Home Economy, Policy & Business Advancing women in STEM requires more than a seat at the table

Advancing women in STEM requires more than a seat at the table

Wendy Johnstone
Barriers limiting women in STEM must be broken for the benefit of all
Chief Operating Officer, APAC at Zendesk
Two women researching in a lab

I’ve been working in the technology industry for more than 25 years, and across my career, I have often found I was the only woman at the table. Initially, I accepted that this is the way it was – that I should be grateful to have the seat, and count my lucky stars that I was the woman sitting there.

But something shifted once I became a mother, and I was struck with the inevitable challenge of finding the right balance between my family and my career. It was that moment that really opened my eyes to the intolerable nature of gender discrimination in the workplace, and so I made a decision: to be a leader that speaks up to drive change.

My experiences are far from anecdotal. Women with careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are the minority in the traditionally male-dominated field. Even in Singapore, where I am based, only 58% of women who graduate with STEM degrees or diplomas go on to have related careers, compared to 70% of men.

I strongly believe that the fight for gender equality does not belong to women alone, and advancing women in STEM is a movement that can’t be driven by a single entity – or by simply having that literal or proverbial seat at the table. Instead, we need a collective effort from every institution—governments, businesses and organisations—to boost gender equity.

Long list of barriers

Every moment that a female talent is excluded from participating in STEM fields, the industry loses an opportunity for inclusivity, growth and progress. McKinsey research shows that diverse companies are more likely to outperform less diverse peers on profitability, and a Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

The reasons are clear and simple: a diverse workforce brings a breadth of unique perspectives, ideas and experiences to the table, enhancing creativity, resilience and innovation. These are crucial elements in furthering STEM, with the potential to positively impact every person and part of society.

Yet, women continue to face barriers that impact their entrance into the field and limit their careers. The Asia Foundation’s latest report, supported by Zendesk, identifies many of these barriers, including gendered bias and discrimination; a lack of female role models in STEM; cultural norms and gatekeepers that limit access to STEM education, careers and networks; and inadequate workplace policies. Of these, Jane Sloane, senior director of the women’s empowerment program at The Asia Foundation, identifies gendered social norms as the most significant.

“The signals girls and young women absorb from their families and popular culture send powerful messages about who is cut out for a career in STEM. If girls and women break through these norms and barriers to assume a STEM position in the workforce then they often experience lack of leadership opportunities, salary inequities and poor management,” she writes.

“The pervasive impact of gendered social norms not only denies girls and women their potential; it denies communities and countries the diversity of talent and perspective required to solve the most complex problems.”

Beyond industry practicality, there’s a greater call: to simply recognise and acknowledge women for their intelligence, passion and achievements. Women have historically played huge roles in furthering STEM research and industries – think of Marie Curie and her discovery of radium and polonium; Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer; or Chien-Shiung Wu, who was part of the team that disproved the principle of conservation of parity. Wu’s male colleagues went on to receive a Nobel Prize in 1957, while her contributions went unrecognised. That’s what inequality looks like – and it’s what we need to undo and repair.

Four actions to advance the careers of women in STEM

To help young girls and women enter and succeed in STEM fields, public and private organisations, as well as governments, play necessary and intertwining roles.

Building and supporting women-in-STEM networks. The crux of The Asia Foundation’s research focuses on the role of women’s networks in Asia-Pacific, which play a powerful role in building community and solidarity for women in STEM. “They provide opportunities for women to grow in confidence and grow their skills and expertise while advocating for structural and norm change,” said Jane. In my own career, networks and their members have provided me with exposure and new opportunities.

Strengthening internal networks in the private sector. Business leaders must also lead in the creation and growth of internal employee groups for women. As the global executive sponsor of one such network, the Women at Zendesk Employee Resource Group, I’ve seen firsthand how this works; the group builds a foundation to support women in achieving their personal and professional goals, while uplifting women across our global organisation.

Drive industry-wide progress with partnerships. Partnerships with public organisations can facilitate the transfer of knowledge and expertise. These create important learning opportunities for policy and implementation, helping women across the entire industry take a step up by helping one another.

Ultimately, government-led initiatives set the tone. While all the other elements are necessary to elevate women in STEM, government policies that create conducive environments for women’s participation in STEM are key to highlighting the issues and spearheading change at a macro level. Without this, it’s significantly harder to address the leaky pipeline, and ensure women are encouraged towards STEM careers from a young age.

The fight for gender equality cannot be a lonely one left to the women already at the table. It takes allies, supporters and advocates from every background to rally behind doing what is right, and leaders at all levels and from every organisation must take action today.

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Chief Operating Officer, APAC at Zendesk

Wendy is the COO for Zendesk APAC, based in Singapore. A business leader with more than 25 years’ experience in the technology sector, Wendy is responsible for driving operational excellence across Asia-Pacific and ensuring global and regional alignment for all of Zendesk’s business functions and offices in APAC. With an excellent track record in transformational leadership, driving growth and building high-performing teams, Wendy is driven by putting the customer at the heart of the business and helping them embrace digital transformation. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion and is a fierce advocate for women in leadership and technology, currently serving as the global executive sponsor for the Women at Zendesk Employee Resource Group (ERG). She also serves on the President’s Leadership Council at The Asia Foundation, helping increase its profile, resources and effectiveness.

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