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Welcome Address by Professor Subra Suresh, President, NTU, at the 4th Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WiEST) Symposium

Welcome Address by
Professor Subra Suresh
President, Nanyang Technological University
4th Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WiEST)
Friday, 5 March 2021, at 10:05-10:15 AM (10 minutes)

LKC Auditorium, NTU Novena Campus


Guest of Honour, President Halimah Yacob
Distinguished Guests who are joining us online
Students, Faculty, Staff, Ladies and Gentlemen


(1)             A warm good morning to all of you. Welcome to the Women in Engineering Science and Technology symposium organised by Women@NTU. On this occasion, and in recognition of International Women's month and day, we highlight the accomplishments of women. We also discuss ways in which our university, Singapore, the scientific community, and indeed humanity, benefit by promoting gender diversity and inclusion in STEM fields.

(2)             The global pandemic has clearly taught us many lessons about science and society. First, at a time of significant disruptions to our usual way of life, and to serious risks to our health and safety. Science and Technology have proven their critical importance to humankind. Through the development of vaccines with extraordinary efficacy at unprecedented speed. The pace of technology adoption itself has been unparalleled.

(3)             Technology has kept us in touch with one another and with our families and friends, when travel and inputs and gatherings were not possible. While the importance of science to society has been decisively demonstrated during this pandemic, trust in science and processes for evidence-based policy development, have shown major cracks in many communities around the world. This situation is compounded by the fact that reality is sometimes overshadowed by misinformation and fake news in situations affecting individuals, institutions, and countries.

(4)             The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown both in developed and developing countries, that there exist significant disparities among citizens in areas such as income, education, opportunities, and access to digital tools as a result of factors such as gender and race. While we have seen many examples of intrinsic human goodness during the pandemic. These challenging times have also powerfully exposed conscious and unconscious human bias.

Such innate bias has the potential to be further exacerbated by machine bias, intentionally or unintentionally, or through unreliable and erroneous data, as we migrate towards a future in which artificial intelligence could increasingly lead to more and more routine and critical decisions in our daily lives.

(5)             The demands of managing work and family have been disproportionately shouldered by women in most societies. The pandemic has shown that working from home is becoming increasingly more accepted. And this should make it a little bit easier to support greater numbers of women in the STEM workforce.

At the same time, the reality of blurring the line between work and personal life can also make it more difficult for women to balance work and family through flexible telework plans. As we reimagine a post-pandemic world, let us examine a few key considerations that require discussion and sustained action.

(6)             Women represent half of the world population and an increasing fraction of the talent pool for the future STEM workforce in many countries. For example, in the United States, more than 70% of the very best students - the valedictorians in high schools are girls. That is more than 70%, and it is increasing. 56% of the university graduates in the US today are young women, and that fraction is also increasing. And yet, we lose much of this talent pool from the STEM workforce.

(7)             Examples of important STEM areas of growth in industry and society where women are underrepresented include computer science and electronics, mechanical engineering, mathematics, and so forth. They are also underrepresented in many corporate boards, and leadership opportunities. Progress in addressing the gender imbalance and STEM workforce can only be made if sustained, long term effort is made at every layer of the organisation. Leadership tone and action matter - so does participation from all members of the organisation.

(7)             I offer two examples from personal experiences. I have now served for six years as a Director on the board of one of the well-known multinational companies. This company was a pioneer in the creation of Silicon Valley. It is broadly recognised that Silicon Valley has an ecosystem not known for its gender diversity in technology and leadership. But our multinational company made a deliberate leadership decision a few years ago, to create one of the most diverse corporate boards anywhere in the world. And this has had an impact in sensitising the rest of the organisation to the importance of cultivating a diverse and inclusive culture.

This was also a factor I found to be helpful when I previously served as President of a private university in the US.

(8)             In 2016, through the concerted effort of my entire leadership team, faculty, and school leadership, we were able to recruit talented young women students, who comprised 48% of the incoming freshman class in the field of computer science, when the US national average for women in the freshman class was only 18% in computer science. When people with different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives work as a team on a project, they tend to be much more creative and innovative than a team made up solely of any one homogeneous group.

Gender diversity is a particularly important part of this process, especially in STEM. What can NTU do to support a diverse and inclusive community? We have much distance to travel. And we have many activities and plans underway. Let me mention three specific trust.

(9)             Diversity makes a big positive difference in innovation, new approaches to solutions and discourse. In January of this year, we launched our NTU 2025 strategic plan. One of the core initiatives of this plan is the targeted development of our one NTU community.

A key component of this initiative revolves around this question - how can we focus our effort to enhance our impact in STEM fields by addressing the important issue of gender diversity and to realise the fullest potential of all members of our community?

We have established a task force that is hard at work to identify new ways for our university to foster a more diverse, inclusive, and cohesive community. We are committed to ensuring that our community continues to be a place of respect for all fairness and opportunity.

(10)        Second, as part of NTU 2025, we have recently launched LEAD@NTU to cultivate leadership, mentoring, and training for students, faculty, and staff. Ensuring and expanding gender diversity in many STEM fields critically calls for leadership training for both women and men. LEAD@NTU has already initiated targeted activities to nurture a pipeline of leaders on campus, and to create a cohort of role models who would mentor and help build our diverse and inclusive community.

(11)     An important offshoot of LEAD@NTU is a program aimed at improving our mentoring of young faculty and staff in colleges and schools across NTU. Third, NTU success in recruiting and retaining the increasing talent pool of women in STEM fields will critically depend on how the distributed leadership of the university works to address this issue.

Leadership through action and example is critical here as is the involvement of the leaders of the academic and administrative units, faculty, and staff. Over the last three years, we have taken steps to recruit and appoint accomplished women candidates to senior leadership roles in the President's office as Deans, as Chiefs of administrative divisions, and as co-chairs. Much more work remains to be done. It is important that such commitment to nurturing a diverse and inclusive community is reinforced across the university in colleges, schools, and administrative units.

(12)        Symposia like this provides a forum to address challenges and opportunities to develop and support real diversity solutions. It also provides a stage to highlight the accomplishments of women in STEM and inspire the next generation of women scientists and engineers.

(13)        Today, we are also launching a new initiative called POWERS - Promotion Of Women in Engineering Research and Science. This initiative is spearheaded by Women@NTU and led by its co-chairs, Sierin Lim and Kimberly Kline.

I express my gratitude to Sierin and Kimberly for the leadership. This program is supported by the Ministry of Education as well as by NTU Colleges of Science and Engineering, and the Graduate college at NTU.

(14)        I hope that this symposium will serve as a venue for the discussion of how we can do better by rectifying gender imbalances in academia and workplace. I wish you all an enjoyable and productive symposium.

Thank you.