Every year in March, we celebrate International Women’s Day, but celebrating the females around us shouldn’t only happen then.
After all, there’s a lot we can learn from the women around us, especially those who have gone ahead and walked the education or career pathways that we’re looking to explore. In industries like Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), where the gender representation isn’t as balanced, it’s even more important that we have role models we can learn from as we chart our own journeys in life.
We sit down with four of our female alumni—Ainul Md Razib, Graduate Software Developer at ThoughtWorks; Pek Yun Ning, CEO of SGPFoods; Lena Toh, Business Sustainability Analyst at GreenA; and Delphine Ang, T5 Planning (Innovation) Manager at Changi Airport Group—for a chat about their time at SUTD, and what’s keeping them busy in their current careers.
From the problem-solving skills of STEM students to the collaborative nature of the industry, here are some takeaways we learnt from our female alumni in STEM.
- There are many different facets to the STEM industry
If you think that careers in STEM are mostly desk-bound, tech-related jobs, you’d be surprised by just how broad the umbrella of STEM actually is. Each of the four alumni we spoke to went down a different path in the field, and are working on vastly different projects.
While Ainul is building the digital future by bringing mobile applications and websites to life, Yun Ning is working towards helping Singapore achieve better food security. And while Delphine is rethinking and innovating upon airport processes, Lena is helping businesses to grow more sustainably. In other words, the possibilities really are endless in the STEM industry.
“My work principle is to be adaptable and fluid to the rapid changes in sustainability needs. Sustainability is universal and prevalent in the built environment: through certifications, strategic planning, technical implementations, ESG reporting and so forth. Being in this industry I have begun to appreciate the broadness and the dynamic nature of sustainability, it makes me feel alive.”
— Lena (pictured above)
“The whole STEM field is huge; I don’t think that any one person would be good at everything under the whole umbrella. Rather, within STEM, you’ll find an area or a few areas that you really like. There’re plenty of areas within the industry that offer various opportunities. The alignment of work with our interests is absolutely essential – in career progression and the furthering of job opportunities.”
— Yun Ning
- Apart from technical skills, you’ll also gain a lot of transferrable soft skills
While an education in STEM can sometimes be quite technical, students also pick up plenty of soft skills along the way, such as critical thinking and communication skills, and even knowing when and how to ask questions. These soft skills are easily transferable to just about any career, be it in the STEM industry or otherwise.
“Real-life problems are not always clearly defined at the start, and my biggest takeaway from pursuing a tech degree is being comfortable with learning as you go. This has helped me become more comfortable with asking questions and getting feedback at work. I learned the most from colleagues, some of whom did not have a tech degree.”
— Ainul (pictured above)
“In my view, beyond the curriculum content and technical knowledge, the most valuable aspect of a STEM education is how it hones your way of thinking and develops your approach to problems or situations. Through my education, I’ve built up skill sets in problem-solving, critical thinking, and analytical decision-making based on objective facts and data.”
— Delphine (pictured above)
“Coming from a STEM background, when we make a claim, we mean what we say, and we’re able to substantiate it well and accurately. It has also helped me to be grounded in realistic strategies, because as engineering students, we would be posed with a certain set of problems, and we would have to chart out the ways to craft the most viable solution and solve these problems.”
— Yun Ning
- Navigating a male-dominated industry as a woman isn’t easy, but you’re never alone
As with most things in life, putting yourself out there knowing that you’re a part of the minority is never easy. Though the industry has been improving in terms of gender diversity over the years, it remains a fact that there are still significantly fewer females holding high positions in STEM, and that gender biases still exist. But with more women stepping up to pursue their passions within the STEM industry, this landscape will shift and improve in the years to come.
“When my company was first starting out, I already started meeting directors of other organisations and would bring my younger male interns along. Even though I’m the boss of my company, some of these directors would just speak directly to my interns, assuming they’re the ones in charge.”
— Yun Ning (pictured above)
“Impostor syndrome has been one of my biggest struggles as a minority in STEM. I felt that I had to constantly perform well to prove I was deserving of the opportunities I got. As a content creator, I also received many negative comments while sharing my tech journey online. There are those who doubt my ability due to my gender, or accuse me of just being a diversity hire—hired for being a minority rather than having merit and capability.”
- That said, a little confidence goes a long way
Despite their shared struggles, one thing our alumni can attest to is the power of confidence, and the drive to improve oneself. Because, at the end of the day, your capabilities and experience are what will take you further along your journey, no matter your gender.
“I feel that nowadays there is lesser gender biasness, as women in the local context are increasingly given equal chances to speak and lead where they can. It’s more important how one can articulate her thoughts and ideas across to the other party and look at how best to contribute to the project at hand.”
“I don’t think I need to be “bossy”, but if I have an opinion about something, I have to be confident and just speak up. I don’t have to wait for people to give me permission to speak.”
— Yun Ning
- Role models and mentors are the way forward
Besides having a strong support system outside of work, having good mentors and role models in school and at work really helps to give young women the confidence boost that they need to pursue their passions in the STEM industry. Having real-life success stories and people that they can fall back on for advice and support is something that remains lacking in the industry, and is something that our alumni hope to change.
“Schools should actively encourage women to freely explore, and to embrace failure and not be afraid of intimidation. Most importantly, schools have the resources and network to connect female students with female mentors who could provide guidance and share their perspectives in their own STEM journey.”
“STEM is often marketed and presented as a field that is incredibly complicated, highly analytical and unfeeling. Mainstream media also features mostly boys and men in STEM, with the little female representation seeming like an afterthought, which is why both schools and companies should highlight women in STEM organically, not just during International Women’s Day.”
“I think what’s important is for there to be sufficient role models for females. It could be that more of them exist than we know of, just that they’re not so active or in the spotlight. I think this is also something that can be improved on, because the more these women step up to share, the more fellow females can benefit.”
— Yun Ning
In parting, when asked if there’s one piece of advice our alumni could give to young women who are considering pursuing a career or an education in STEM, their overwhelming response was to just be fearless and go for it. After all, you’ll never truly know what it’s like until you take the plunge and experience it for yourself.
“If you have an inkling to pursue STEM, just go ahead and do it! Same goes for anything in life, really.”
— Yun Ning
“Always go back to your why. Why did you want to pursue STEM in the first place? Once that’s clear, you’ll never lose your way, no matter what challenges you might face.”
“Don’t be afraid! Be more confident, ask more questions, and seek help and advice from colleagues and mentors when you need it.”
“What’s stopping you? Just go ahead and do it!”
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