(March 7): Globally, while there is a heightened awareness of gender equality, in particular, for women empowerment, there are still women in some parts of the world who first have to get past their own families, archaic cultural standards, community and national policies on women to pursue their passion, whatever that may be.
When it comes to women in tech, a field I'm most passionate about, we have had many progressive policies to support growth and empowerment of women.
But, one cannot deny the subtle prejudice that women still have to encounter in almost everything we do. There still remains a gender participation gap in many areas such as the corporate sector, entrepreneurship and in politics.
The question is, can we afford to leave women out? A woman's perspective on market opportunity, design architecture, user content, experience and interface are all invaluable insights to make any business successful — for we represent the voices of about half of the world’s population, and a high net worth group too.
Better yet, there is a sizeable number of women who are inclined to shine in tech and innovation. And as I lay out some evidence below on the progress we have made, we can also do more.
First, the notion of representative quantity. In Malaysia, we can be proud of being among the few nations which has equal representation of women in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) across the education system.
In 2018, a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey showed a low proportion of adolescent girls (6.3%) in Malaysia expressed their intentions of pursuing science or engineering compared with other OECD countries at 7.1% of girls.
However, a more recent report shows otherwise, pointing to the gains we have made.
In 2021, the World Bank reported that in Malaysia, almost 50% of those in engineering are women, and in science, maths and computing, almost 50% of these researchers are women. This corresponds with the 2019 National Survey of R&D in Malaysia, MOSTI, in which the percentage of male researchers compared to their female counterparts showed only a 1.8% difference between them.
Moreover, according to the Ministry of Education, girls are performing well in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) from primary schools up to university, in both academic and extracurricular areas.
So as far as the statistics show, we have no shortage of female talent in STI.
Nor are we lacking in role models.
In terms of representative quality, take for example, despite global advancement of life-saving cancer research, very little is known about the factors that contribute to the prevalence of cancer in women of Asian descent. In 2003, Professor Datin Paduka Dr Teo Soo-Hwang of Cancer Research Malaysia, boldly embarked on a journey to correct this glaring omission.
She led a study of more than 45,000 Asian women across 10 countries to identify a new way of accurately predicting a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer, specific to Asian women. From the data gleaned, her team built the ARiCa or Asian Genetic Risk Calculator, to enable doctors to determine a woman’s likelihood of inheriting this gene. This tool can identify the risk of breast cancer for Asian women with over 80% accuracy — up from 20% before with similar tools which also took a longer time to process.
It was a breakthrough scientific invention made by women for women, and it highlighted more than ever the power of women in STI.
Another leading light is Professor Datin Paduka Dr Khatijah Mohamad Yusoff, a Merdeka Award recipient and much acclaimed virologist who has distinguished herself through her extensive work on the Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV). She has been known to direct her research to focus on the novel use of NDV as an anticancer agent as well as a carrier for anticancer drugs in targeted chemotherapies, well ahead of her time in this field.
Prof Emerita Datuk Dr Asma Ismail, the first female President of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and the first woman to be the National Science Advisor is another example. In addition to holding 16 patents and commercialising the rapid diagnostic test for typhoid called TYPHIDOT which is recognised as an affordable kit for many developing countries worldwide, she continues to engage and inspire younger female researchers and scientists to be changemakers through their body of work.
There is also Dr Umi Fazara Mohd Ali, whose research looks at novel materials that capture carbon dioxide from agricultural waste to reduce greenhouse gases. And Dr Jezamine Lim, who tipped the scales as the first female doctorate candidate in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) to be awarded a PhD in stem cells and tissue engineering. Today, as Principal CEO of Cell Biopeutics Resources, a centralised and comprehensive hub for accessing global stem cell therapies in the market, she is recognised as a pioneer in this field in the region.
Among so many of these trailblazing women in STI is also Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, who in the late 1990s was a part of the all-Malaysian team that identified, treated and contained the Nipah virus epidemic and saved thousands of lives. For all her bright achievements, she was also conferred the Merdeka Award in 2022 — amongst a host of international accolades — including becoming the first Malaysian to be appointed as the commissioner of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and chaired the 24th International AIDS Conference last year.
These Malaysian women, and more, are shining examples in shifting and shaping tech and innovation to make it more available and inclusive.
While we have these shining trophy examples and a sizeable talent pipeline, I daresay, we can do more especially in terms of representation, participation and innovation which are women-focused.
In terms of leadership, according to Deloitte’s Women in the Boardroom: A Global Perspective report, women directors make up 24% of total board seats in Malaysia in 2021, up from 10.4% in 2014. And from another perspective, the average percentage of women on boards in Malaysia stands at 27%. Zooming in, only 6.5% of board chairs are women, while another 3.7% are CEOs. This needs shifting, surely. Research shows that gender diverse organisations are 25% more likely to outperform companies that are less diverse.
In terms of entrepreneurship, Statista reports that as of 2019, there were only 20% of global startups with at least one female founder. However, when it comes to funding, startups founded by women receive a smaller share of venture capital funding — around US$5 billion in VC funding, while startups with both male and female co-founders receive around US$20 billion.
At the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI), we have nurtured a growing number of female-led start-ups in agritech, foodtech, retail and fintech such as Bloomthis, Batik Boutique, BoomGrow and Data8 — to name but a few.
However, it is said that women in the fields of healthtech to agritech, from robotics to fintech are still held back by a glass ceiling in a male-dominated field, and by cultural and societal constraints that lead women to lack belief in themselves. No surprise then that in terms of overall labour participation, Jobstreet data show that women made up only 35% of the technology workforce in Malaysia in 2021. Anecdotally, we still hear of women having to take a step back in their careers to be primary child carers or caregivers, and finding it difficult to return to work afterwards.
Excluding women from technology comes with a devastating cost: in the UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, women’s exclusion from the digital world has shaved US$1 trillion from the gross domestic product of low- and middle-income countries in the last decade — a loss that will grow to US$1.5 trillion by 2025 without action. We simply cannot allow this to happen.
This under representation and gap in participation eventually spells the lack of technologies that meet the needs of women — who make up half of our society, today and into the future.
We must realise that bringing women into technology leads to more creative solutions, with more potential for the creation of innovations that directly meet the needs of society as a whole, and delivers progress.
Because despite the challenges faced by female-led startups, in 2020, female-led startups generated more revenue post-acceleration programme for every dollar of debt they raised pre-acceleration than male-led startups did. For every US$1 of debt invested prior to participation in a business accelerator, startups led by women raised an average post-acceleration revenue of US$1.12.
Given the potential of our social, environmental and economic contribution, industry, academia and corporate can therefore come together to spotlight and invest in solutions by and for women, while empowering us to have successful careers in STI while still fulfilling the critical roles in their personal lives. This may include providing childcare assistance to ensuring representation in research areas that meet the needs of women and more.,
In this regard, the World Bank has outlined several measures for Malaysia to prepare for a gendered response. For example, as we become an ageing population, women are living longer than men, but with a shorter duration in the labour force, with subsequent smaller savings and pensions.
By committing to placing even more women into positions of research and commercialisation and embracing equity, we have much to gain from this move which spells progress for all.
Dzuleira Abu Bakar is CEO of the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI)
Rash Behari Bhattacharjee