Singapore needs 1,000 more engineers each year in the next few years to keep public infrastructure projects going. The demand for a steady supply of nation-builders has prompted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to highlight, several times in 2016, the need to rethink the value of engineering.
Despite the efforts made in trying to attract and retain talent in engineering, the sector seems to hold little favour among women in the country. Currently, only 4 in 10 students studying engineering at the university level are females. This number drops further if we bring in students who are studying engineering at the diploma level.
On a positive note, nearly three in 10 (29 percent) research scientists and engineers here in 2014 were women, up from just 23.5 percent in 2004, according to statistics from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).
In recent years, Singapore’s Smart Nation ambitions seem clearly within reach. While in many cases we may depend on skills and talents beyond our borders to fulfil this vision, we must also be able to harness the intelligence, energy, and resourcefulness of our female population, and build valuable capabilities from within our borders. The case for diversity is clear: not only for the purpose of inclusivity, but also for productivity and profitability.
Engineering work: no longer dirty, dangerous or difficult
The advent of technologies like clean engineering, water engineering and computer science has allowed the field of engineering to push the boundaries of employment opportunities for women. Jobs that might have once been physically challenging or even dangerous, have become more accessible with the advancement of automation. Because of automation, these jobs have naturally evolved to become more analytical in nature, and require creative and strategic thinking in supervisory roles, while machines are left to complete menial and technical tasks.
As engineering work becomes skewed toward information management, as opposed to labour-intensive tasks, barriers to entry for women are lifted, and a world of career possibilities become open to them. Ms Fiona Tay, a software engineer who is currently working at Airbnb, and Ms Jackie Ying, who was named one of the 100 Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era, are exemplary female engineers in future-forward companies.
Recognise potential for career mobility and progression
When choosing their degrees, finding out which jobs pay well is one of the biggest criteria students look out for. To start with, the median gross salary for engineering graduates from universities here ranges between $3,200 and $3,700 monthly. Earlier this year, it was announced that engineering graduates joining the public sector can expect salaries of at least $3,800.
The future of an engineer in Singapore is bright – both the public and private sector have been rolling out programmes that help develop engineering talents. Corporations like SMRT and L’Oreal have been rolling out incentives and programmes that help engineers develop their careers further. In view of the need to groom leaders in this field, institutions like PSB Academy have rolled out postgraduate courses that prepare specialist engineers for executive leadership, and others that encourage personal development and soft skills to complement their technical skills.
Employers from different industries recognise the value of engineers and that their capabilities in problem-solving can extend across different industries. Engineers who make a mid-career switch to the banking sector or move into a consultancy role outside of the field, could be paid more because of their experience in people management and knowledge in design thinking.
Challenge gender stereotypes in engineering—starting from schools
In Singapore, as it is globally, women often point to the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving the industry. It has been found in multiple studies that the workplace echoed gender stereotyping that happened in schools – men were assigned ‘higher value’ tasks while women were often assigned ‘lower value’ jobs that did not help develop their skill sets.
In order to curb the high rates of women leaving the field, engineering programmes need to address gender stereotypes perpetuated in schools and at work places. Educational institutions have the resources to equip students with tools, skillsets and social values while they work closely with key industry players to build workplace practices and norms that are more inclusive, through engaging collaborative projects or networking activities.
Equal opportunity and access to avenues for development is a start, however. Women who are substantially invested in their own development were found to be more satisfied with their careers and subsequently more committed to the engineering field. To encourage this, companies that invest in tailored training and development programs for women can reap rich payoffs with regard to productivity and profitability and more importantly, faster rates of innovation.
It must be said that the promise of career progression, opportunities for creative expression, or compensation, can only do so much to retain female talent in the industry.
Presently, while there might be platforms designed to recognise the significant achievements of women, by women, these channels can only serve as echo chambers that have little impact on changing the cultural phenomenon that permeates workplaces in the engineering industry, unless they are also championed by their male colleagues, or men in leadership.
While education institutions can serve to normalise socialisation between genders in controlled teaching environments, success in cementing these practices will rely on corporations consciously committing to this agenda, and taking measured steps in creating egalitarian workflows in everyday workplaces.