concerned about exploring technology or innovation, let alone applying it to her business (public relations).
“However, when I started to get involved in campaigns to encourage STEM among girls, things started to change,” she said.
She then joined the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Girls in Tech as a board member.
“This became the forefront and the start of my journey in inspiring and educating girls to leverage in the power of technology and innovation in whatever they do.”
Today, Lim’s ultimate goal is to educate the society on the importance of technology, especially among women.
Over the past year, Yan Lim has gotten involved with the government’s campaign and initiatives to cultivate and drive the science, technology and innovation (STI) agenda among Malaysian women.
With that said, her journey into technology wasn’t a bed of roses.
“Being a newbie to the tech industry, I had to learn all the tech jargons which were initially very alien to me.
“To learn, I went to all sort of tech-oriented events to learn and to explore the possibility of adapting technology into my business despite the challenges,” she said.
Lim added at the events, she was one of the very few women in the attendance while she had trouble of understanding what was being shared.
“And because there were not many women there, I shied away from the crowd.”
She pointed out that this was a mistake many women have made and still do.
“Many of us feel that men will not be able to understand our challenges and we do not allow them to help us.
“But, I was wrong as I was very surprised of the things they (men) are able to help us with.”
She shared gender discrimination is another challenge faced by women, especially in the big organisations.
“Although this issue still exists in the industry, I think the best way to face this is to have women who have experienced discrimination and inequality in the workplace to talk about it in the open.
“Women need to amplify each other.”
Lim added to prevent such situations from reoccurring, everyone needs to play their role to educate each other about the issue and how to overcome it.
“At the same time, society still refers the tech industries to be a man’s industry. So, the lack of interest and participation among girls in tech started off from the grassroots.”
She added there it is incredible obvious that there’s a huge divide in terms of how boys and girls perceive tech.
“This is often stereotyped in our society where men are believed to make better engineers and doctors as they are willing to get their hands dirty.
“A simple change in the way we speak to our children would be a good start to instil how they perceive things in the future as adults,” she said.
In the last year, Lim has involved herself in many initiatives such as the Women and Science campaign by Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) and HerChannel.
HerChannel is a social enterprise which engage and educate young girls on issues (non-political) which are aimed to empower them.
“Our collaboration with Mosti proves that we have many parties who are doing their part at getting women informed that they have a place in STEM industries.
“They need to know that science needs them, and they need science.”
“We need to create more of us and tap into the untapped zone,” Lim said.