Welcome to the second feature in the IWD Spotlight series, where women in the science and tech industry share their journey and advice for others walking the same path.
What are some of the challenges you’ve personally encountered or seen women face in STEM?
While it is heartening to see how far diversity and inclusion for women have come, it wasn’t always this way. I still remember when I was in school, opportunities for women like me were few and far in between. I was a little disappointed to see that there was little conscious effort on the school’s part to encourage female students to join leadership groups or roles.
When I decided to join the STEM sector over thirty years ago, it felt like the same story was happening all over again. I was the only female in one of the engineering research and development (R&D) groups I joined as a budding engineer. There were rarely any policies advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) as we know it today. This meant that when issues arose at work, ladies in the sector were left to ‘figure it out on our own’. We often had to learn things the hard way and hunt for our own opportunities to showcase our strengths.
Later when I started my family, a fresh challenge arose. Raising three children no doubt slowed my career progression, and I was lucky to have understanding management who was empathetic of the difficulties I faced juggling two roles as a mother and working professional. Many women back then didn’t, and had to make the difficult decision to give up their careers in order to care for their family.
What can society do to ensure gender equity in a male-dominated industry?
I am a firm believer in a meritocratic society. In the workplace, this translates to valuing each employee for their talents and capabilities, performing fair assessments, as well as developing clear advancement tracks based on individual merit. By fostering such a culture from the top down, we are providing equal opportunities for employees of all genders to be rewarded and seen for their ability and potential. This is an important step forward in eliminating gender bias in the workplace. At GlobalFoundries (GF), we take extra steps to ensure that all our team leaders – myself included – attend regular training to help us understand and practice inclusive leadership, as well as identify and eliminate unconscious bias.
We cannot deny that stereotypes exist, particularly in the STEM industry. I myself have seen it happen over the years. This is where the industry needs to work together to stem the perpetuation of these stereotypes and provide women with the resources they need to advance in their careers. This could be as simple as setting up training and professional training groups for women to feel more motivated and engaged. We find that women often leave the industry not because they have lost passion for their work, but because they feel discouraged and unrecognized. Most importantly, these groups serve as a community and support network for fellow female professionals.
GlobalFoundries (GF), for example, has a dedicated sponsorship and mentoring program for women to build up other women aspiring to succeed in this industry. I am also very proud of our GF GLOBALWOMEN employee resource group, which seeks to develop a sustainable framework for women’s professional growth through collaboration with our partners. GF’s GLOBALWOMEN initiative provides female employees with programs involving coaching, training, and mentorship, with the goal of helping these talented individuals build confidence. We believe strongly that this type of early career support is crucial for us for employee attraction and retention.
I find these incredibly useful especially for our younger counterparts who are just entering the workforce, who would be able to seek advice and reassurance from other women who have done it all before.
Other initiatives we have at GF include 20-week paid maternity leave, as well as the provision of lactation rooms for our working mothers. I’m happy to share that we now have a female representation of 34% across our Singapore workforce, which is significantly higher than the industry average of 20%.
What advice would you give to your younger self when starting out?
If I could go back in time, I would encourage my younger self to be bolder in exploring her interests and to pursue her aspirations with confidence.
Growing up in an Asian society, I realized that women tend to be more conservative when making important life decisions. We tend to put family first, which ends up being self-limiting in the choices we make.
When I was younger, engineering and science were generally thought to be the only fields that would guarantee a financially stable career in the long run. My family and the people around me thought so, and this impacted how I decided on my career. My path may have been very different if I had pursued other subjects.
But that’s not to say that I have made the wrong decision to build my career in STEM. It is quite the contrary, in fact, as I am extremely grateful and fortunate to have found my calling in the semiconductor industry. What motivates me to get out of bed every day is that I am working with a team of like-minded individuals who are passionate about the change we are bringing about in the sector through continuous innovation and the cutting-edge technology we bring to life at GF.
My advice to young women is to be brave and seek out what your heart tells you to. It might not always be right at the beginning, but you will find your calling along the way.
Recently, there’s been a public spotlight on leaders such as Jacinda Ardern and Susan Wojcicki stepping down — what are your thoughts?
I believe it takes a lot of courage to make the firm decision to step down from a leadership position when they know it’s time to focus on other priorities in their lives. I sincerely admire their professional accomplishments, and I am heartened to see that they are focusing on striking a balance between their work and personal aspirations.
But that’s also part of the conundrum that female leaders will face at a point in their lives: Are they truly prepared to let go of what they have, or will they end up sacrificing both their family lives and their careers in a struggle for work-life balance?
Knowing when to forge ahead and when to reprioritize is not easy, and I believe leaders like Jacinda Ardern and Susan Wojcicki are serving as role models for women who are now at this crossroads.
What kind of workplace or industry changes do you hope to see in the next five years or so?
In the next five years, the industry must work towards recognizing the value of a diverse workforce. Men and women come to the table with different but equally valuable viewpoints, and we need to ensure we capture these perspectives to drive innovation and ultimately, business success.
I certainly hope to see a fully meritocratic society, or at the very least significant strides in that direction, as we move away from outmoded gender biases. It is encouraging to see many organizations in STEM building new, inclusive workplace cultures, as well as putting in place policies to ensure progress is made.
Personally, I lead an engineering team and a majority of its members are men. I make it a point to ensure that male employees in our team play their role in our journey to even the gender playing field. While it’s important to uplift female employees, it’s just as important to ensure male employees are educated on gender stereotypes and help build a more inclusive workplace for all. This starts from the top, and having a gender-balanced leadership team sends a strong message throughout the organization.
As much as individual organizations are putting in efforts to drive DE&I within the organization, I believe having prominent female role models in society is also critical to shifting the overall workforce’s perception of how success looks like. This can be driven by legislation or societal policies that provide a conducive and encouraging environment for women to succeed in their own unique ways.
We have definitely made a lot of progress, and I look forward to seeing a world where more and more women are empowered to lead based on their merit and capability.