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Is the Southeast Asian tech space sexist? The answer is complicated.
Tuesday 12 March 2019
The influx of women in tech will hopefully encourage equality. Photo: istock

It was a sight to behold. The Women in Blockchain conference – held recently in the NEM Blockchain Centre in Kuala Lumpur – drew attendees with a surprisingly good mix of gender. Seeing them mingling about in the snazzy co-working space that channels a distinct innovation (and Ikea) vibe, it is almost easy to forget that blockchain is notorious for its bulk of bros.

But the most stunning is perhaps watching some of the speakers go on stage and, in the middle of their speeches, express short disapprovals for blockchain events that have an all-women line-up of speakers – ironically, in a blockchain event that has an all-women line-up of speakers. It is understandable why there is a need for such events. Blockchain, the vehicle behind cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and Ether, is a gold rush. Like the rest of tech, it is pretty much a boys’ club. Bitcoin, for example, has created US$85 billion in wealth for investors during 2017 – only US$5 billion went to women.

Industry players told UNRESERVED that the number of female attendees in blockchain community meetups can often be counted with one hand. In other words, without an event like Women in Blockchain, female voices could easily be drowned out by the dude-dominated noise. But women have their reasons to resist an entirely-female platform. Even Jasmine Ng, who organised the Women in Blockchain conference, gets it. “I, too, disagree with demeaning a woman’s accomplishment ([in the industry]) by harping on her gender, because she got there by on her own merit… it’s a double-edged sword: highlighting a woman’s success may inspire other women, but it may also raise questions as to whether she got there simply because she is a woman.


Jasmin Ng organised the Women in Blockchain conference. Photo: Linkedin


“But, for the Women in Blockchain event, I decided to focus on the positive side. As a woman in the space myself, I understand how much harder these women have to work and fight to become the industry leaders they are today, and I choose to applaud them,” the director of investments and special projects at NEM Malaysia explains. On the flipside, some industry leaders believe that reinforcing gender labels will only further marginalise women in the space. After all, the point of struggling for equal treatment in tech is “for gender to mean less”, as sociology professor Vivian Lagesen points out in an interview with UNRESERVED.


Sociology professor Vivian Lagesen. Photo: Linkedin


Malaysia appears to be making enviable strides in this aspect. While many countries struggle to encourage more women to study tech, Malaysia boasts of gender parity among students enrolled in information technology and communication (ICT) disciplines in tertiary education – 51% female and 49% male, according to government figures. Yet, curiously, the workforce is not enjoying similar parity. According to the State of the Households 2018 report by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI), only 30% of ICT professionals in Malaysia are women. In other words, many women who signed up for a computing future abandoned ship. What gives?

Treacherous Territory

Ng has a theory: “Studying is not a man’s world.” Not in Malaysia, at least. There are hardly any barriers against women in picking academic paths. But graduating into the tech sector, things may seem very different. The female shortage has made tech a bro-bubble – sexism and toxic culture against women are rife in the space overrun by the Toms, Dicks and Harrys. Especially the Dicks. Just look at Silicon Valley. It increasingly resembles a horror show for women, with cases of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and oafish misconduct bursting out of the woodwork. In November, a mass walkout from Google offices shook the tech scene. Around 20,000 employees worldwide, starting with Singapore, protested the company culture that lets sexual harassment and discrimination off the hook. The historic walkout follows a New York Times report that Google had protected three executives accused of sexual misconduct.


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More women are choosing careers in technology. Photo: iStock

Uma Thana Balasingam, the vice president of channels and sales of Riverbed Technology in Asia Pacific and Japan, is no stranger to the sleazy underbelly of tech. Based in Singapore, she has experienced and heard about sexual and workplace harassments on women committed by men in global and local tech firms. The Malaysia-born computer science graduate has learned to practice practise “gender judo” at work. She observes that being feminine means she will be well-liked but seen as less competent. Being overly “‘masculine’” – such as being openly ambitious or assertive – makes her seem more competent but may trigger pushback. Even as she sits at the top leadership table, Uma still finds herself walking a tight rope between both.


Uma Thana Balasingam, vice president of channels and sales of Riverbed Technology in Asia Pacific and Japan. Photo: Linkedin


“I’ve heard first-hand stories of women with validated performance track record that exceeded their male counterparts being passed up for promotions and special projects, because the male leaders making the decisions believe they will ‘sleep better at night’ if those opportunities are offered to men instead,” says the co-founder of Lean In Singapore, a network aimed at advancing women’s career. The larger stereotype entrenched in society chokes women’s tech career, Ng observes. As women are still expected to shoulder the lion’s share of family responsibilities, the long and odd hours that tech firms tend to keep may drive them to quit.

