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The Age of the STEM-Powered Woman

It’s time for more Filipino women to shine in STEM.

I have a confession to make.

For the longest time, whenever I read or heard the words “programmer,” “website developer,” or “computer engineer,” I would automatically think of some bespectacled guy hunched over his top-of-the-line laptop, furiously tapping away at his keyboard.

The operative (and problematic) word here, of course, is “guy.” It’s not that I think girls aren’t well-suited for those jobs; in fact, I’ve met a lot of women who would put my limited knowledge and expertise in technology to shame. It’s just that I’ve gotten so used to working with far more men than women in those professions.

And honestly? There isn’t any good reason why this should be the case.

An odd imbalance

I used to work full-time as a copywriter for a digital marketing agency. That involved coordinating with designers, social media specialists, SEO experts, and web developers. About 80% of our web development team was comprised of men—a rather disturbing number, if you were to think about it.

Of course, that’s just based on my personal experience. If one were to look at the numbers on a national scale, though, the picture they paint would be equally unsettling.

Based on the latest available statistics on employment across the Philippines, out of 15,973,000 Filipino women in the labor force, only 125,000 were employed by companies categorized as industries under “professional, scientific, and technical activities”: science research and development, various fields of engineering, and computer programming, among many others. In the National Capital Region, only 40,000 women were actively working in those industries. That’s less than half of the 86,000 men employed under the same sector.

One has to wonder, though. Why is this happening? And what should we do about it?

Yes, girls can do IT

I attended a Filipina STEM Leaders Forum in Taguig, where female leaders from various STEM industries shared their stories, challenges, and insights on where society is headed in terms of employment trends, particularly in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

More than anything else, though, the event highlighted the need for stronger initiatives for equipping women with the skills and competencies they need to become active participants in STEM industries in the Philippines.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), female employment in the Philippines is focused on low-skilled occupations. In other words, jobs that don’t require advanced technical skills. In an age where more and more companies are embracing cloud technology, automation, and other technological developments, this is a problem for approximately 18 million Filipinas in the labor force.

As a response, the ILO has established the Women in STEM Workforce and Development Programme, which aims to provide women with a venue for learning the soft and technical STEM-related skills necessary for working in STEM industries. The Women in STEM Programme has seen implementation in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines: here, the initiative focuses on Information Technology and Business Process Management (IT-BPM).

Never too late

The beautiful thing about learning is that it transcends not only gender, but age as well.

One of the many fascinating stories I learned as a result of attending the forum was that of Veronica Panganiban. When her stall in the Taytay Public Market burned down, the 39-year-old single mother didn’t know how else she could earn a living.

Fortunately, Veronica was selected to join one of the ILO’s bootcamps in November 2018. There, she learned how to do website design, social media marketing, and graphic design.

She is now an active freelancer, enjoying a new career that has even enabled her to rebuild her stall. (Talk about rising from the ashes.)

As one of the panelists, Accenture Technologies Senior Director Ambe Tierro, said: “Digital fluency is a powerful equalizer.”

Time for a major shift

At the forum, Tierro joined three other Filipina STEM leaders—IBM President and Country Manager Aileen Judan-Jiao, Pointwest Technologies President and CEO Beng Coronel, and Women Who Code Founding Director Michie Ang—in discussing the answers to a simple question: What does it take to be a woman in STEM in the Philippines?

While I was listening to their answers, I couldn’t help but admire them. They were all successful women who had to balance their professional careers, their personal dreams, and their responsibilities at home.

I also have to admit that with that admiration came a bit of excitement as well.

As a man, I can never fully understand just how difficult the road to succeeding in STEM is for women. Based on everything I heard and learned, though, the future of STEM in the Philippines looks promising not just for women, but for Filipinos as a whole.

This was never about making one gender feel inferior to the other, and it certainly isn’t about downplaying what men are capable of. It’s about giving everyone a fair shot at success based on what they can do, not who they were born as. Imagine where we would be, what we could accomplish as a nation, if both men and women can play active roles in shaping local STEM industries.

For the sake of the Philippines, it’s time for women to shine in STEM. And if we don’t do everything in our power to make that happen, it isn’t just a wasted opportunity. It’s a crime.

A multi-awarded science communicator and self-proclaimed pop culture connoisseur, Mikael runs his own science news website, writes film reviews, and verbally rips terrible comic books to shreds. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing, running, painting vinyl collectibles, and dressing up as fictional characters (usually some variation of Spider-Man).