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Speech at SUTD Conference on Women in Technology and Design

Mrs Josephine Teo, Second Minister for Manpower, SUTD

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

A) Introduction

  1. In the early 1930s, when my late grandmother was in her mid-teens, her father’s priority was to marry her off. He loved her enough to arrange for an eligible young man from the same village to call at their ancestral home in the southern part of China, so she could at least see who her prospective husband was. Yet, she refused and instead hid in the nearby forest. As the match fell through, she was able to return with her father to Singapore, which was what she wanted. She was married before 20 and then widowed in her early 40s. Life in post-war Singapore was very hard but she managed to raise nine children in this country as she wished, and lived to a ripe old age of 92.
  2. In the late 1950s, my mother ended her journey in education after completing Secondary Two. Like many bright women in pre-independent Singapore, family circumstances required her to start earning an income. She decided to make her career in the Police and spent the next 30 years moving from jobs in Radio, Traffic and CID. It gave her family and subsequently ours the stability and means to build up the next generation. When I married and started my own family, Mum was kind enough to help me with the care of my children. I knew her motivation. My generation of women had more opportunities to carve out meaningful careers for ourselves. She will do everything in her power to give me the best chance to achieve what her generation of women never had the chance to do.
  3. There’s never a shortage of good stories when it comes to women and it seems to me there are some common themes. For one, the conditions are never perfectly satisfactory. There’s also very often a struggle against circumstances or societal norms, or to gain the right to do what we believe in or want for ourselves. Quite frequently, we see a self-sacrificing dimension; the women are motivated to do something because someone needs us to.
  4. Over the years, women in Singapore have been able to make tremendous progress. But pockets of concerns remain.

    B) Importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as well as Design

  5. Take jobs for example. Female employment rate in Singapore ranks well globally (13th compared to the group of 35 OECD countries). Our women do as well, if not better, academically and are well represented in the professions, the public and people sectors and to a growing extent, even in politics.
  6. In the corporate world, women now occupy some 30% of the senior executive positions but a dismal 9.9% on the boards of publicly listed companies in Singapore, well behind countries whose economies are less developed. 
  7. In science and technology (S&T), just about one in four employees is a woman, and this proportion has barely inched upwards in a decade. Specifically among IT professionals, although the number of women has grown about 10% since 2011, that’s less than half the growth in the number of men.
  8. Furthermore, female enrolment in S&T courses at our local universities has flatted out at around 3,300. As a proportion of S&T enrolment, the share of women appears to be dipping below 40%.
  9. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying that women’s share must be near or above 50% in every field. This would be an oversimplification of what is desirable. If that is so, the question you may ask is "does the fact that women are under-represented in S&T matter if they generally continue to have good access to higher education"? Isn’t it good enough if they enjoy good employment outcomes?
  10. I think it does matter and the status quo isn’t fully satisfactory, for two reasons.
  11. The first is that as Singapore develops as a Smart Nation, new industries and career opportunities are opening up for those with specialised skills which often draw on a background in S&T. When young women who have the ability to master science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subjects shy away from these disciplines, it sets them on a course in life that is less likely to benefit from the uplift that technology brings to industries and careers.
  12. They may still do well but who’s to say they could not have done better?
  13. I hope younger women with talent and aspirations are not deterred by careers in S&T because they don’t see it as a norm for women to succeed in S&T-related fields. There are many positive role models and their stories must be told so young women who are interested are encouraged to take the leap into STEM disciplines and ride the wave of technology-driven growth.
  14. A second reason to be concerned is that in seeking to build a strong core of Singaporeans in all our growth sectors, it will most certainly be a loss to society if not enough of our women have the relevant training to come on board.
  15. Women have been inventors of notable life-saving inventions such as the Kevlar body armour for defence purposes, windscreen wipers and daily conveniences like hot water heaters for our daily showers. In fact, our home-grown technopreneur Olivia Lum, a chemistry graduate, developed proprietary membrane technologies and has successfully grown a listed company Hyflux. 
  16. In other words, STEM disciplines need to claim your share of talents, and that includes both the men and the women. Whether it is from the point of view of women themselves or from society at large, we should expose more young women to STEM disciplines and help as many as we can succeed in these disciplines.

    C) Encouraging greater participation of women by ensuring a pipeline of fresh entrants

  17.  I am therefore happy that SUTD is making it a priority to promote women’s involvement in STEM, and making a concerted effort to ensure gender diversity in your annual intakes.
  18. Even before it started, SUTD had set a goal of recruiting around 40% females in every cohort. Each year, the university conducts numerous outreach programmes, activities and campaigns to attract female students to SUTD. In the first six years of your existence, females made up, on average, about 41% at matriculation. Not a bad start.
  19. The university has also established two annual scholarships specifically for female students, both in and outside of Singapore.
  20. The Kewalram Chanrai Group scholarship, and the Mastercard scholarship aim to encourage more women to join the field of technology and design.
  21. We are already seeing outstanding female techno-preneurs and entrepreneurs emerging from SUTD’s inclusive student enrolment policy.
  22. One SUTD female entrepreneur is Kimberlyn Nicole Tjipto, last year’s valedictorian.
  23. She has developed a retrofit motorized unit for all wheelchair users to give them greater independence from external assistance.
  24. Just last month, SUTD Assistant Professor Dawn Tan was awarded the prestigious L’Oréal Singapore For Women In Science National Fellowship for her scientific contribution to a faster, more cost-effective and power-efficient Internet network1.
  25. Another outstanding inventor is SUTD’s first valedictorian, Olivia Seow. During a summer exchange programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she and a fellow schoolmate created a prototype ring that could be used like an ez-link card and pitched their idea to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
  26. She will be speaking later and I look forward to what she has to share.
  27. I certainly hope to see more women like Olivia, Kimberlyn and Professor Dawn Tan, pursuing what they enjoy and making a difference along the way.

    D) Conclusion
  28. I started by talking about my late grandmother and mother, both of whom were strong and capable but did not have the opportunities we enjoy today. But they did what they could to ease the way for their children’s generation. My grandmother made sure her children would grow up in Singapore. My mother made sure I could make the most of my career. Both made a big difference.
  29. Every generation of women wants to see the next generation of women fly higher. Perhaps in some small way, we can each do our part to make a difference to you.
  30. Like making more career opportunities available to you right here in Singapore through our industry transformations.
  31. Besides high quality education, through Skillsfuture, we are building a robust system for continuing education and training. We have programmes like Adapt and Grow to help people stay in the workforce even as industries and jobs are transformed.
  32. We are steadily improving conditions for women who want to work and have families of their own, through better access to quality and affordable and childcare and more widely-available flexible work arrangements. We continue to improve healthcare and retirement savings systems.
  33. Whether or not we know it, each of us are in a collective and ongoing journey of making life better for our younger sisters, daughters and grand-daughters.
  34. We are fortunate that it is not only the women who want to do this. Many of our strongest advocates and supporters are men, like SUTD’s acting president and provost, Professor Chong Tow Chong, who has been instrumental in SUTD’s development including your enrolment policy, and personally reached out to me to lend support to today’s conference. Likewise, the founding Chairman of SUTD’s Board of Trustees Mr Phillip Ng and founding President, Professor Tom Magnanti.
  35. One day perhaps, we won’t need a special conference for women in technology and design or for that matter, any special committee or taskforce to help women advance in any field.
  36. The time isn’t here just yet. Until then, let’s keep striving together and reach higher!