Celebrating Women in NUS Engineering

2021 has been designated the “Year of Celebrating SG Women” by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, making this the perfect year for the NUS Faculty of Engineering’s inaugural “Women in NUS Engineering” event, which took place in September 2021.

In attendance was a list of celebrated leaders from various industries, including CEO of Temasek Holdings Ms Ho Ching, Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Class of 1976; Chairman of Shell (Singapore) Ms Aw Kah Peng, Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical Engineering) Class of 1990; Senior Vice President of SkyLab Services Ms Eng Se-Hsieng, Master of Engineering (Electrical Engineering) Class of 2004; and Senior Manager of Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology Ms Wan Siew Ping, Master of Science (Mechanical Engineering) Class of 1989. Guest-of-Honour and Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Master of Science (Electrical Engineering) Class of 1994, joined the event via video.

Associate Professor Christina Lim from the NUS Department of Mechanical Engineering was the host for the event, and she explained that the event aimed to shed light on the struggles and triumphs of women in engineering, and inspire more ladies to embark on this exciting, progressively inclusive career path.

She believed this is an ideal time to enter the field of engineering, saying, “The pandemic has accelerated the pace of innovation, and engineers are needed to drive our growth.”

A growing international reputation for gender equality

The event celebrated the achievements of women in this traditionally male-dominated arena – with speakers talking about why they chose engineering, sharing stories from their time in university, and their experiences navigating careers in engineering and other fields.

A common point that all the speakers – who are also award-winning NUS Engineering alumni – agreed on, is that the community of women engineers is growing. Ms Wan recalled how only 10% of her coursemates were women, while today, women make up 30% of engineering cohorts. And although these numbers are still shy of a 50:50 balance, it’s evident that the engineering profession is certainly becoming more diverse, inclusive and attractive for women.

On this note, Minister Masagos Zulkifli spoke about the importance of respect and rapport between women and men, and Singapore’s efforts to promote greater equality between women and men. This has been reflected in Singapore’s ranking of 12th out of 162 countries on the Gender Inequality Index published in the United Nations Human Development Report 2020 – placing Singapore among the upper echelons of developed nations. Minister also shared about the Government’s partnership with community partners to continue efforts to support Singapore women, through the year-long nation-wide Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development that involved nearly 6,000 participants. Feedback and ideas from the Conversations will be consolidated into a White Paper to be tabled in Parliament next year.

How an engineering degree builds the foundation of any career

Following Minister Masagos Zulkifli’s opening address, the speakers took turns on stage – each piquing the audience’s interests with heartfelt tales of how they embarked upon engineering studies, and their fascinating career journeys.

While Ms Ho’s introduction to engineering was inspired by a Meccano set (i.e., an engineering equivalent of Lego) that she received as a child, Ms Aw admitted to picking engineering as her university course to please her father, who wanted her to “choose something serious”. Meanwhile, Ms Eng’s interest in engineering started from her fascination with personal computers, and Ms Wan pursued engineering despite her traditional-minded family’s objections to girls pursuing technical careers.

Whatever their reasons for stepping into engineering, the ladies agreed that their NUS engineering programmes provided them with an excellent foundation for their careers – whether or not they eventually went on to “hardcore engineering” jobs.

Ms Ho explained, “School is just the start of our life journey. Engineering studies are a way to train our minds to think logically, hone our discipline, gather facts systematically, and sharpen our problem-solving skills.”

She described how engineering allows us to form connections between disciplines, and advised students who have interests in other areas to “build your foundation in engineering, then add on courses that allow you to connect with a field you’re passionate about.” Ms Ho cited examples of engineers who are disrupting the field of medicine by 3D-printing bones, teeth and human organs, as well as creating lifesaving vaccines.

Ms Aw agreed, saying, “It’s not just about doing ‘hardcore engineering work’ after graduation. Your education should inspire you to think about your mission.”

And ‘focusing on the mission’ is a lesson that has driven Ms Aw to success throughout her career – from her time creating jobs with the Economic Development Board to building industries at Singapore Tourism Board, her ability to ‘focus on the mission’ gave her the ability to succeed in these earlier roles. And those successes eventually led to her taking the helm at Shell, where her chemical engineering knowledge is being put to good use.

Ms Eng added a unique perspective on the flexibility of career choices that an engineering degree can bring, highlighting how the complexities of engineering are not easily understood by non-engineers. This explains why in engineering companies, it is common to see heads of finance, procurement and other departments, all equipped with engineering qualifications – because they have the fundamental expertise to make engineering-led decisions, while also carrying out finance, procurement or other functions.

Uniquely female perspectives into engineering

While a common narrative about women in engineering is that being in the minority is a disadvantage, Ms Aw has a more positive perspective. She sees being female as a plus, and discussed how women are naturally better listeners and collaborators. She backed up her perspective by sharing that Shell’s board is 50% female, and highlighted this as proof that “being female shouldn’t stop us!”

Balancing this perspective, Ms Eng shared her experiences of almost being overlooked for overseas placements because of her gender – or more specifically, concerns from colleagues that certain countries were “not safe for women”.

Ms Eng talked about how she had to allay her bosses’ concerns and ask them to consider her for overseas assignments based on her merits, not her gender. Eventually, her confidence and capabilities won decision-makers over, and she has now enjoyed a fulfilling career that has brought her to France, Manila, Pakistan and London.

She offered words of encouragement for women with similar struggles. “Don’t be daunted by stereotypes about your role. Dream big and take small steps, so you don’t look back on ‘what-ifs’.”

Creating conducive workplaces for women to thrive in

While approximately 30% of the engineering workforce consists of women, it is notable that men tend to stay longer in the profession. And a key reason for this, as highlighted by Ms Aw’s observations of recruitment and employment trends, is that women tend to make other life choices at certain life stages, such as taking a break from their career to focus on family. Resuming their career is not easy, especially in the constantly innovating world of engineering – which, as Ms Ho added, can see technologies becoming outdated as quickly as five years after they were first introduced.

Does this mean women must choose between family and their career? Certainly not.

Conversely, women engineers – especially in a modern society that values diversity – are valued by employers. Organisations want to support their female engineers, with some already offering flexi-work arrangements, nursing rooms and other facilities to keep their female talent engaged.

But communication is key, and women need to take charge of their careers by initiating conversations with their employers. Ms Wan emphasised, “In Singapore, men are very accepting of women engineers. However, you must speak up when you need special arrangements. Remember, the company wants you to be happy and to stay with them.”

A rewarding career that’s yours to choose

By the end of the session, audience members gained a deeper understanding of engineering through the eyes of four extraordinary NUS Engineering alumnae – who may have embarked on their career journeys from a common starting point, but truly made their marks across very different industries.

For these women, an engineering degree is not a destination – it is a starting point in life. And whether a female engineering graduate chooses to excel in engineering, another field, or dedicate her life to her family, that is her decision to make.

Ms Ho encapsulated this best when she shared a personal story.

“Life is about trade-offs. If your priority is your kids, then, by all means, make them your priority. Just know that re-entry will be challenging as technology will have progressed, and people would have moved on. When I had a special child, I made the decision to take half-time off my work. But I made that call because my child is important to me. It’s your own trade-off that you must be comfortable with.”

And as most Singaporeans know, Ms Ho’s career has only grown from strength to strength since then – thanks to the solid foundations her engineering background was built on.