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Opening Remarks By Ms Sun Xueling, Minister Of State For Home Affairs And Social And Family Development For International Women In STEM And Medicine Symposium 2023

Type: Official Speeches: Sun Xueling, Official Speeches (All)

Topic(s): Women Empowerment


Distinguished guests, 

Ladies and gentlemen,

A very good morning to everyone.

1        I am pleased to join all of you today at the International Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) & Medicine Symposium to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). In line with IWD’s ethos, we welcome the efforts of institutions and organisations in inspiring more women to continue and excel in their careers, particularly in fields such as STEM and medicine. 

2        I had just returned yesterday from a week-long visit to the United Nations where I delivered Singapore’s Country Statement at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (or CSW). This was the first time we had a Minister-led delegation to the CSW, and we had a very positive statement to share.

3        During the visit, I met many Ministers and delegates from other countries who are involved in policies dealing with women’s development. I would like to highlight some key areas from the discussions I had with them.

Area 1: Getting women involved in innovation and technology is key for economic progress and women’s development

4        In the various conversations I had at the United Nations, there was a real concern that progress made by women over the years in terms of education, economic empowerment, employment and their status in society will be eroded, if women are not involved in innovation and technological change that is driving economies today. I think we all know that healthcare, medtech, biosciences and hybrid tech the jobs of the future, and 90% of future jobs will require digital skills. It is not just about digital literacy; it is also about digital fluency. 

5        In the area of STEM, the global average of female tech professionals is about 28% and many countries who spoke at CSW highlighted how economic growth would not be sustainable if women are not involved in innovation and technology. Like Singapore, many other countries reiterated their commitment to increase the involvement of women in STEM in their countries and to remove impediments which might hinder women and girls from entering STEM.

Singapore’s efforts on encouraging women to join STEM and medicine

6        Being one of the top tech hubs in the world, Singapore is well-placed to encourage more women to join the STEM fields - 41% of Singapore’s tech professionals are women and this is well above the global average. 

7        Singapore is also ranked 4th globally, and the top Asian country in the 2022 IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking. We aim to provide the best possible opportunities for women across all sectors, especially in high growth areas like tech, because this will enable businesses to remain competitive and for economies to prosper.

8        I’d like to give some examples where organisations are driving change. For instance, 

a. The SG Women in Tech (SG WiT), a movement driven by IMDA and supported by community and industry partners, seeks to attract, inspire and motivate girls and women to pursue careers in the tech sector through providing networking and mentorship opportunities. 

b. Our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning play an important role in nurturing young talents in STEM. To provide support for infocomm technology and media-related studies at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, we have the SG Digital Scholarship. 

i. In the past five years, we have seen a rise in the number of top female tech talent being awarded this by IMDA, and they are pursuing courses in Cybersecurity, Information Technology, and STEM. In 2021, 31% of SG Digital scholarships were awarded to female recipients. While it sounds like more progress can be made, this is an increase from 18% five years ago. 

ii. In 2021, among students enrolled in STEM disciplines at the IHLs, close to 4 in 10 are female. At our IHLs, there are very targeted efforts through career fairs and Open Houses to help raise students’ awareness of the extensive range of STEM-related job opportunities and industries and receive guidance on how they can apply their training in related fields after graduation. 

iii. Nanyang Technological University’s Promotion of Women in Engineering, Research and Science is another initiative which recruits and empowers women, with a long-term goal of increasing gender diversity in STEM careers.

 

9        Let us now look at the progress we made in the field of medicine. In the past, females were only conferred one-third of the places in the only medical school then, the NUS Medical Faculty.

10        In the recent undergraduate cohort, female medical students comprise an overwhelming 65.3% of the student intake. It is heartening to see this upward trend of female students joining medicine. 

11        As a young nation, we can take great pride that we have indeed made great strides in women’s development.

a.  This is what I shared at CSW – Singapore is ranked 7th worldwide and the only Asian country in the top 10 for gender equality in the latest UN Human Development Report. And just in case you think this is because we are a developed nation, there are many other developed nations and they do not rank very well when it comes to gender equality.

b. As I mentioned earlier, women comprise almost half of our university graduates. 