According to the KRI report, 58% of women are not in the labour force due to family responsibilities, as opposed to 3.2% men. Women are not even paid fairly for their troubles. In 2014, a report published by the National ICT Association of Malaysia (PIKOM) revealed that a male ICT professional tended to earn a median monthly salary of RM5,201 while his female colleague earned only RM3,855 – a 35% difference. Magda Chelly, managing director of her own cybersecurity firm Responsible Cyber, points out that many women in the local tech scene are stuck in middle-management roles, partly because employers tend to assume that women have low career ambitions and prefer to focus on motherhood instead.

“In some cultures, men still resist getting orders from women – this is a hurdle that we don’t talk enough about. This makes it difficult for a woman to be promoted into the C-Suite in tech because the company questions her ability to lead a male-majority team who may not accept a female superior,” says the Singaporean resident, who is also the founder of Women in Cyber, a networking and mentorship platform for women in the cybersecurity field. Chelly thinks that the tech industry in Southeast Asia is not as hostile towards women as Silicon Valley, but admits that it is hard to generalise the multicultural region. A few female tech founders in the region whom UNRESERVED spoke to deny encountering discrimination at all. Granted, that is a shaky indication of equality. Women, after all, are not immune to unconscious biases shaped by a patriarchal upbringing. In a global online study by Harvard, 76% of the 200,000 respondents – men and women – are gender biased and tend to think that men are better suited to careers and women are better suited as homemakers. The internalisation of patriarchal prejudices may lead to women to shrug shrugging off sexist conducts.


Sticky Bias

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Female voices could easily be drowned out by male-dominated noise. Photo: istock

Gender still matters a whole lot in tech. Some women’s interest in the field may have even stemmed from stereotype. Remember Vivian Lagesen from the top of this article? The Prof Vivian Lagesen, a sociology researcher from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, conducted a study among Malaysian female students and faculty members in computer science in 2008. It found that they do not see computer programming as a male domain. But they do see working in the computing field as “consistent with being women”. Software engineering and programming, according to many of the 27 subjects interviewed, are suitable for women because of its indoor working environment and association with office work. This is in contrast with work that involves electronics and mechanical objects, which were considered “masculine”. As such, gender parity in the Malaysian computer science studies is progress with a rock tied to its legs. “It is inclusion as well as exclusion. To the Malaysian female students, computer science offered many new and interesting opportunities of becoming skilled, valued, and important, yet it (combined) empowerment with the acceptance of a paternal system as well as gender differentiating practices that definitely worked in their disfavour,” writes Prof Lagesen.

Closing the gap

The tech industry is waking up to the need to rewrite its bro code. It has little choice. If it sticks to a majority male (and often, pale) workforce, tech brands risk developing products and services irrelevant to half of the globe’s consumers – women. Sexism also begets more sexism. Recently, Amazon was found to have tried developing an artificial intelligence (AI) tool to ease recruitment. The AI system, according to Reuters, turned out to be discriminating against female candidates because its algorithm was based on trawling the data of predominantly-male resumes submitted to Amazon in the past 10 years. Amazon scrapped the system in 2017. Uma recommends tech leaders to check themselves for bias, and evaluate employees with clear and measurable criteria. This is because it is common for both men and women to overestimate male performance compared to female performance. Unclear performance review metrics or gut feeling may lead to unfair evaluation, which can significantly impact women’s careers.

The goal is not just to get women in the door, but up the ladders and into the corner office. Chelly urges companies to start asking women’s about their career plans to decide whether to promote them, not just assume that they want a low-level position to prioritise on their family. Blockchain, according to Ng, has a great potential to disrupt the gender status quo in tech.

She points out that the nascent industry is spawning a lot of demand for talents – both technical and non-technical – without enough experts to fill them. Women who enter the field hold the bargaining chips to negotiate for flexible working hours or other facilities that fit their needs. “The industry is so new, so it is even more pertinent that women come in and take up these available positions in the early days,” says Ng. The influx of women will hopefully lead to a culture reboot within blockchain, and maybe, tech itself.


Related: How Jesrina Arshad is Forging a Path For Females in Tech and Business