Empowering and supporting women

After Professor Tulika Mitra gave birth to her son in the early 2000s, she went on to enjoy some of her most productive years as a computer science professor.

“Even though I was taking care of (my son), I was really disciplined because I just wanted to get my job done so I could spend time with him,” she said.

For her, the profession’s flexible working hours makes it a good match for motherhood. “We wish that we will have more women in academia because (it is not) a nine-to-five job,” she noted. “You can actually do things at your own pace.”

Today, she is Provost’s Chair Professor of Computer Science, and Vice Provost (Academic Affairs) at the University.

Prof Mitra’s vision of academia as a friendly workplace for mothers is progressing steadily, even as the University joins organisations worldwide in celebrating International Women's Day on 8 March.

At NUS, the proportion of women faculty members in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines hit 30.2 per cent in 2021, up from 25 per cent as recently as 2017.

In fields related to healthcare, such as Medicine, Dentistry and Public Health, even more of the faculty comprises of women - about 40 per cent or higher.

Overall, 31.7 per cent of NUS faculty this year are women, up from 28.3 per cent in 2017.

Despite these advancements, there is room for more women to join academia, including in STEM fields. After all, about 50.4 per cent of NUS Undergraduate, Masters and PhD students are female, and the proportion is 42.3 per cent in STEM disciplines.

Many of these talented young women choose to leave the university setting, as evidenced by the lower percentages of female faculty members.

To draw them in, NUS has introduced pro-family policies such as a tenure clock extension for women who have children. This is part of a university-wide policy, in place since 2008, which allows faculty members – both men and women – to extend their tenure clock if they are unable to fully carry out academic activities for an extended period. This could be due to reasons like childbirth, family or health issues.

Improvements are in the works from 1 April, including removing the limit on the number of years the tenure clock can be extended due to childbirth, and reducing the teaching load for new mothers.

Promoting gender diversity, however, is not just about hitting quotas. Diversity also brings tangible benefits through more innovative and inclusive solutions.

For example, women with heart disease were often misdiagnosed because doctors were unaware that women exhibited different symptoms from men. If medical research teams had been more diverse, the needs of women would not have been overlooked.

The need for role models

NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost Professor Ho Teck Hua believes the issue currently is a dearth of women who embark on academic jobs. This situation, he said, could be improved by providing greater access to female role models as well as changing misconceptions about STEM disciplines.

Faculties such as engineering, business and medicine have created mentorship and opportunities for women. Dialogue sessions are also held for women academics to share their stories and experiences.

Sometimes, misconceptions about STEM disciplines being a men’s domain may discourage women from joining these fields.

NUS Vice President (Research and Technology) Professor Liu Bin, who also heads the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, views outreach targeted at pre-university students and their parents as crucial to debunking these misconceptions.

“If I ask people what chemical engineering is, they would (only) think of petrochemical refineries,” she said, adding that chemical engineers are important in many industries, such as vaccine delivery, water treatment, climate change, and even cosmetic and shampoo formulation.

On track to tenure

It is heartening to note that women have performed well in academia. Prof Mitra observed that female faculty members at NUS have equal success rate in obtaining tenure as their male colleagues. In fact, the university has implemented measures to level the playing field for women.

One such policy is tenure clock extension. When faculty members welcome a new baby, they can delay their tenure evaluation by up to a year to support their parenting duties. Either parent can opt for the extension if both work at NUS.

Prof Ho highlighted the importance of making the policy gender-neutral. “Otherwise we would be stereotyping — that (only) certain people should take care of kids,” he explained.

Prof Mitra lauds the policy as a success. “Quite a number of (women who obtain tenure) actually are mothers who took maternity leave while on the tenure track,” she added. “And they became very successful.”

More is in the works. From 1 April, the cap of two years’ extension for the tenure clock – for having two children - will be removed. This change will benefit female academics who wish to have more children.

Also from 1 April, female faculty members will get one semester’s worth of teaching relief after giving birth. This will halve their teaching load for the semester.

Similar to the tenure clock extension, the teaching relief can be claimed by either parent if both are teaching staff at the University.

Bringing childcare to the campus

Besides faculty members, women in administrative positions may also face pressures from both the workplace and their families.

To support them, the NUS Co-op bookstore partnered with Little Skool-House to set up a childcare centre at the Kent Vale staff residences in 2010. Today, about 250 children of NUS employees are enrolled at the centre.

There are also plans to enhance the family-friendliness of the existing policies, shared NUS Chief People Officer, Mr Kevin Chua, who believes gender diversity is vital in tapping a wider talent pool, ensuring different perspectives in the workplace, and being an inclusive employer.

“There is a strong need to create a conducive workplace for female (and male) employees of all age groups in order to enable and empower them to pursue career opportunities at every level,” he said.

Ms Ovidia Lim-Rajaram, NUS Chief Communications Officer, has experienced this first hand. In her early days, her colleagues were used to seeing her young son roll around the office floor on days when she had to bring him to work.

“This was important to me on two fronts: on a personal level, to work without worrying about what my son was doing, and to be there for him for the hours when we had no help,” she said.

It is a positive ecosystem that builds on itself.

“Having supportive bosses and colleagues in a family-friendly work environment has played a big role in my time at NUS, and enabled me to grow in my career,” shared Ms Lim-Rajaram. “I also want my colleagues to know that the office is supportive of working mothers, and that it is possible to be both career and family focused.”

While NUS has made great strides in boosting gender equality, it is always looking to do more to help women climb the career ladder, whether they wish to be a professor or an executive.

“Fundamentally, we believe that people can make good choices if given enough information,” said Prof Ho. “(What we want is) to empower women to make informed choices about their careers.”


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