Area 2: Ensuring fair workplace practices is crucial

12        Even as we make strides in attracting women and girls to join STEM and medicine, we also need to look at the other half of the equation, which is how we make sure that conditions in work places are conducive towards women, so that we ensure female talent who enter our STEM and medicine industries are supported and not feel that they have to leave the industry for a variety of reasons.

13        Overall, the Singapore government is taking many conserving steps to ensure there are no hindrances to women’s career and progress, that they are well supported in their workplaces. You’d have heard about the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which requires employers to assess employees and jobseekers based on merit to perform the job. For professional organisations, this is also complemented by the presence of their respective boards which have the powers to investigate, should there be workplace complaints. 

14        This leads me to the second area of discussion that I had at the UN that I wish to share. I attended a breakfast dialogue organised by the Permanent Mission of Singapore to the United Nations. It was a grouping of various women ambassadors and perm reps to the UN, all of whom are female. A youth representative shared her concerns over how recent tech layoffs globally were disproportionately affecting women, and women from the minority groups. This should give us a pause for thought. So workplace fairness is really something we have to monitor, and make sure we have the appropriate measures in place to safeguard the interests of women. 

15        We recently released interim recommendations by the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness and the Government intends to enact workplace fairness legislation. 

16        Apart from ensuring workplace fairness, steps are also being undertaken to ensure that women can participate fully in the workplace and not have to face difficult choices trying to balance responsibilities within and outside work. When we look at employment statistics, we do see that sometimes over the course of a woman’s life journey, there can be troughs where women move out of the workforce because they have other responsibilities to undertake. More often than not, it is caregiving responsibilities. 

17        There is a huge, concerted effort and this requires the efforts of many, not just the government, but in working with community partners and society, to ensure that everyone, employers, employees, parents, parents-in-law; all working together to help women balance responsibilities within and outside work and entrenching Flexible Work Arrangements, is one such important step. This is a workplace norm that we hope to see continue post-COVID. We all know the COVID-19 pandemic has helped expedite this new norm but we need to consolidate the gains. Nowadays many companies are asking employees to go back to work. Whether or not it is absolutely necessary, we will have to look at each industry and each company, but we will need to put in place certain mechanisms, so that there are guidelines around how employers can put in place proper processes to fairly consider and respond to employees’ requests for FWAs. These guidelines are something that the government intends to introduce in 2024.

Area 3: Ensuring women representation and leadership in the digital age

18        Another area that I discussed with my foreign counterparts at the UN was how as we increasingly use Artificial Intelligence, or AI, and move towards a digital age, we need to proactively include data on women into the decision-making process and have women in leadership to ensure that women are represented in various areas and that products and services truly serve women. 

19        What is the complexity? We all know that the world is increasingly reliant on and enthralled by data, which is used in algorithms and relied upon by companies to justify products and services. But new LinkedIn data has revealed that women are scarcely represented in AI. And this will only exacerbate existing inequity if left unchecked. 

20        AI is trained on data sets which can be riddled with data gaps if the data available does not take into account the experiences and characteristics that women have. AI is used to help doctors with diagnoses, to filter through CVs, job applications, and nowadays, to churn out answers to questions – think about ChatGPT. But if ChatGPT is trawling the Net, and the Net is filled with data that’s populated with data on men, then actually what kind of results are we getting? If there are data gaps where women are concerned, is AI accentuating this problem? 

21        We are unable to undo, redo history and years of longitudinal data.  We can’t populate the internet now with sex-disaggregated data, but one thing we can do with resolve is to ensure women representation in leadership in companies, in boards and in government. 

a. On this front, according to a Deloitte report, in 2021, Singapore has the highest percentage of women CEOs globally. And at the end of last year, through the efforts of the Council for Board Diversity, the percentage of women on boards of Top-100 listed companies has reached 21.5%, which is almost a three-fold increase from 7.5% in 2014. 

b. We are also working hard to raise public awareness of the importance of board diversity, given that the benefits of board diversity are well established. Having leaders with varied experiences, skillsets, perspectives, knowledge about data enables organisations to be nimbler, more competitive, and to truly roll out products and services that serve the entire population.

