Building a vibrant and inclusive STEM and healthcare community

Themed “Inspiring Inclusion”, the second edition of the International Women in STEM and Medicine Symposium brought together local and international participants from academia, research, healthcare, and industry to share ideas, practices and experiences.

Assistant Professor Rena Dharmawan has an engineering degree, a Doctor of Medicine from Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS), and an Executive MBA. In 2014, she took a year off her surgical residency to participate in the Singapore-Stanford Biodesign fellowship. In less than 10 years since, she co-founded three start-ups and spearheaded the creation of the Duke-NUS Health Innovator Programme from scratch.

“I personally don’t feel that I’m here because I’m a girl, but because I know what I want,” said the Assistant Dean from Duke-NUS, who is also a consultant surgeon and young mother of two, during a panel discussion at the International Women in STEM and Medicine Symposium held on 25 March 2024.

Asst Prof Dharmawan was among 200 participants – comprising both men and women – from academia, research, healthcare, and industry who attended the Symposium to share ideas and exchange views on a broad range of topics concerning women’s health, professional and academic development, mentorship, and others.

The Symposium, organised by NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine) Equal Opportunities & Career Development, National University Health System (NUHS) Women in Science and Health, and the NUS Office of the Provost, is dedicated to celebrating the achievements and addressing the challenges faced by women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and the healthcare sector.

Workplace fairness, gender equality, and women’s empowerment in Singapore

Women are playing significant roles in society and Singapore, in particular, has made good progress in empowering women over the decades. 

In his opening address, Guest-of-Honour Mr Tan Kiat How, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of National Development, affirmed the Government’s commitment to strengthening workplace fairness, protecting workers from discrimination, and increasing women representation in leadership roles and high-growth areas. “In Singapore, we now have one of the highest proportions globally of women in our tech workforce. This was 41% in 2020, well above the global average of 28%,” he said.

Mr Tan also acknowledged that the STEM and Medicine fields offer a multitude of exciting challenges and opportunities for women to make a real difference in the world.

Illustrating the strong pipeline of female talent in Singapore, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye said that in terms of student enrolment in NUS, “women are very well represented in Science and Medicine” while “the gender gap is narrowing” in traditionally male-dominated fields of Engineering and Computing.  

Investing in women’s health research and closing the equity gap is important for society

Women’s health is one of the key topics discussed at the Symposium. “Elevating women’s health at a population level makes strategic sense for society and offers a proven return on investment,” said Professor Michelle Williams, a former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in her keynote presentation. “For every $1 invested in women’s health, around $3 is projected in economic growth.”

Underinvestment in research can lead to inadequate diagnostics and therapeutic products, especially if these products are typically designed by and tested on men, said Prof Williams. And this might disproportionately affect women's health when it results in underdiagnosis or undertreatment.

But an emphasis on inclusivity in healthcare can benefit all. “95% of women's health burden stems from conditions that affect both men and women. And this is why I argue that we have to look beyond sexual and reproductive health, if we are to understand and then mitigate the disparities in health,” she continued.

For those in the audience, the chance to hear from esteemed speakers was a highlight.

“I appreciate that the conference organisers invited a diverse range of international and local speakers from public and private sectors, including Prof Michelle Williams from Harvard and Prof Harvey Lodish from MIT,” said Associate Professor Jeannette Lee, Vice Dean of Academic Affairs at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. “I found the overall programme quite inspirational and learnt a few tips.”

Inspiring Inclusion – the importance of mentors, sponsors, and allies

Speakers and panellists at the Symposium agreed that finding mentors, sponsors and allies was important to advance one’s career. “For example, in surgery, there are actually more females applying and we do tag them along with female surgeons to guide them. Having someone to look up to… is very important,” said Asst Prof Dharmawan.

Professor Harvey Lodish, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been a full professor for more than 55 years. In his keynote presentation, he noted that “understanding the demands of both work and family life are critical factors in successfully mentoring top women (and men) in science”.

Prof Lodish shared how he created an environment that allowed for more flexible working arrangements for the young female postdocs in his lab. Many of them became leaders in their fields. “I never competed with my former postdoctoral fellows after they left my lab to start their own labs,” he said.

“A child- and family-focused environment provided students and postdocs with the confidence to exchange experiences, challenges, and opportunities with each other, which ultimately enhanced their commitment to a research career,” said Prof Lodish.

A shared commitment to advancing inclusion in STEM and healthcare

Speaking on the topic of promoting women’s health, Professor Zhang Cuilin, Director of the Global Centre for Asian Women’s Health (GloW) at NUS Medicine, shared that there needed to be a shift from sick care to preventive care and to look at women's health holistically over their lifespan. "Healthy and happy women are foundations for a healthy and happy society," she said.

GloW boasts a wide range of initiatives that promote Asian women's health. To this end, the importance of catalysing regional and international partnerships cannot be understated. “We are really eager to have collaborations in this.”

Asst Prof Chua Wei Ling and Dr Betsy Seah from the NUS Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies both agreed that the conference was inspiring, especially for early career researchers. “It is indeed quite motivational to hear about the importance of advocating for women’s health across the entire lifespan,” said Asst Prof Chua, who conducts research on patient safety. They shared that they were part of a women leadership programme at NUS Medicine that connects them with other women clinician-scientists in NUS and NUHS.

“Today’s gathering is an affirmation of our shared commitment to advance inclusion and to empower women in STEM and Medicine. Academic institutions can take a lead in in educating, developing and nurturing women to their fullest potential,” said Prof Tan Eng Chye.

“We (NUS) will work to break barriers, challenge stereotypes and create opportunities for women to thrive and excel in their chosen fields,” he added.