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Diversity and Inclusion

Malaysian women redefine gender roles in technology

According to national studies, women hold more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S. but fewer than 24 percent of all computing-related occupations, representing a huge pool of untapped talent. The numbers are not moving in favor of increasing women’s participation in technology; in 2008 women earned only 18 percent of all computer science degrees. Back in 1985, women earned 37 percent of CS degrees, nearly double today’s share.

As technology becomes ever more pervasive and powerful, why aren’t more women clamoring to take part in the surge? Do these dwindling numbers reveal a faulty system that discourages women from entering the field? Or is it a reflection of intrinsic perceptions of gender strengths and weaknesses?

The answer may lie in Malaysia, where women make up between 50 and 60 percent of the computer industry’s employees and many hold mid- and upper-level management positions. The country’s burgeoning technology industry has brought about dramatic changes to women’s roles in society, changing traditional perceptions of class, ethnicity and gender.

“In the U.S., technology and masculinity are very connected, which is not the case in Malaysia,” said Ulf Mellstrom, a professor of gender and technology at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden and a Clayman faculty research fellow, who discussed the topic at a presentation called The Intersection of Gender, Race and Cultural Boundaries: or Why is Computer Science in Malaysia Dominated by Women? “In a short time, booming industrialization has created new opportunities for women while transforming and reforming established society.”

The author of “Masculinity, Power and Technology: A Malaysian Ethnography,” Mellstrom has been conducting a long-term survey of female students in preparation for a new book on Malaysian women in the computer industry. In contrast to the U.S., in Malaysia jobs in technology are seen as appropriate for women: Men do not perceive indoor work as masculine and much of society stigmatizes women who work outdoors as lower class. Computing and programming are seen as “women-friendly” professions, with opportunities opening up since men are not interested in competing for these types of jobs. “It’s a woman’s world in that respect,” said Mellstrom.

Initially women left their villages to seek urban opportunities in the electronics industry, where their dexterity and willingness to take on indoor production work created a massive new workforce. As electronics jobs were replaced by technological ones, the field opened up to newly educated women who easily assumed positions of authority in a field that is nontraditional by nature. This transition, in part, was streamlined because women in computer science had role models in their electronic predecessors, a sequence that does not really exist in the U.S. computer science industry, said Mellstrom.

Malay women in particular see education as a way to become more independent. In the cities, this new breed of young, independent, skilled women is overwhelmingly represented in the computer industry.

According to Mellstrom, the critical mass of women in computer sciences continues to provide role models for other women and establishes “a symbolic space” where it can be demonstrated that women can—and do—excel in the field. And because the boom has caused such a critical shortage of well-trained computer and information technology specialists, Malaysian industries tend to welcome new members of the professional community.