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Singapore women in tech have level-playing field

Women IT leaders who have proved their mettle in the city-state say they have been given the same opportunities as their male counterparts

When Lum Seow Khun graduated from university in the aftermath of Singapore’s first post-independence recession in the 1980s, she took up her first job in the IT industry.

While it wasn’t a conscious decision to join the ranks of women in technology at that time, she soon fell in love with the job at a Singapore-based government-linked company. “I took the job out of necessity, but I grew to enjoy it when I saw how technology could improve so many areas of our lives,” she said.

Having a woman mentor helped too. “My first manager was a lady who gave me a lot of support and guided me throughout my career. At the same time, she was fair and didn’t side with either women or men in the company,” she said.

Like many of her peers across the world, Lum – who is IBM Singapore’s director of sales and transformation, as well as council member of Singapore Computer Society (SCS) and co-chair of its student chapter – is part of a growing number of women who have made their mark in a male-dominated field.

In Singapore, female representation in the IT sector has been hovering around the 30% mark since 2000, even as more have climbed the ranks and taken on senior leadership positions in the industry.

Notable names include Chua Sock Koong, group CEO of Singtel; Jessica Tan, former managing director of Microsoft Singapore; and Tan Yen Yen, Asia-Pacific president of Vodafone Global Enterprise and former managing director of HP Singapore.

“The eminence of women leading IT organisations is now more pronounced,” Lum said, noting that half of SCS’s annual IT Leader Awards winners have been women in recent years.

Notwithstanding, Lum believes the low women representation in IT is a supply issue rather than a demand one. “More employers recognise that women are more meticulous and would do well in areas such as quality assurance,” she said.

SCS’s quality assurance chapter, for one, tends to be dominated by women while other chapters such as cyber security have lower women representation of around 30%, Lum said. “This may be due to inherent differences between the genders that lead to differing interests,” she added.

As with any industry or gender, there are outliers, such as Tammie Tham, an entrepreneur who started Singapore-based cyber security systems integrator Accel Systems and Technologies in May 2012. After an early career in sales with a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), she took up a business development position at an IT security firm during the dotcom boom in the early 2000s.

Over time, her interest in cyber security grew deeper as she read up more about the industry and interacted with colleagues who were more technically inclined. Today, Tham has honed her technical skills and runs an engineering team of 60 people, of which less than 10% are women.

“Compared with men, [women] have a desire to go very deep into the technology,” she said. “They’re not thinking of project management and, in fact, they prefer to talk to machines than interact with clients. If they are good, we’ll encourage them to be line managers.”

Tham, who is also chairperson of the cyber security chapter of the Singapore infocomm Technology Federation (SiTF), said her female engineers tend to handle stress better than their male counterparts.

“In IT projects, they are the ones who can take on the challenges,” Tham said, noting that her female engineers are also more composed and structured in their thinking than men when handling cyber security incidents. “They do more analysis and do not jump to conclusions.”

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While Tham does not see the lack of women in the IT industry as a problem by itself, noting that any qualified person should get the job and do well regardless of gender, efforts are being made to encourage more women to enter the field.

For one thing, a growing number of meetup groups, programmes and events – such as Women in Tech in Singapore, Girls in Tech in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Women Techmakers in the Philippines – have also emerged across the region in recent years.

While not specifically focused on drawing women to the tech sector, Lean In, a non-profit organisation started by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg with a mission to empower women to achieve their ambitions, has also established a Singapore chapter with more than 1,000 members.

Noting that women in Singapore already have a level playing field in the IT sector and that any perceptions of gender discrimination are unfounded, Tham said efforts to encourage women to go into IT are aimed at addressing the talent gap across the industry – and are not in response to a gender issue.

“There’s just a plain shortage of people, so we’ll have to start attracting more women to the industry,” she said. 

To that, SiTF’s executive director Ho Se Mun told Computer Weekly that the industry is actively attracting fresh women graduates and mid-career job switchers to join the IT industry.

“SiTF has just launched a platform, talentguru, to make it easier to find new talent, including women, who want to join the industry by identifying their job skill gaps and their career pathways in advance,” she said.

Read more on Diversity in IT