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Singapore can be a model for women in the tech sector

Skyline of Singapore CBD

SINGAPORE — Singapore can be a model of a country that has women in the tech sector, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Thursday (Nov 19), adding that the Government is making a conscious effort to develop role models and mentorship schemes for women in this space.

“We’re not there yet but we have some advantages that other countries don't, because if you look at our school system — our secondary schools, our junior colleges — women are as represented as men in the sciences. “It’s a little unusual compared to most countries.

Women are as represented as men in the sciences and do very well. So, the question is transiting from that into tertiary education and into jobs,” said Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Social Policies. He was speaking during a Facebook Live session at the Singapore Tech Forum 2020 where he was joined by Mr Marc Benioff, the chief executive officer and founder of American cloud-based software company Salesforce. Mr Tharman said that in tertiary education, women have shunned hardware engineering although they moved into chemical engineering and life sciences. 

Women also tend to move into quantitative fields like accountancy and business, he pointed out.  “The world of engineering is changing. It’s now knowledge and data, and I think it's a very exciting opportunity for women. But we've got to have a very conscious effort to develop that norm, to develop the role models, to develop the mentorship schemes.

 And that's a responsibility of the Government, of education institutions, of corporates and of community,” said Mr Tharman. He said companies such as DBS bank, online payment service Paypal and Salesforce have “very determined schemes” now to hire and develop women in the tech space. 

He added that the Government is trying to do the same through an Infocomm Media Development Authority initiative called SG Women In Tech. “There are also community initiatives, (like) something called The Codette Project by Nurul Jihadah, which is very much the same; mentorship, encouraging women, including women from minority backgrounds, to get into tech,” he said. “I think Singapore can be a model. We’re not there yet and, in fact, there are no real models for women in tech internationally, including in Silicon Valley. We must be a model of inclusivity, even on gender, when it comes to the tech world, because the tech world hasn't been famous for gender equality.”

During the session, Mr Benioff commented on how the world is facing a global health, economic and environmental crisis, and how the United States is also grappling with a justice, racial and equality crisis. “I think that we can all look at that and, in many ways, we can also say we're in a crisis of equality. This idea of capitalism, let's talk about that — is that all we're about? Money? Is that all we're about? Shareholder return? It is about a much greater mission than that,” said Mr Benioff.

The pandemic, he said, could be a “great reset” for a new, more compassionate, more fair capitalism. Mr Tharman said that economic objectives should not be separate from social objectives. If a country is able to run a competitive and efficient economy, it will be able to create a lot more opportunities for people, he pointed out. 

However, if it is left entirely to the market, those opportunities become polarised over time — those who have an advantage will get even more advantage and those who start off with less tend to end up with less, he said. “So you can't leave it to the market. But if you think of an economy as a social ecosystem, not just a business ecosystem, you're able to create opportunities starting upstream in education but moving into work, because work is still fundamental to any system with a sense of equality and opportunity.

And you create a society where everyone feels that the economy is doing well, I, my children and the people I know well are also more likely to do well,” said Mr Tharman. Conversely, he said that if Singapore does not have a cohesive society with divisions widening over time, it will be very hard to sustain an economic strategy that involves being open. “In other words, if you're not socially sustainable, you're not going to have a competitive economy in the long term and that's what you see across the world.

No one is perfect; we're not perfect in Singapore,” said Mr Tharman. Singapore, however, is one of the few countries together with Sweden and “just one or two others” that have managed to sustain the middle majority society, moving up one decade after another even in the last five years. “There's still a significant work plan, significant collaboration plan, significant upscaling plan to help people who are lower down the ladder take opportunities of moving up. It will make us a better society. It creates better companies and creates a better society. ”But Singapore, he said, was “not done yet at all”.  “There's really no perfect society wherever you go in the world,” said Mr Tharman. 

This article was first published in Today Online.

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