Credit: Courtesy of Grace Chng

With women comprising 41% of the tech workforce in Singapore – way past the global average of 28% – it’s tempting to hyperbolise it as an achievement. These stats from a 2020 study by Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), SG Women in TechnologyBoston Consulting Group (BCG), reflect the future of gender diversity in technology throughout Southeast Asia and attempt to identify problems and solutions.

Indeed, the study has thrown the gender gap in the tech scene into the spotlight. In Singapore, 5% of jobs were vacant in Q1 2020 – almost double that of 2010. The lower participation of women in the industry can worsen the critical shortage of talent and inhibit a nation’s growth, especially since Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of digital transformation in Singapore.

A survey by Nanyang Technological University associate professors Sierin Lim and Kimberly Kline in 2021, meanwhile, found that only 58% of women who graduated with a degree in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) pursued careers in these fields. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to do so, at 70%.

Grace Chng, tech journalist, author and host of The Curious Podcast, which features female leaders in the tech and science industries from across Asia, attributes it to culture.

Parents think that the STEM disciplines don’t suit girls, that engineers working in factories and scientists sitting in front of computers all the time are not appropriate careers for women.  

Grace Chng, tech journalist, author and host of The Curious Podcast
women in tech
Grace Chng (centre) receives the Special Commendation Award from the Singapore Computer Society (SCS) for her contributions towards SG100 Women in Tech (WIT) in February 2022. She is photographed here with Tan Lee Chew (left), chairperson of SCS WIT, and Dr Chong Yoke Sin (right), President of SCS.
Credit: Courtesy of Grace Chng

Grace, who spent 31 years as a journalist with The Straits Times, during which she helmed the weekly Digital Life magazine, continues: “There are many tech roles emerging; some of which need technical expertise, others need a deep understanding of technology.

“Apart from the coders, network engineers and cloud architects, there are also games artists and designers, digital custodians for the emerging world of crypto and NFT, and digital marketers.”

To encourage women to pursue tech professions, mindsets must change. Grace, 66, who is part of the committee behind SG Women In Tech – to attract, retain and develop female talents in tech – says: “Showcasing role models by raising awareness of the many exciting tech jobs and highlighting successful female technologists are ways to nudge young girls towards studying STEM and joining the tech industry.”  

And even if these women are already working in tech, many often quit – less than 15% of chief executives and board positions in Southeast Asia are held by women, according to the study. Such reduced gender diversity can impact companies’ ability to innovate, as well as their revenues.

As BCG’s research indicates, companies where women comprise more than 20% of management earn about 10% higher innovation revenues than those with male-dominated leadership.

In light of that, Grace’s The Curious Podcast seeks to allow women in the tech industry to inspire greater confidence in one another, and enable them to take on and rise above challenges they face in their profession.

In addition to bridging the digital divide between women and men, getting Singaporeans to embrace digital learning as a lifelong pursuit is also crucial. This is what the Digital for Life movement wants to achieve. Rolled out in February 2021 by President Halimah Yacob, it was accompanied by the Digital for Life fund that has grown to $7.6 million to date.

Endeavouring to build a digitally inclusive society for Singapore, the movement, supported by IMDA, seeks public support for projects and activities to promote digital inclusion, resilience and adoption of tech for life.

Since the Digital for Life Fund’s inception, 22 projects have been funded. To date, 43% of the project owners and advocates are women coming from STEM industries, while there are seven projects and counting that support women to get digitally savvy and connected. And you can “play” it forward by starting a project, volunteering, or donating to the Digital for Life Fund.

Meanwhile, Grace shares more insights on how women can value-add to tech.    

What do you think women bring to tech?

Here’s the easiest way to explain this: women are consumers who make buying decisions at home and at work, and who influence the lives of their families and friends. They are buyers of products, and users of gadgets and tech services. They contribute to the economy. So women’s perspectives need to be considered.  And they are a large group to contend with, making up about half of the 7.9-billion global population.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of having digital skills to be a part of the online world. In Singapore, boys and girls have equal access to digital education. So I wish that women will not only join the digital transformation but also play an important role in it.

