International Girls in ICT Day: Women Engineers in Asia Pacific Share Their Stories

29 APR 2022

International Girls in ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Day is recognized annually on the fourth Thursday of April. The day highlights the need to promote technology careers for girls and women. Here, Jia Mao, sponsor of the Asia Pacific Women in Engineering Network, and co-heads of the network Mariko WakaoKim Cheah and Jenny Du discuss their career journeys in engineering, the challenges they have faced and their best advice.

What or who inspired you to develop a career in engineering?

Jia Mao: A number of factors have influenced this choice. STEM subjects have always been my natural strengths: mathematics and algorithms are fun for me! Throughout my career, I’ve always received plenty of encouragement from my family, teachers and advisors.

Mariko Wakao: I had a career opportunity at GS to work in engineering. I received a lot of support from the regional head of engineering who assisted my global mobility from APAC to New York and back to APAC, and my female mentor (and later manager) who I met through the US Women in Engineering Network.

Kim Cheah: I have always enjoyed problem solving and interacting with people. I stumbled upon my first job 20+ years ago as a help desk agent working in a 24/7 operation to support clients. What started as an internship became a lifelong passion to help organizations transform their end-user environment. It felt satisfying to use my knowledge to help others in achieving their goals, while honing my skills at the same time.

Jenny Du: In high school, even though I was terrible in STEM subjects, for some unknown reason my chemistry teacher chose me to be the class representative to help him out with tasks including collecting everyone’s homework. That duty triggered me to spend more time studying chemistry so that when other students came to me with questions about their homework, I was able to help. Just one semester after being the class rep, I got an A+ in chemistry. Eventually, STEM subjects became my strength and it was a natural decision for me to choose a career in engineering. That’s also why the APAC Women in Engineering Network focuses a lot on nurturing high school girls’ interest in STEM subjects – with the aim that engineering will become a natural choice for them when they go to college and choose their career path.

What challenges have you encountered as women engineers? 

Jia Mao: I am accustomed to being the only, or one of very few, women on a team or in a meeting. Being a woman in the engineering field has some challenges, like building a network when you don’t share similar interests with your colleagues, or finding role models and getting sponsorship. Across the industry, there's also a noticeable lack of female engineers at senior levels. Personally, I've also found that having children has different implications for women than it does for men. Recognizing these challenges is the first step in overcoming them. I try to explore alternative ways to socialize and connect with colleagues, and try to be helpful to other women engineers. Having a supportive community--both at home and at work--helps us grow and overcome challenges together. I am still learning to be bold and confident in the value I bring to the table.

Mariko Wakao: I was the first female developer when I joined one of the trading application development teams in Asia. At the time, I tried to maintain open dialogues with colleagues, including my manager and senior women leaders outside of my team. It helped me to learn, step up, and eventually coach and train male dominated teams.

Kim Cheah: I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked with great managers and colleagues, thus I have not encountered gender stigma at work. However, I have experienced other forms of bias. Early in my career, when applying for a more senior role, I was told that I looked too young and might not have the mettle to make hard decisions. I didn’t get that role, and though I was disappointed, I didn’t give up. Instead I began to engage my managers more regularly, to post them on my work and achievements. Later, when another key position became available, a senior manager recognized my hard work and gave me the role.

Jenny Du: I started my engineering career as an intern and the gender imbalance that I saw made me hesitant to speak up and share my views with colleagues. Then one day, I was assigned a female mentor. She shared how she had progressed successfully in her career as a developer. Seeing her success eased my anxiety around whether I should pursue an engineering career after graduation.

What is the one piece of advice you’d give to those who are interested in developing a career in engineering?

Jia Mao: If you are naturally good at something and enjoy doing it, don’t walk away from it just because of anticipated challenges. Be aware of potential obstacles and have a plan to tackle them. Your interests will keep you motivated and inspired to learn and grow--it’s the key to having  a satisfying career.

Mariko Wakao: Engineering solutions today are more critical than ever. Any business line, from front to back, requires engineering solutions. It is a very exciting time to make an impact, so find where you can add value and follow your passion!

Kim Cheah: Be inquisitive and learn from others in the STEM field. Take the initiative to find a mentor and ask questions. Many experienced professionals are very knowledgeable and happy to share their knowledge with you.

Jenny Du: Don’t question your decision and don’t give up your engineering career. When in doubt, find someone to talk to, find your role model and build up your support network.