Gateway to Greater Gender Equality
27 August 2020
We have come a long way since the days when females were a minority in the classroom. Today, more girls are attending school than ever before — indeed, in some countries, the gender balance at the higher education level is even tipped in their favour with more young women than young men enrolling in universities. This is reflected in recent data shared by UK-based organisation the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service that showed 30,000 more women than men were on track to enter university in the country.
Despite the upward trend, women continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women make up only 20 to 25 per cent of the global STEM workforce, especially in computer science and engineering. In higher education, only 35 per cent of STEM students around the world are women, according to a UNESCO 2017 report. That gender imbalance is even starker when you slice it across different STEM fields. Female student enrolment is especially low in information and communication technology (three per cent), for instance. In Singapore, women account for 30 to 36 per cent of engineering and IT undergraduates. Furthermore, only 30 per cent of Singapore's 200,000 Infocomm employees are women, according to a recent Infocomm Media Development Authority report.
The lack of gender representation in STEM is not for want of talent, however. Studies show that in most countries, girls are in fact as good as boys in math and science. So why then is there an imbalance? For one, there are long-standing biases and gender stereotypes that start from a young age. Girls are often socialised to think STEM is not for them, while boys are socialised to think otherwise. Another key reason is that girls receive only limited access to tech skills training, although this is fast changing in places like Singapore, where coding has become part of the school curriculum.
Blazing a Trail for Women In Tech
Although more needs to be done to overcome these issues in the STEM fields, some tech companies are pushing for better female representation in the industry. Global digital payments leader PayPal is one such organisation that hopes to change the narrative. To empower young women who are passionate about technology to pursue a career in the field and nurture the next generation of fintech female talent, it launched the Women Luminaries Program in Singapore on 29 July 2019. The initiative is the first of its kind in the world for PayPal, and NTU is a key partner in this three-year programme. The programme will award a scholarship to a female undergraduate in Year 2 or 3 from NTU's School of Computer Science and Engineering, supporting up to one academic year of tuition fees. It will give her access to female mentors at PayPal, such as senior engineers and managers, as well as to workshops, events and courses offered to PayPal employees. It also guarantees a hands-on internship at PayPal, exposing the recipient to real-life scenarios and problem-solving with guidance from PayPal's senior engineers.
Gender Diversity and Inclusion at Paypal
In conversation with Mr Jerry Tso at PayPal Singapore.
For tech companies like PayPal, gender disparity is worrying because a lack of diversity hurts the industry. It results in fewer new perspectives, which, in turn, stifles innovation and productivity. "If our workforce is mainly men, they might be inclined to think in certain ways when it comes to product development, engineering and other areas. They might be biased. Having a diverse workforce will help us to open up those views,"" said Mr Jerry Tso, Director, PayPal Singapore's Development Center.
Low female participation in STEM careers also compromises the growth potential of Southeast Asia, where more than half of the population are women. "From our standpoint, having different perspectives will serve the customer better. We will be able to deliver a better-quality product. We’ve seen the benefit of that, and we want to do more, Mr Tso added.
The Women Luminaries Program thus feeds into PayPal's vision of encouraging an inclusive economy. "We've always wanted to build inclusivity through our platform. We want to enable more people around the world who are financially underserved to be able to participate in the digital economy," explained Mr Tso.
The company benefits from this too. The PayPal office in Singapore, which is also its international headquarters, has about 500 employees, with about 40 per cent women and 60 per cent men. Its technical functions, however, have about 30 per cent women and 70 per cent men, although this statistic has improved since PayPal first began in Singapore more than a decade ago.
Over the last few years, the company has focused on growing a more diverse workforce. The Women Luminaries Program is an extension of that effort to create more impact and awareness of the PayPal brand among young undergraduates, who may later join the company.
"We wanted to start with our own employee base, to further nurture the next generation of talent and continue to foster a diverse workforce,” said Mr Tso. The company is no stranger to starting young people early on tech either, having hosted various coding workshops for children in the past.
Raising More Awareness
Assoc Prof Nicholas Vun in action on the grounds of the School of Computer Science and Engineering.
For NTU, making the decision to work with PayPal on this programme was important, given the company's reputation as an industry leader in financial technology.
"PayPal is a world leader in providing online payments services and is well-recognised all over the world. As such, its scholarship will be a highly prestigious award sought by our students. In addition, scholarship holders will be recognised for their academic talent and strong leadership quality," said Associate Professor Nicholas Vun, who is Associate Chair (Academic) of the School of Computer Science and Engineering.
"PayPal will provide many opportunities for students to attend its workshops and events, and have access to industry experts and mentors that will help students gain first-hand knowledge and exposure to the exciting world of technology. We hope that this will eventually lead them to build a career in the technology industry," Prof Vun continued. The scholarship will also go some way towards addressing the root problems of the gender gap in academia and the tech industry.
"The PayPal Women Luminaries Program will raise the awareness that women are recognised to be equally important and are highly sought after in the technology industry. This will help to inspire more female students to take up STEM programmes and close the gender gap," Prof Vun highlighted.
Seven months after the announcement of the Women Luminaries Program, NTU and PayPal are mid-way through deciding on the first recipient from the university. Over the next few months, the School of Computer Science and Engineering intends to raise more awareness of the PayPal scholarship among undergraduates.
"We hope to get our female students to have the confidence to apply for the scholarship as this is rather new. The school and NTU will organise workshops to help prepare the students for the shortlisting process," Prof Vun shared.
For PayPal, the programme is one way to strengthen its brand within the NTU student community. Said Mr Tso: "I hope students will see that PayPal is committed to education and our mission of nurturing young talent. We are putting the investment and our time and effort into that." He is optimistic that the programme's success will lead to more collaborations with the university.
"NTU has been a great partner for as long as we've been in Singapore. We have had very good NTU graduates work for us and some have gone on to work with our corporate headquarters in the US. Certainly, there's always more that we can do, whether it's research collaborations or helping students better understand tech and fintech."
"As they grow older, the girls that come through on internships would have the opportunity to work with some of PayPal's more senior female engineers. The programme can bring about a substantial impact leading to greater diversity in tech." ~ Mr Jerry Tso
PayPal is partnering two other universities for the programme. It intends to work with a total of five local universities in the future. The payment platform is open to the possibility of extending the programme to first-year students too, as it has received feedback to do so.
"I'm just glad more female students are interested in Joining the ever-evolving technology industry and that an organisation like PayPal can help them achieve that goal," enthused Mr Tso. "In addition, as they grow older, the girls that come through on internships would have the opportunity to work with some of PayPal's more senior female engineers. The programme can bring about a substantial impact leading to greater diversity in tech."