In an article I wrote, Dr Ong Chen Hui, IMDA’s cluster director for Biztech and chairperson of SG Women In Tech national committee, said it best: “I believe that women and men working together offer different points of view and approaches that come from different life experiences, which can spark creativity and innovation, and help organisations identify and seize new opportunities.”

What do you most enjoy about writing about technology?

Technology is exciting because it changes so rapidly and, in the process, changes us too. There is never a dull moment in technology. This is what attracts me to the tech beat.

Technology is about innovation and invention; it can grow big companies and influence the way we work and play. These companies are also often driven by inspirational and influential leaders, and they in turn use technology to impact society.

What led you to start The Curious Podcast?

I curated the SG100 Women In Tech lists in 2020 and 2021. Each year, we’d receive nearly 1,000 nominations – there are many female tech professionals based in Singapore but they are so well-hidden that few know them. They are also so well-qualified that selection was tough and challenging.

The Curious Podcast arose from SG100 WIT. I wanted to feature these outstanding female technologists, so I asked Lena Soh-Ng – she has broadcast journalism experience – to co-host. I am thankful to IMDA for partially funding this, which helped to defray costs such as sound editing and social media boosting.

We have interviewed more than 20 women, most of whom are based in Singapore. These include Dr Carolyn Lam, an accomplished cardiologist who pioneered Singapore’s first Women’s Health Clinic; Lynette Tan, co-founder and chief executive of Singapore Space and Technology Ltd, and Marjet Andriesse, vice-president and GM of Red Hat Asia Pacific, who believes that jobs would become a hybrid of tech know-how and business expertise or domain knowledge.

Even those who were overseas had links to Singapore – a data scientist in Manila who worked with A*STAR, and a cancer researcher in Malaysia who studied at Raffles Girls School.

I am captivated by their single-mindedness in the pursuit of their groundbreaking work, as well as their creativity and innovation.

By profiling these female technologists and scientists, their career journeys, and the industries they are in, The Curious Podcast wants to help attract younger women and retain those who are pursuing tech and STEM-related careers. These female technologists and scientists serve as role models for younger women, nudging them to study the STEM disciplines. We also take the opportunity to highlight the growing tech and STEM industries, and the many jobs that are available.

What’s next for you?

Post-ST, I have written books. Intelligent Island: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Tech Journey chronicles the achievements and lessons learnt of Singapore’s expertise in IT master-planning, manpower development and industry development. From Zero To 30 Singapore’s Supercomputing Journey, meanwhile, follows Singapore’s 20-year journey in supercomputing.

My third book will be published this year. It tells the story of how the National University of Singapore built a world-class internship programme to encourage entrepreneurship. At NUS Overseas College (NOC), students spend a year overseas working with start-ups and attend classes on entrepreneurship and venture creation.

NOC has played a crucial role in Singapore’s start-up ecosystem; many students have become poster kids for the scene, such as Darius Cheung (99.co); Quek Siu Rui (Carousell), and Chris Feng (Shopee).

What are the challenges we must overcome to build a digitally inclusive society successfully in Singapore?

As our society progresses, there will be segments who may not be able to embrace digital as quickly, such as the elderly, people with special needs, as well as low-income groups.

With Covid-19 especially, digitisation has accelerated; going digital enabled people to WFH and organisations to continue to function effectively.

Unfortunately, these communities may not understand how to, for instance, undertake digital transactions. That is why it is important to provide them opportunities for access, adoption as well as literacy and cyber wellness.

One challenge is for providers of digital services to develop better user interfaces so that these communities can access digital services more easily.

I look forward to outreach programmes such as Digital for Life, that can support these communities in the use of digital services. Through Digital for Life’s community digitisation activities, people from all walks of life – working adults, retirees or students – can start or participate in projects that benefit the less tech-savvy. For example, creating websites for low-income groups to receive food donations, and teaching the elderly to access government services through their mobile phones. Such initiatives will contribute to a more digitally inclusive society in Singapore.

Never has technology seeped into every corner of our lives so quickly, so it is important for everyone to be digitally literate.

We can all play a part to build a digitally inclusive society together. Start a project, volunteer, or donate to the Digital for Life Fund. Head to go.gov.sg/digitalforlife to find out how.

Brought to you by Digital for Life

Movement supported by the Infocomm Media Development Authority