Women in Engineering and the Future of STEM | TEDxFromHome's 5 in 5 with Ying Wan Loh
Written by Aada Orava. Edited by Robert Fletcher.
TEDxFromHome wrapped up this week with an interview with award-winning engineer and STEM ambassador, Ying Wan Loh. Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to watch the full interview with Ying, but don't worry if you haven’t – I am here to deliver you the 5 key takeaways from the interview in just 5 minutes. And if you have watched the episode, this is the perfect moment for you to engage with opinions brought up in the interview through our interactive polls.
The blog post will cover the following topics from Ying’s interview:
Understanding gender disparity in STEM
Tokenism in the workplace
The debate around women’s awards
COVID-induced popularity of STEM
The pandemic and women's jobs
Please note: The interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Ying’s views are still fully represented.
1. How can we best understand gender disparity in the field of engineering?
I think there’s a social expectation of what an engineer looks like, including unconscious bias against young girls. And all the subtle hinting at girls starts from a very young age. When parents buy boys Lego to play with and they give girls Barbie dolls, that reinforces certain types of stereotypes in young girls and continues to influence them when going to choose their careers.
The subtle hints at girls don't just stop at a young age. When you go into the workplace, something I’ve experienced before is that sometimes the environment doesn’t demonstrate that it could be a place for both men and women. Sometimes female engineers have to look for PPEs or safety suits in a dusty cupboard just before going into a factory, and that’s just one of those subtle hints to women that maybe this environment is more tailored towards men. And I think that needs to change.
I love physics, but, when I grew up, reading a physics textbook I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me. I wanted to see more role models, I wanted to see more people who looked like me. And maybe, growing up, that wasn’t the case, but I can go into work in this field and excel, and hopefully inspire more women to go into engineering.
Always believe in your power to be the change you want to see.
2. How can we counter tokenism and imposter syndrome in the workplace?
If tokenism happens in the workplace, I think that is because the workplace culture failed to be truly inclusive. It's a failure of leadership and women should not bear the emotional responsibility for that.
For women who are experiencing that, be very sure of yourself and be confident in your achievements – write it down if you have to. Tokenism brings challenges, because it doesn’t help progressing the conversation about diversity and inclusion in the workplace; if people think that having someone from a minority in the workplace is just tokenism, it’s harmful and counterproductive to the conversation. If you are experiencing that, call it out. If your team tells you they are experiencing that, listen to them and help change it.
3. Critics claim that "only women" awards are counterproductive to achieving gender parity, as they are gender-specific. What are your thoughts on that?
In my previous workplace we had a women in leadership programme and obviously people asked: “Why is it only women? What about the men?” And one of the senior leaders who sponsored that programme said, “Well, there is one for men. It’s just called the leadership programme.” It’s like we have the FA cup and the women’s FA cup - the men’s FA cup is just the FA cup!
Privilege is invisible to those who have it.
It’s only the start of the conversation, but women's awards give women the platform to talk about things and garner attention to things they have to say. [When I win an award,] it focuses people's attention on things I have to say on women in engineering, women in STEM, and women in leadership. People tend to want to learn more because I’ve been highlighted as somebody who does really well in this area. And I think it is a great platform for me to have my voice heard but what I have to say usually in those situations is:
Listen to young women, and what they have to say, regardless of whether they have an award or not.
4. What do you think about the increased appreciation for STEM jobs during the pandemic?
I think the pandemic definitely highlights the importance of scientists, engineers, and many other STEM professionals in our society. 52% of children are now considering a career in STEM, which is a lot higher than previous years. I think that’s very encouraging, because it does show engineers in a positive light. Talk about engineers building hospitals in record time, designing completely new ventilators in a few days, and also, at the moment, racing against time to build factories to manufacture the vaccines when they’re out. Projects like that are something where you could literally change the world. And I think for a lot of children, especially growing up, your career aspiration tends to be something that can contribute positively to society.
I do have the worry that once the positive contribution has been talked about, we move onto the next thing. But I think throughout this pandemic, we have seen how important science is in our daily life.
Everything from policy making to actually saving lives shows how important science is. Moving on, in our 21st century with so many challenges from climate change to digitisation and ageing populations, I think engineers are key.
5. How are women, specifically, affected by the ongoing economic crisis?
There are multiple reports that say that women are disproportionately affected in the job losses. Some statistics say that women are 50% more likely to lose their jobs and 15% more likely to be furloughed. It does set us back decades. But I think history isn’t progress in a straight line. We take two steps forward and one step back, and I think we are, at the moment, at a very pivotal point in history. I don’t want to go back decades, to when women cannot progress in the workplace. This is not a place I want to be and I think young people are central to this conversation because we will be the ones pushing it.
In terms of measures to fight this, I can think of a couple of things. Flexible working is very important. We’ve seen how it can work and how it can help parents who have to juggle caring responsibilities and their work.
Secondly, equality, diversity and inclusion are not something you do when times are good. It is important that you do it regardless of whether there is an economic crisis or not.
Of course, there is a moral argument for that based on social equality, but also, as a side benefit, there is a financial benefit. A diverse workforce has always been proven to be more productive, more innovative and to have a higher return on investment. We already know the facts, we just have to go and take action.
I think that the government should re-skill the workforce. Especially women who lost their jobs. We know we are undergoing a massive paradigm shift to a new normal that is more digitised and using technology in a different way. Instead of letting the unemployed people be unemployed and having a lost generation, why not train the people now who are disproportionately affected by job losses for skills that we need in the future? If you do that now, not only can we reduce the negative impact on women who lost their jobs, but then we are much better prepared for the future.
Don’t forget, this is just a snippet of Ying Wan Loh’s TEDxFromHome interview. You can view the full interview here. Have more thoughts regarding the polls or points made in the interview? Leave a comment below! Stay up to date with TEDxWarwick through our website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.