Some of you may know, how it’s often quoted in articles, that we see higher injury and mortality rates of women in car accidents, and that’s because crash dummies are mostly male, in size, in weight, in height. It also depends on where the man and the woman are sitting in the car. Imagine the man in the driver seat, with the woman beside him in a seat that may not exactly be structured for her form. So, this is just an everyday example of what we need to think about, as we increasingly use AI to put together data as we churn out products and services that are meant to serve the whole population.   

c. So back to the point on women leadership. Another aspect of women’s leadership is about women in governance and in Parliament. In Singapore, women make up almost 30% of the Singapore Parliament, which is higher than the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s average of 26.5%. 

Importance of mindset shifts

22        The last segment that I’d like to talk about is about the importance of mindset shifts and I am delighted to hear that one of the panels later is on male allyship.  Beyond legislation and policies, mindset shifts are required to break gender biases and traditional expectations of roles that men and women play. A whole-of-society partnership is necessary to shift the narrative from ‘what is’ to ‘what can be’. 

a. Men can play a very important role. Men can champion for equal opportunities at work, thus enabling women to break glass ceilings and empower them to achieve their career goals. At home, parents are important role models for their children, and should nurture boys and girls not to be limited by gender stereotypes and to encourage their aspirations in STEM.   

b. In schools, we have our education and career guidance units and they can help our children explore a variety of education and career pathways, again not limited by gender stereotypes. 

23        Even as Singapore women have achieved much over the years, we know that this is continuously work-in-progress and more can be done to further the progress of women and support them in different areas, 

a. In 2021, our society rallied together to discuss ways to celebrate, support and uplift women. We had the Year of Celebrating SG Women, we also had the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development, which led to a White Paper endorsed in Parliament. We have 25 action plans with a 10-year roadmap. We are monitoring progress, and will report back to Parliament every five years, to further discuss and see what more can be done. Last year, DPM Heng had announced ‘A Singapore Made for Families 2025’, to look at how we can support families including women across different facets and to truly meet their potential and fulfil their dreams and aspirations. 

b. All the work that the government is doing, we do it with a partnership approach with society, with community partners. 

24        This year, 2023, is dedicated to the Year of Celebrating Social Service Partners. 
We are progressing from celebrating women, celebrating families and now celebrating social service partners. There is a logic to it, we need to do this step by step, making sure we bring in as many partners as possible, into this collective effort to empower women and make sure we are working hard, progressing on this journey towards equality and better equity. 

a.  The Year of Celebrating Social Service Partners aims to recognise the integral contributions of corporates, social service agencies, professionals, academics, social enterprises, volunteers and many more. 

b. It is very timely here, for me to recognise the work of many important organisations, such as the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO). We have its President Junie Foo here, and President of United Women Singapore (UWS) Georgette.

c. UWS provides mentorship and networking opportunities for women and girls to encourage them to join careers in STEM. Their “STEM First Fintech” programme aims to provide female students with STEM training and mentorship.

d. And that list I mentioned earlier - 
• Women in Science and Healthcare (NUHS WISH)
• Equal opportunities in career development NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine
• SingHealth-Duke NUS WinS
• Women in Science at LKC Medicine 
• Women@NTU 
• Singapore Women in Science
• A*Star Diversity working group 

25        Indeed, there are so many organisations working hard to celebrate the achievements of women in Singapore and further support them.  

26        On this note, I’d like to say with the collective effort across various segments of our society to empower women to excel in their careers, we have much to look forward to women’s contributions in the areas of STEM and medicine. With that, I thank all of you for doing your part to ensure and empower women in achieving their aspirations freely and fully. Thank you very much.