Co-authored by Helen Foo.

The rapid rise of entrepreneurial technology talent in Southeast Asia in recent years has been remarkable, but the long-running issue of there being too few women in the industry means female participation and the values they create have clearly not reached full potential.

Technology companies are missing out on these opportunities, and we think it is a problem that, if not handled properly and promptly, will harm the industry in the long run.

This underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs is a global problem, recent data from the Unesco Institute of Statistics shows. Globally, less than one in three researchers (28%) in these fields worldwide is a woman. Researchers are defined as professionals engaged in the creation of new knowledge, products, and system, among other things, as well as in the management of STEM projects.

But the problem is more acute in this part of the world: only 23% of STEM researchers in East Asia and the Pacific are women. In South and West Asia, the proportion lowers to 19%.

We have picked out relevant data for Southeast Asian countries to show the variation within the region, as, for instance, only 20.7% of science researchers in Cambodia are women, and the percentage in Myanmar is almost 86%. In general, we can see in the bar chart below that only a handful of countries in Southeast Asia achieve gender parity, whereby 45-55% are women:

Data source: UIS Factsheet Nov 2015

Even though the above statistics seem to reflect a high involvement of women in science in Myanmar, a United Nations report suggests that the vast majority of tech startups in Myanmar are run by men, with only a handful of female entrepreneurs.

In addition, considering how the world economy and labour markets are being shaped and will likely be shaped in the future, we have no grounds to be be optimistic.

A recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report suggests that the world economy will lose over 5 million jobs by 2020, as automation and a general trend to cut out middlemen will take tolls on 15 major developed and emerging economies. On top of that, the report - called Future of Jobs - highlights that most of the growth in jobs will come from STEM  fields where women are grossly underrepresented. The growth in jobs in these areas is outpacing the rate at which women are currently entering these technical jobs.

This puts women “at risk of missing out on tomorrow’s best job opportunities and aggravating hiring processes for companies due to a more restricted talent pool”, said the report which surveyed chief human resources officers of the 100 largest global employers in the 9 industries surveyed.

Having women in the highest corporate offices is correlated with increased profitability, according to a new study of nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries. An increase in the share of women from zero to 30 percent in top management positions would be associated with a 15 percent rise in profitability, it said.

The study also found that countries with school-age girls who score highly on math tests were more likely to have women in management positions, thus suggested that more needs to be done to establish a management pipeline of women as early as childhood.

The Singaporean example shows the problem well: last year, of the 61,300 university students studying information technology, only 20,300, or 33%, were female, according to reports by the Ministry of Manpower. The ratio of female students to male seems to be edging up, but is by no means close to gender parity:

Data source: Labor Force in Singapore, 2015,2014, 2013, and 2012

Data source: Labor Force in Singapore, 2015,2014, 2013, and 2012

Our research shows similar situations in other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand (37% female students in STEM last year), Malaysia (44%), and Cambodia (10%).

The problem cannot be solved only by raising awareness among policymakers. We also have to encourage girls to develop an interest in mathematics or technology from a young age. Cultural stereotypes or family pressure may be heavy burdens on young minds, but we can help show them the benefits of having an independent and critical character. It is also recommended that educators should show girls that what they want out of their careers can be achieved through STEM.

If we try, we are sure we can find more talents like Cong Yu Li, CTO of Storehub, who thinks computer science is a lot more than just coding in front of a desk. She told me: “In the tech industry, if you want to build a product, you need a lot of collaboration, and girls are generally much better than guys at communicating with people.”

While we progress towards gender parity, we will take consolation from tough, stoic personalities, like Charmain Tan, director and co-founder of Pear Comms, who does not see the underrepresentation of women in technology as a disadvantage.

She told me: “It’s true that it’s not easy to be a female in tech because most people assume we are more emotional, but if you look around, there are great female programmers, too. Business owners should be conscious of that when they make hiring decisions. Meanwhile, female programmers should try their best to stand out from the rest.”

A slightly different view was articulated by a Southeast Asian, US-educated ecommerce entrepreneur: “The tech industry seems to be more merit-based than in other industries. Socially, I sometimes get asked if I work too hard because I am a woman. This does not happen in my business.”

Benefitting greatly from technological advances, the world has come a long way to reach the present day, when so many people from across the world are connected by the internet. But we should be cognisant of the fact that unless we get more women on board, everybody will miss out on tomorrow’s opportunities.

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