"We need more female engineers"

Assoc Prof Ong is a longstanding champion of women in STEM (Photo: National Youth Council)

“The belief that women are less adept at engineering is unfounded. Female engineers have the same status as male engineers as the era demanding physical prowess to carry out engineering functions has long passed. There is no reason why society will not accept women as engineers, and there are no challenges that are peculiar to women engineers.”

Associate Professor Ong Soh Khim is a faculty member at NUS Mechanical Engineering, an avid photographer and ardent succulent collector. She is also a strong believer in encouraging more women to join the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. 
“Women bring diversity to engineering and technology — of experience, ideas and approaches. If we do not engage women in STEM, we are ignoring at least 50 per cent of the world’s intellectual talent. Having more women in STEM is a long-term sustainable solution for a greying world population,” said Assoc Prof Ong.

The outspoken go-getter’s lengthy resume serves as a source of inspiration for young women thinking about a STEM career. Only in her 40s, she has racked up an impressive list of accolades to her name. This includes winning the Singapore Women’s Weekly Great Women of Our Time Award in 2015 and being the first woman from Asia to be elected as a Fellow of the International Academy for Production Engineering. She was also the first woman from Southeast Asia to receive the M. Eugene Merchant Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer Award by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and the first Singaporean to receive the Emerging Leader Award in Academia by the US Society of Women Engineers. 

In addition, Assoc Prof Ong was appointed by former Singapore President S R Nathan as a Nominated Member of Parliament in 2005, using her voice to enhance constructive debate on national issues ranging from education to helping low-wage workers.  


Speaking at the NTUC – U Women’s Network Progression Forum in 2017

The homegrown talent graduated from NUS with a PhD in Manufacturing Engineering, her field of study inspired by her factory production jobs during prior school holidays where she had marvelled at how a manufacturing plant could roll out its products round-the-clock. 

Her current work centres largely around augmented reality technologies — a novel form of human-machine interaction that overlays computer-generated information onto the real world environment. Among her more prolific projects is a virtual interface system that helps those with limited mobility to control electronic gadgets through head and eyebrow movements, and an application that allows the elderly to call family members simply by pointing their phones at photographs. 

However, throughout her engineering journey, she often faced instances of gender bias and inequality. This came not only from male colleagues and students, but females as well, who subconsciously harboured gender stereotypes. She never shied away from speaking up during such instances.  

If we do not engage women in STEM, we are ignoring at least 50 per cent of the world’s intellectual talent. Having more women in science is a long-term sustainable solution for a greying world population.

For this reason, Assoc Prof Ong makes time to give back to the cause close to her heart. “I had very humble beginnings — I never owned a book or toy as a child, I worked as a factory operator in secondary school and gave tuition classes and washed toilets during college. I therefore have a strong desire to help youth, particularly from low-income families, discover the wonders of science and engineer their own constructs for lifelong success.”

She regularly gives talks and interviews encouraging women to join STEM fields, including returning to her alma mater Ang Mo Kio Secondary School each year to share her journey. She has also been a STEM Ambassador for the Singapore Committee for UN Women since 2014. 

While she acknowledges that there has been a greater drive to raise awareness about STEM careers among parents and schools, Assoc Prof Ong feels that more needs to be done to further increase the percentage of females in STEM. This, she says, requires an equalising of the roles of both men and women in society and is why Assoc Prof Ong has no plans of slowing down in her quest to keep on smashing glass ceilings.    

This is the first of a new five-part series by NUS News profiling some of the University’s prominent females making waves in STEM, launched in commemoration of International Women’s Day on 8 March.