Getting teenage girls into science, engineering is key to narrowing skills gap in tech sector, says education entrepreneur

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a widening skills gap, a strong pipeline of tech talent, creating a better future, under-represented in leadership positions

Increasing the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can help the sector tackle a widening skills gap as demand for talent increases amid changes to the workplace wrought by Covid-19, according to a female Hong Kong entrepreneur.

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By inspiring and equipping teenage girls with digital literacy, corporations can build a strong pipeline of tech talent, said Jennifer Yu Cheng, deputy vice-chairwoman and group president of CTF Education Group, a unit of one of the city’s largest conglomerates, Chow Tai Fook Enterprises.

Yu is the wife of Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, the third-generation scion of the family that controls Chow Tai Fook Enterprises and Hong Kong-listed New World Development.

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“We believe that change starts early and today’s adolescents are the key to closing the gender gap and creating a better future,” said Yu. “Leaders aren’t born; leaders are made,” she said in an interview with South China Morning Post.

a widening skills gap, a strong pipeline of tech talent, creating a better future, under-represented in leadership positions

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‘Today’s adolescents are the key to closing the gender gap and creating a better future,’ says Jennifer Yu Cheng. Photo: Jelly Tse

Yu said an extensive roster of educational initiatives including school outreach programmes, workshops, and regional events and summits led by female changemakers can impart to teenage girls a tech-based forward mindset and skills.

Women constitute only 35 per cent of STEM students in higher education globally, according a 2017 report by Unesco called Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM.

Gartner, a US-based technology research and consulting company, published a report in September last year, in which 64 per cent of IT executives cited talent shortages as the most significant barrier to the adoption of emerging technology, a huge leap from only 4 per cent in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the skills gap by forcing companies to adapt their business models and move more quickly into new technologies.

However, according to the latest report from AnitaB.org, a non-profit social enterprise, women made up just 26.7 per cent of technologists in 2021 – a 2.1 per cent decline in representation compared to 2020 and a downturn following five years of progress.

Yu said this gender disparity is alarming, especially as STEM careers are often referred to as the jobs of the future.

Last year, Yu set up the Jennifer Yu Cheng Girls Impact Foundation, a non-profit charitable organisation aimed at training teenage girls tech skills and the know-how they will need to become “future-ready” leaders.

Starting in Hong Kong, the foundation has launched the “10,000 Girls4Girls Coding+ ” programme to prepare 10,000 girls over the course of five years to become digital leaders.

It will also launch a leadership summit in partnership with companies and female leaders this year.

Yu said she had been spurred on by the changes to the workplace brought about by the pandemic, many seemingly overnight. Technology became more important than ever, and this meant making sure people have the right skills in place.

Women worldwide remain under-represented in leadership positions across the corporate and public sectors, according to Yu.

In Hong Kong, 12.7 per cent of company directorships were held by women in 2020, according to a report by MSCI. Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, which runs the city’s stock exchange, has tightened policies to promote diversity among listed companies. About a third of Hong Kong-listed companies will need to appoint at least one woman director by 2025.

“By inspiring, educating and empowering teenage girls, we hope to ultimately position women to pursue leadership roles with the goal of uplifting the status of women in both the workplace and society,” said Yu.

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