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Boosting Women’s STEM Leadership in the Asia-Pacific

July 21, 2021

By Paula Uniacke

For women in Asia pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, women’s networks have been called “hidden gems“ that can advance women’s participation and leadership and shrink the STEM gender gap. Networks—whether nonprofit networks, internal corporate networks, or formal management networks—can help women overcome the barriers that confront them at many stages of a STEM career, whether they’re just starting out, striving to advance in the workforce, or transitioning to STEM in mid-career. They accomplish this in part by creating safe spaces, building confidence, providing mentorship, raising the visibility of women in STEM, and fostering institutional change.

These are some of the conclusions of a new Asia Foundation report, Accelerating Women’s Advancement in STEM: Emerging Lessons on Network Strategies and Approaches in Asia, which examines more than 70 networks of women in STEM in East and Southeast Asia to determine what makes them effective. The project was supported by Zendesk.

At a recent executive roundtable discussing the new research, a panel of corporate and community leaders explored the report’s recommendations for companies, networks, and governments to work together to strengthen women-in-STEM networks, advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) objectives, and reduce the STEM gender gap (figure 1).

Graphic illustrating the three pillars of "Strengthening Women-In-STEM Networks in Asia.

Figure 1: Recommendations for networks, the private sector, and governments to strengthen women-in-STEM networks

Vani Mahadevan, founder of TechSprint, an Asia Foundation partner in Malaysia, emphasized that the private sector can and should draw on these women’s networks to help meet the demand for STEM professionals that is growing rapidly across Asia. For instance, companies can partner with networks focused on upskilling and training to increase job placements or internship opportunities for women, including those transitioning to STEM in mid-career. This deepens the talent pool for companies while helping to close any “experience gap” for women and open more opportunities for them in tech.

Companies can also partner with in-house or out-of-house women-in-STEM networks to develop more inclusive workforces, which improve STEM innovation and produce less-biased products. “It’s important to have an environment where you can think big and challenge conventional thinking without fear of being judged,” explained Sandy Noche, senior supply-chain team leader at Emerson in the Philippines. “That gives us the opportunity to increase the number of women game-changers and bring diverse creativity and innovation to the table.”

The roundtable also explored the idea of a “network of women’s STEM networks” in Asia to support continuing education, collaboration, and advocacy and pilot new partnerships and approaches. Almost every network leader interviewed asked, “What are all the other networks doing that’s working?” said Dr. Ellen Boccuzzi, Asia Foundation senior advisor and coauthor of the new report. Governments and the private sector could work with women-in-STEM networks to grow this network of networks, which could help share, replicate, and scale effective strategies.

This report reminds me of how deep and wide the systemic formal and informal barriers are for women in STEM. If there’s one takeaway from this research, it’s that we all need to do more, and we all need to do it together, to advance women’s leadership in STEM.

Reflecting on the new research and her own experience with networks, Wendy Johnstone, Zendesk’s chief operating officer for the Asia-Pacific, closed the roundtable with a message for all the participants: “This report reminds me of how deep and wide the systemic formal and informal barriers are for women in STEM. If there’s one takeaway from this research, it’s that we all need to do more, and we all need to do it together, to advance women’s leadership in STEM.”

This call to action has never been more pressing. Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM in most Asian countries, and the pandemic threatens to widen the gap in women’s labor-force participation, including in STEM fields. Greater participation of women in STEM is essential to an inclusive post-Covid-19 recovery, and an important component of gender equality across Asia and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The research on women-in-STEM networks is part of an Asia Foundation–Zendesk partnership focusing on gender equality in Asia, and the most recent fruit of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women’s and girls’ participation and leadership in STEM. Our approach is informed by a “lifecycle” model (figure 2). It identifies barriers and the key stakeholders at each point of a woman’s STEM trajectory, then develops targeted support strategies. We also work at multiple levels to promote new thinking and approaches in individuals, communities, workplaces, and policies.

Graphic illustrating the four stages of "The Asia Foundation's lifecycle approach to supporting girls' and women's advancement in STEM."

Figure 2: The Asia Foundation’s lifecycle approach to supporting girls and women in STEM.

This means we must ensure, through education and skill-building opportunities, that women and girls have the knowledge, credentials, and confidence to pursue careers in STEM. Multifaceted and context-based support is required to help them succeed at school, enter the workforce, and advance in their careers. Our approach is dynamic: it ranges from traditional computer classes to “science cafes” in Thailand that connect promising students with industry experts. We also promote hands-on opportunities for girls and women to build and demonstrate technical skills, such as our hackathons for young women in Pakistan to develop digital resources to mitigate the impact of Covid-19.

The Asia Foundation also works with partners at all levels—such as at the Women in Data Conference in Nepal and the Trilateral Summit on Women’s Leadership in STEM, supported by the U.S. Department of State—to share best practices for nurturing future generations of women STEM leaders. And we are evaluating the challenges and opportunities emerging from the post-Covid-19 landscape and current research on the future of work, and the implications these will have for economies, labor markets, and gender equality in Asia and the Pacific.

In addition to this new research to map women-in-STEM networks across Asia, the Foundation supports the new Women in Tek Network in Cambodia. This network, like many others profiled in the recent report, is developing innovative, multi-pronged strategies to help its members overcome barriers and build careers in STEM.

Women hold up half the sky, and as women’s participation and leadership grow, STEM industries and companies will become more innovative, dynamic, and inclusive. Everyone with a stake in economic growth, social and gender equality, or STEM advancement has a role to play in reducing the STEM gender gap.

Paula Uniacke is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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