Research shows that women are under-represented in STEM-related fields. While women earn about half of the degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). As for many who entered this career path, more often than not, they are the only person of their gender in a room.
To inspire the next generation of women STEM leaders, and to celebrate and learn from those who have paved the way in this area, four distinguished female STEM icons were invited to share about their journey and experiences in STEM in an online webinar titled ‘Women in STEM: Igniting passion, inspiring leadership’, in conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 8.
They were Professor Kim Dale who is an internationally renowned scientist and Professor of Molecular Developmental Biology from the University of Dundee, United Kingdom and Dr Chai Lay Ching, Chairperson for the Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia and the recipient of the 2018 L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award.
Joining the panel of esteemed speakers were Dr Nurfadhlina Mohd Sharef, Deputy Director of Innovation in Teaching and Learning at the Centre for Academic Development (CADe), University Putra Malaysia, and Wei Vern Hor, who is an analyst for Gas & New Energy in PETRONAS.
The webinar was jointly organised by the British Council, Science Media Centre (SMC) Malaysia and The Petri Dish which aimed at featuring women role models in STEM, as well as highlighting opportunities from STEM education and careers. The one-hour live session was moderated by Chevening Alumna, Tan Su Lin, who is also the co-founder of SMC Malaysia.
Professor Kim stressed that women representation in STEM is crucial and much needed to improve the industry.
“There is a huge value and appreciation broadly about the contribution women can make and our minds do think differently, we do contribute in very different ways and we think about problems as well, in very different ways. In fact, we actually conduct science in very different ways. So bringing that richness and diversity is now really being recognised as hugely valuable within the STEM community,” said Professor Kim.
However, Dr Chai opined that gender equality still remains a problem, especially in Malaysia, even though there seems to have more women scientists in the current ecosystem.
“We have almost equal male and female numbers in the industry (and academy) but why is it that at the top scientists level, we have more men than women? Is it really because women are not as excellent or because the way we measure excellence and achievement is flawed?” she said while drawing examples that only 30 percent of the Young Scientists Network’s leadership are women.
The speakers also discussed some key pressing issues relating to women in STEM, including a common misconception that women had to choose between family and having a career in STEM, in which Dr Nurfahlina proved otherwise when she pursued her postgraduate degree while having her first child in the UK.
“My baby was only four months old when I was doing my Phd in the UK. But what I treasured most was the exposure and training to survive, and of course, emotional endurance and life adventures.”
“I feel blessed to have a lot of support from my supervisor and lab mates. You can have all of those things and still have a fantastic work-life balance,” said Dr Fadhlina who completed her PhD study at the University of Bristol, UK in the field of Intelligent System.
Vern added that there is also increasingly more support for more females venturing into physical sciences, such as engineering. Having experienced working in offshore rigs, she said the workplace, especially in the oil and gas industry is slowly progressing.
“Women should be less afraid of the STEM industry because things are really looking up and moving more progressively to help them cope with their workplace especially if you have family and children, it’s probably the more accommodating industry.”
“As long as you have the same drive as your male counterparts, you can be equal or if not ahead, it’s a fair game, said Vern who was a researcher, scientist and engineer for eight years working on optimising energy solutions for oil and gas and renewable energy projects.
To encourage more women into STEM, Professor Kim stressed that a motivating factor is identifying female mentors and role models.
“As women, we need to find and discover our own inner circle of people who will support and uplift us.”
“Find yourself a strong female role model who will be there for you throughout your career. One of them is my PhD supervisor who is a mother of four who showed me that she can do it all,” she said while adding that building self-confidence is very important for women in STEM.
Meanwhile, Vern believes that passion and perseverance is key to success in a career in STEM as the work, she added, will speak for itself.
“STEM does not discriminate. Our work will speak for itself and it can benefit both ourselves and the society.”
Watch the full webinar here: