Women Advance in the World of STEM

By Regina Hoo

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More women in Malaysia today are breaking into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, increasing diversity and inclusivity and driving the country’s economic and innovation engines. In 2014 the enrolment of female undergraduates in Science, Mathematics and Computer studies at local tertiary education institutions was higher than that of males, reports Penang Institute.[1]

This is an encouraging development, but when we look further up the STEM career ladder, women become less well represented. In order to make the most of a good momentum, it is imperative that the issue be addressed and that women are encouraged to exercise greater staying power and carve out fulfilling careers in these fields.

This has to start with a change in mindset.

Cultivating A Growth Mindset

TechWomen delegates visiting the Penang Science Cafe.

The “genius culture” – the conviction that the skills required for one to succeed are innate – is particularly prevalent in STEM fields. Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, who co- authored the paper “Psychological insights for improved physics teaching” in 2014, argues that it has become “… fashionable to be ‘stupid’ in math and science. Rather than saying … your child isn’t working hard enough and that’s why they’re doing poorly in math, you can say ‘he just doesn’t have a brain that is good for math.’”[2]

This “fixed mindset”, which is characterised as having to continually prove one’s intelligence, unavoidably makes one question one’s own cerebral prowess when faced with challenging tasks.

To counteract this ethos, a “growth mindset” needs to be cultivated instead. This is defined by beliefs that talent, intelligence and skill can be grown and exercised like a muscle, rather than being fixed or innate much like eye colour, explains Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck in her book Mindset.[3]

“A strong fixed mindset in a learner, teacher or parent is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy if nothing is done to intervene. The belief that you cannot succeed, and prominent authority figures telling you that you cannot succeed, is very effective at ensuring most people will not be successful at a challenging task. Even relatively small interventions can shift students of all ages from a fixed to a more growth mindset, and their performance improves accordingly”.[4]

Sharing session at the Penang Science Cluster.
Datuk Norashidah Ahmad, vice president of Keysight Technologies Malaysia, shares her experiences climbing up the STEM career ladder.

A Passion for STEM

Last August, Form Five students from St. George’s Girls School and Convent Datuk Keramat had the opportunity to meet with delegates from TechWomen to enhance their knowledge on STEM. Organised by the Penang Science Cluster (PSC), TechWomen is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which seeks to empower, connect and support the next generation of women leaders in STEM by providing them with the access and opportunity needed to advance their careers and inspire women and girls in their communities.

Experts in their fields, these TechWomen spoke of their love for STEM, and the circuitous routes and stumbling blocks they had to wander through to pursue their dreams. “I didn’t start out as a software engineer,” says Diana Macias, a senior engineering manager at Twitter. “I did biology in college, but it wasn’t right for me. Then I switched to business – that wasn’t quite right for me either.”

Macias recalls, “My college counsellor suggested I take my first programming class and this turned out to be my calling. I believe you need to try different things to find out what your passion is and only then can you do anything you set your mind to. I’ve been at Twitter for about three years now, and what keeps me in technology is its ever-changing nature. It’s exciting and I’m always looking forward to what’s next.”

Erin Keeley, a tech executive in the Silicon Valley, agrees. “We didn’t get to where we are without some hurdles. I had always been good at maths and science, but I also worked hard. At university, I got a C on an organic chemistry test – the first C of my life! I had studied so hard and I was sure I understood the subject well. But the experience gave me the opportunity to turn it around – I went on to obtain my BS in Cellular Biology and Chemical Engineering, and MS in Chemical Engineering.

“The key thing is you will face challenges. I hate to say this, but you may have a test at which you don’t do as well as you might have thought. But it does not mean that you cannot make a career out of it, nor does it mean that you should give up on your dreams. If you need to find someone from whom to ask for advice or a mentor even, then do it. Those hardships you face and the strength you get knowing ‘Ok, this was hard but I did it’ will help you throughout your career and your life.”

Rekha Pai Kamath of Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs offers this morsel of advice: “Prepare yourselves for the careers of the next 10 years. When I was your age, if somebody had told me one day I would be designing chips for a networking company, I wouldn’t have believed them since there were no mobile phones, and technology was not even imaginable back then. But in order to stay ahead, you must prepare yourselves for those careers, and the best way to do that is to get the foundations right.”

Role Models in STEM

There is no existing system in local schools that impedes opportunities for girls to study STEM subjects. “But having good women role models can definitely help negate the general perception of tech being a boys’ club,” says Aimy Lee, the operations manager of PSC.

Malaysia certainly boasts many prominent women leaders on the global STEM platform, including astrophysicist Dr Mazlan Othman, the first Malaysian director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and a pivotal figure in the launching of Malaysia’s space programme; Tan Hooi Ling, the co-founder and COO of the popular South-East Asian ride-hailing company Grab; and Datuk Norashidah Ahmad, the vice president of Keysight Technologies Malaysia, who counsels:

“It is important for these girls to learn to never settle. Be ambitious, bolster self-confidence, cultivate communication and networking skills, and always be hungry for more information. Also, make use of the resources available; the Penang Science Cafe is an excellent place to start because one might not know when a certain piece of knowledge will come in handy until much later.”

And as more women continue to make headway in STEM, the gender and skills gaps within the industry stand a realistic chance of narrowing.


[1] https://penanginstitute.org/publications/issues/what-widens-the-gender-pay-gap/

[2] https://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/rewiring-stem-education

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Regina Hoo

is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.