Empowering women to excel in STEM and Medicine

The International Women in STEM and Medicine Symposium held in March 2023 calls for more support for women in STEM and Medicine.

According to statistics from the United Nations, Singapore is within group 1 in the Gender Development Index (GDI) which comprises of countries with high equality between men and women. Impressively, women make up 41 per cent of Singapore’s tech professionals and 65.3 per cent of the student intake for the  NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. In other areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), female scientists have been recognised for their innovative research and making great strides in breaking stereotypes in their respective fields.

Despite these progressive and promising results from efforts over the years, women in STEM and Medicine are still lacking in representation in leadership positions, and many may not stay long in their fields. This was the crux of the International Women in STEM and Medicine Symposium held on 13 March 2023.

With the main theme of “Embrace Equity”, the symposium brought together key leaders from academia and industry to discuss what more can be done across all levels of society to strive for equitable gender policies and to encourage more women to continue pursuing careers in STEM and Medicine.

Organisation of the symposium involved various groups, all with the aim of empowering women in STEM and Medicine. It was led by the Office of Equal Opportunities and Career Development at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, the NUS Office of the Senior Deputy President and Provost, and Women in Science and Healthcare (WISH) at the National University Health System.

Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for the Ministry of Social and Family Development and Ministry of Home Affairs, delivered the opening remarks as Guest-of-Honour. She acknowledged the efforts and importance of social service partners, schools and Institutes of Higher Learning in nurturing and inspiring girls and women to engage in careers in STEM and Medicine.

Highlighting the important role that parents play, Ms Sun added, “… at home, parents are important role models for their children, and they can help nurture boys and girls to not be limited by gender stereotypes and to encourage their aspirations in STEM.”

Providing equal opportunities to excel

It was a day of reflection at the symposium as speakers and panellists shared personal anecdotes to drive home the message of empowering women to excel in careers in STEM and Medicine.

In the opening keynote address, Professor Leo Yee Sin, Executive Director for the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in Singapore, walked the audience through her career as a doctor and administrator. She noted that even though initiatives are in place to ensure equal opportunities for women to take up leadership roles, there is still a long way to go.

In this regard, academic institutions play a critical role in setting a level playing field for all – men and women - to succeed. During a panel discussion on gender equity in academic institutions, academic leaders shared the policies and opportunities in their institutions to promote gender equity and empower more women to pursue academic careers in STEM and Medicine.

Professor Liu Bin, Senior Vice Provost (Faculty & Institutional Development) at NUS, cited an example of the improvement in female representation in the intake of students at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. In the past, females only comprised one-third of the cohort, but in the recent intake, female medical students to the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine made up an impressive 65 per cent.

Prof Liu added a personal anecdote – arising from baking sessions with her son and daughter - to illustrate how providing equal resources can help girls from a young age build up their confidence to enable them to succeed in the fields of STEM and Medicine and have rewarding careers in these areas.

Supporting women in their caregiving roles

Women wear many hats, whether at work or at home as a caregiver. Discussions during the symposium shed light on the difficulties faced by women in STEM and Medicine returning to work after taking maternity leave.

Female academics may feel worried that being away for an extended period could jeopardise their opportunity to earn a tenure position. To ease this worry, Prof Liu Bin shared that NUS has a policy that allows a tenure clock extension by up to a year when welcoming a new baby. This policy is extended to their husbands if they are also faculty members at NUS, making it equal for both genders especially for those whose husbands share caregiving responsibilities at home.

Addressing this concern in a broader context, Ms Sun noted in her opening remarks that although there may be pro-family policies in place, mindsets shift “are required to break gender biases and traditional expectations of roles that men and women play”. She further emphasised that men can play important roles by championing for “equal opportunities at work that enables women to break glass ceilings” and empowering them to excel in their professions.

This point was reiterated by Prof Chong during his panel, where he shared that “normalisation is the key and just having schemes is not sufficient”. He cited how the changing mindsets of the roles of men and women at home, coupled with gender-neutral policies and schemes to support caregiving for children, can further motivate women in STEM and Medicine to stay in their fields.

During the engaging discussion on supporting women in their caregiving roles, Ms Sun felt motivated to join the conversation by sharing her thoughts and experience. She emphasised that communication and clear understanding of work expectations during pregnancy and maternity leave is important for women to feel assured that there will be a smooth transition for them to return to work.

“This is something that we should take a critical look at, and it is not just about legislation. I think it is for us, whether as employers or employees, to encourage a transparent communication process so that women won’t be left feeling unfairly treated,” said Ms Sun.

By tackling this important issue on all fronts, from schools and homes to the workplace and to the society as a whole, bridging the gender gap in STEM and Medicine is not that far off on the horizon.