We shouldn’t make a big deal about women in tech — a female entrepreneur’s perspective
As a female entrepreneur in the technology industry, I have mixed feelings about Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s recent remarks on how Singapore can be a model of a nation with women in tech. I wholeheartedly agree that capable women should be empowered to thrive in the tech sector. I am, however, conflicted on whether we should make a huge deal about women being in tech.
As a female entrepreneur in the technology industry, I have mixed feelings about Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s recent remarks on how Singapore can be a model of a nation with women in tech.
I wholeheartedly agree that capable women should be empowered to thrive in the tech sector.
I also think that visibility is important — having role models for young women thinking of venturing into the tech sector can be empowering.
I am, however, conflicted on whether we should make a huge deal about women being in tech.
To be sure, I feel extremely privileged to be living in Singapore, where everyone has access to education and it is the norm for women to be in the workforce.
In fact, as a business owner, I have faced countless difficulties, but I cannot recall one being on the basis of my gender.
That being said, I certainly hope to be recognised for my accomplishments in this field rather than for being a woman in tech.
A complication that arises from the push for gender equality is that we can sometimes end up putting more focus on the idea that men have a greater aptitude or capability for tech-related work than is necessary.
By constantly reminding everyone that “women in tech are capable too”, it reinforces the norm to think of women as less capable. Otherwise, there would be no need to highlight this fact at all.
I worry that in focusing heavily on the genders of capable Singaporeans in the tech industry, we continually reinforce the notion that there must be some distinction between men and women.
There is also the real risk of women being viewed as “token” females.
I am sometimes invited to speak at conferences because the panel is overwhelmingly male and the organisers realise that they should include a female chief executive.
The message this sends out is that I am an afterthought, that I’m there primarily to fill a quota as a woman and not because of my accomplishments.
Spotlighting women because they are women first and foremost can sometimes detract from their achievements.
In an ideal future, we should not have to make a big deal about women in tech — it will simply be so normal that we do not bat an eyelid.
HOW TO NORMALISE WOMEN IN THE INDUSTRY?
I am equally fascinated by a point that Mr Shanmugaratnam made in the same speech about women being as represented as men in the science streams in secondary schools and junior colleges.
I was a student in the science stream and it never occurred to me that one stream was associated with either the boys or the girls.
The great thing about how we have normalised girls in the science stream is that we have stripped away any biases or stereotypes that may affect the decisions of young students.
Our nation’s gender-neutral education policies and emphasis on equal education for all has undoubtedly helped to pave the way for this normalisation.
Since it is so normal to see girls in the science stream, gender never even comes to mind when deciding which stream to choose.
So, how do we walk this fine line between normalising women in tech without focusing entirely on the fact that they are women?
The solution is certainly not to ignore women in tech — it has to be more nuanced than that.
As I said, visibility is important.
It is crucial for young girls to see successful, accomplished women in the industry.
We want them to see people they can relate to and identify with, so that the thought “someone like me doesn’t belong in that field” will not cross their mind.
The key is to improve visibility of women in tech without bringing gender to the forefront of public attention.
This means being conscientious about putting women on the same stages and platforms as equally accomplished men — without making a public deal about it.
The work towards this visibility must instead be in the backend.
One example of frontend work is the creation of separate categories for women in tech awards.
Having separate categories for men and women in the realm of competitive sports signals to us that there are fundamental biological differences between both sexes, such that it is impossible for them to compete on equal grounds.
Doing this in the field of tech possibly broadcasts an analogous message about women’s capabilities to succeed in the tech industry, despite organisers having the best intentions.
In contrast, the backend work here would involve ensuring that women are not facing barriers in qualifying for the same awards as men.
An example of such a barrier would be a subconscious bias in viewing women as less tech-minded, which could lead to accomplished female candidates not being shortlisted.
When this happens, women in tech are forced to take any opportunity they can for recognition, such as competing within women-only award categories.
This, in turn, continues the vicious cycle of reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Addressing biases does not mean finding a woman for the sake of checking off a diversity quota or settling for a less qualified individual, though.
It means that we have to be more conscious of any hidden bias.
The broader aim is to create a culture where a conscious effort to look for qualified women becomes automatic.
This could be for awards, speaking engagements, hiring practices, media interviews, and so on.
A great example of this, in my view, is the Singapore Youth Award.
I am constantly impressed by the diversity and calibre of young individuals who are granted the award. To my knowledge, the awards have been completely gender neutral, celebrating instead the excellence and accomplishments of our youths.
Women who already have some standing in the industry can be candid about their failures and how they overcome challenges.
This humanises them, showing that they too have worries, fears, and weaknesses. If they can make it in the industry, others can too.
The sum effect of visibility and humility is that we remove self-imposed barriers from young people and do not discourage anyone who could make a difference in the field from doing so.
If we do this right, we should start to see more equally accomplished women in important positions in the workplace and in the media.
Ultimately, the goal must be to let girls know that there is nothing particularly surprising or unique about being a woman in tech.
It should just be a matter of fact.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Evangeline Leong is the chief executive officer and founder of Kobe Global Technologies, an influencer marketing agency that utilises a self-developed, patented artificial intelligence-driven influencer management platform.
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