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Tech Leader Advocates for STEM Education and Career for Women

12 Aug 2022

Early exposure of girls to STEM helps them understand opportunities available to them

Women remain underrepresented in Singapore tech sectors, particularly in leadership roles where they make up only 27 per cent of senior management and 12 per cent of CEO or board-level positions. This is according to a recent case study presented by Boston Consulting Group and Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore.

 The same study says women account for 41 per cent of the tech workforce in Singapore, and only 32 per cent in Southeast Asia. 

STEM careers are considered jobs of the future which drive innovation, social well-being, inclusive growth and sustainable development. The lack of gender diversity in the workforce represents a tremendous loss of opportunities among women. Moreover, it impedes companies from looking at problems from different perspectives and finding new solutions to them.

“When I look at the opportunity that is out there, it's really about exposure,” says Susan St. Ledger, President, Worldwide Field Operations at Okta, a digital identity management provider. “We must make sure that we expose girls at a much younger age so that they actually understand the opportunities that are out there for them.”

According to a UNESCO research, only 35 per cent of STEM students in higher education globally are women, and only 3 per cent of female students in higher education choose Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) studies. 

“Gender diversity brings diversity of thought,” St. Ledger remarks. “Statistics show us that companies that have gender diversity perform better. And so, it's important for companies to understand it's a business imperative.” For many years, gender diversity was “almost a checkbox, where it was the job of human resources as opposed to people understanding that it actually helps companies perform better”.

St. Ledger forged an exemplary career in tech demonstrating how women can break boundaries and take on new roles in their desired fields. After obtaining a degree in computer science, she joined the US National Security Agency as a software engineer before assuming the posts of sales and business leader at Sun Microsystems, Salesforce, and later on at Splunk, where she notably grew the business from 700 million US dollars to 2.5 billion in revenue.

The daughter of a history teacher and a nurse, St. Ledger grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. In school she displayed a natural aptitude for math and science and went on to college with the intention of becoming a doctor. However, a computer science class that she attended convinced her to change tracks. “Just the level of analytical thinking really appealed to my analytical brain,” she recalls.

“I do believe there is a natural aptitude, but I also believe that there is still a gender bias that exists where teachers steer boys towards math and girls towards humanities or creative. But I think that anybody can develop all sides of their brain. It's about learning how to learn so you can learn anything that you want,” she points out.

St. Ledger did very well in her STEM education, earning straights A’s in all her computer science classes, and graduating magna cum laude. After graduation, she pursued a career in STEM, admitting she simply didn’t know another path. “When we graduated college, it was whatever you got – your degree –that's where you went and did. Today, it can be very different,” she observes. 

“What I love so much about STEM education today is when I look at the world of technology, there's a world out there I didn't even know existed. You could go into marketing or product marketing. You could be an engineer, or you could go into sales, Or the academia, for sure. There's just so many paths. And I think that is what is so exhilarating about a STEM education right now.”

Adopting the high-growth mindset has helped St. Ledger shape a truly remarkable career. “If you look at my career, all of it has been at very high-growth companies,” she says, adding that it as among her reasons for joining Okta. “When you're at a high-growth company, the thing that you have to understand is that there's no certainty. Change is the only constant.” 

She has identified three pillars for her high-growth mindset: One, always be learning; two, aim for continuous improvement. “No matter how well you do something, if you look back, you can always find things you could have improved. If you build that muscle for continuous improvement, it just leads to excellence and more excellence. 

“Lastly, be comfortable being uncomfortable. If you're in growth mode, you're going to be uncomfortable. Right? Growing, by definition, means you're uncomfortable.”

St. Ledger thinks that things have improved where women and STEM education are concerned. “I think part of the improvement is exposing young women earlier.” Another factor is the nature of the world that girls are growing up in today, she cites. “They have to understand the digital world to some extent whether it's their iPhone or gaming; there’s some element that they're already exposed to. That was not the case when I was growing up. 

“I do think that we are making strides, but we still have a long way to go.”

In Singapore to speak at a Women in Tech roundtable on how women should prepare to take on new roles in tech, St. Ledger took time to present a cheque to local non-profit United Women Singapore. The organization supports STEM education for girls, a cause that is close to St. Ledger's heart.