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STEMming the Losses: Closing the Tech Industry’s Gender Gap

March 8th marked International Women’s Day (IWD) — a day to recognize the achievements of women and the role they play as household decision-makers, business owners and leaders. We are simultaneously reminded how far we need to go to bridge the professional equality gap for women.

MasterCard’s latest research on women’s advancement shows that while more women across the Asia Pacific region increasingly have the knowledge, skills and capabilities required, the opportunity for them to actively participate in the corporate sector as business leaders and owners, and in politics as leaders and decision makers is much less readily available.

While women overall are more likely to receive an education, they are still lagging behind in entering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, commonly known as “STEM.”

The number of women entering STEM has remained stagnant, despite a STEM labour shortage in Asia Pacific and global growth in demand for STEM-related jobs. Closing the gender gap — whether it is in STEM or leadership positions across business and politics — should be a priority.

Women TechCareers in the field of STEM afford women the opportunity to be financially self-sufficient, determine their own career fates, and positively impact the world through their leadership and creativity.

And for businesses, it makes cents (pun intended) on many levels.

Study after study shows how public and private sector companies — and their bottom lines — benefit from having more women in leadership. In fact, companies with more women in leadership outperform those who do not.

In a highly competitive global market, companies are beginning to understand why integrating talented women into their leadership structure is imperative for sustainable economic growth and innovation in both developed and developing markets. STEM-related companies are no exception.

However, to even increase the number of women leading STEM-affiliated companies, we must first increase overall female participation in the field.

This begs the question: how do we get more women into STEM careers and help ensure they become innovators, business leaders, and public servants?

Let’s go back to the beginning. First, we need to engage female students at a young age.

As a society, we need to educate them on their career potential — and then spark imagination by opening them up tothe world of science and mathematics. MasterCard partners with great organisations such as Singapore Committee for UN Women to raise awareness and visibility of STEM amongst 10 to 15 year-old girls in Singapore and are doing the same globally with our Girls4Tech campaign. And governments across the globe have launched similar initiatives; while global companies like IBM, Exxon Mobil and Microsoft are also partnering to affect change in the STEM field.

Additionally, we need to support women on their education journey.

There is unfortunately, a disparity between the number of women who study STEM-related topics at university and those who actually pursue a STEM-related career, after graduation. Many companies, including MasterCard, offer scholarships to help women pursuing university-level degrees. We’ve partnered with local institutions Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) to focus on scholarships for women pursuing careers in STEM.

We also offer them internships. Because education — combined with experience — further empowers women to change the world.

And over the past 4 years, we’ve seen how it’s been a win-win situation — the scholarship recipients have a chance to experience first-hand the workings of a technology company and MasterCard gains from the fresh perspective and contributions brought about by these brilliant young women. And we’re not the only ones. Tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google offer internship programs, in hopes of developing tomorrow’s talent.

Lastly, we collectively need to encourage women of all ages to be active participants in the tech community. An easy first step is to take a coding class or participate in hackathons.

Currently, hackathons tend to be male-dominated. It’s been reported that by some estimates, the male-to-female ratio at hackathons could be as high as 15-to-1.

Participating in hackathons — like the upcoming Masters of Code competition in Singapore — allows women to hone their skills — whether it be coding, developing, or bringing to life an innovative idea. It also allows women to put forth ideas that could empower other women — maybe by designing a financial inclusion app or creating a platform connecting women in rural areas to a massive open online course (MOOC).

Women are contributing to the economic growth of markets in Asia Pacific and around the globe, and now more than ever, businesses and governments need to acknowledge the contributions they make in the community and economy, and more importantly, determine how to leverage and harness this ‘women power’. The young woman next to you could very well be the inventor of tech’s next big thing.

This first appeared in Computerworld Singapore.