Making electronics industries more inclusive is a competitive business strategy, says Shidah Ahmad, Vice President and General Manager, Global Order Fulfilment and Supply Chain at Keysight Technologies.

Digital transformation is changing the way we live and do business.

Industry design cycles are accelerating, and businesses need to innovate faster for first-to-market advantage. An increasing number of concurrent technologies are evolving across multiple new dimensions and businesses need to keep pace with the technology complexities. Then, there is the need to improve productivity while being cost-efficient. Businesses are increasingly under pressure to be more productive and efficient.

Talent is one of the most important enablers for businesses to meet these challenges. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) talent to be exact. And this is true anywhere in the world today.

The global demand for STEM talent is increasing. The World Economic Forum predicts that as many as 65% of children in primary school today will work in new, STEM-based fields when they enter the workforce. It is estimated that as many as 80% of jobs in Southeast Asia will require basic digital literacy and applied ICT skills by the year 2030.

Gender disparity in STEM

Unfortunately, STEM disciplines are overwhelmingly dominated by men. Worldwide and in APAC, only about a quarter of the STEM workforce are women, despite representing half the population. This greatly hampers the potential that could be realised if women were equally included.

More women than ever are graduating from colleges and universities with STEM degrees, but so are men. In fact, the number of men in those degree programs is rising faster than the number of women, so the gender gap in STEM not only remains, it is actually growing.

The problem is compounded by a disproportionately lower number of women in STEM leadership positions and a persistent wage gap, with females in STEM jobs making 89% of what their male counterparts are paid.

Across Asia, women only hold between 18.5% and 23.4% of research positions. And while a higher proportion of females are found in disciplines such as pharmacy, medicine and biology, they remain under-represented in areas such as computer science, physics and engineering.

For example, upper middle-income Malaysia has reached a high proportion of female graduates in science programmes at 59%, but 72% of students enrolled in pharmacy were female, as opposed to just 36% of students in engineering.

Rapidly-developing countries such as lower middle-income Vietnam are earlier in the curve but on the right track, with gender equality receiving a great deal of attention in the last decade, through government policies and initiatives that seek to raise awareness in promoting equal opportunities in education and at work. And in recent years, the participation of female students in education at primary and lower secondary levels has reached higher levels than that of their male counterparts.

But even in the high-income environment of Singapore - which needs more STEM talent to power its Smart Nation goals, only 30% of STEM researchers are women.

The gap doesn’t reflect a difference in aptitude, however. Test results from 67 different countries and regions have shown that girls do as well or better than boys in science subjects. That means women are more than capable of occupying demanding positions in STEM fields.

Closing the gap

It is apparent that there is a critical need to eliminate barriers that girls and women face when pursuing STEM-related education and careers. Enabling girls and women to stand alongside boys and men in STEM fields opens pathways for greater contributions in solving global challenges.

There have been good-faith efforts around the world by governments to achieve gender equality in STEM fields. And corporations play an important role as well through their diversity and inclusion programs.

Keysight, for example, has always upheld a culture of inclusion, and this goes back to our days as Hewlett-Packard. And as women in Keysight, we’ve always had a conducive and encouraging environment to grow and develop our careers in meaningful ways.

Aligned with the company’s direction, we also have external programs like the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day (IGED) that inculcates girls’ interest in engineering from a young age, thereby building a talent pipeline for women in engineering.

This program and its companion “Keysight After School” hands-on science workshops for children are just two of many programs Keysight has created to instill an interest in STEM. Our initiatives range all the way from elementary to the tertiary levels. We have programs on a global scale as well as more intimate, localised engagements, to encourage students to explore and discover the fields of STEM through hands-on, practical learning.

Our approach is to expose children as widely as possible to STEM from a young age and progress onward to sustain that interest and build their abilities as they grow. Students need to be exposed to what’s happening in the world out there. It is important for children to see real technologies and real practitioners in action and have solid engagement with them. This will further inspire their imagination and develop their interest.

Diversity matters

It is important that corporations get into the act early.

After all, closing the gender disparity in STEM and fostering greater diversity is a competitive advantage.

Firstly, it helps you meet market needs. Markets have evolved, customer demographics have expanded and become more diverse, with broader and more sophisticated demands. Driving the innovation stream and winning in such an environment now requires different ways of looking at things, different methods and abilities to solve problems and create innovative breakthrough solutions that address varying needs. As they say, the more you look like your customer the better!

Secondly, diversity helps improve organisational performance. Research points to a positive link between increased gender diversity and financial results across different industries and countries. And, other studies have shown that diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time. Even better, diverse teams also make decisions twice as fast and require half the number of meetings to get the result!

In Keysight, our culture of diversity and inclusion enables us to better understand and create value for our different markets. We have 13,000 employees in 150 locations around the world. We have global teams -- people with differing experiences, opinions and cultures – who work together and bring their unique perspectives and capabilities to the table. In terms of women, the numbers speak for themselves. 31% of Keysight’s global workforce are women and we have 23% women in global leadership roles.

In fact, in the global supply chain organisation and manufacturing operations which I lead, half of my senior staff members are women. And these women are leading high value, high complexity, sophisticated manufacturing operations worldwide!

We have female engineers in many disciplines including firmware, hardware, materials and process engineering, and they cross many functions including manufacturing, R&D, quality assurance, procurement and marketing.

With a pool of female talent available, it is evident that in order to encourage and help women develop in electronics and engineering, corporations need to take a larger role in the advancement of women in STEM.

Photo / provided

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