Gender Gap in STEM

A QUESTION has always vexed me – where are all the women?

If you drop by any college, you will find a healthy number of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. The numbers may vary from school to school and programme to programme, but taken as a whole, the numbers are fairly healthy.

Anecdotally, about half my classmates were women when I was a student, and just under half my students were women where I previously taught engineering.

However, step into industry and you will find that the numbers drop dramatically. STEM jobs seem to be heavily male-dominated everywhere you look.

This trend has always puzzled me because the numbers don’t seem to make sense.

If we look at the Kajian Pengesahan Graduan KPT study conducted by the Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia in 2010, the overall ratio of female to male graduates for various Information & Communications Technology (ICT) fields at various public and private institutions of higher learning was 1.04:1.

This means that there is nearly a 1-to-1 ratio in schools and in fact, the number of female ICT graduates is marginally more than that of male ICT graduates.

Logically speaking, the number of women and men in the industry should be similar. However, that’s not the case.

According to a World Bank report in 2002, only about 30% of the ICT professionals in the Malaysian software industry are women. Although there is an imbalance, this doesn’t seem too bad, yet.

If we look at the numbers for engineering instead, the overall ratio of female to male graduates for the various fields of engineering is 0.47:1, which ranges from 0.2:1 for Mechanical Engineering through to 0.99:1 for Chemical Engineering.

While the gender imbalance for engineering is worse than that for ICT, overall, it still does not correlate with the situation in industry.

According to a research report citing numbers from the BEM (Board of Engineers, Malaysia) in 2005, only 12.8% of registered graduate engineers were women, while a mere 2.7% of registered professional engineers were women.

So, from an overall ratio of 0.47:1 at the point of graduation, the ratio decreases to 0.15:1 at the graduate engineer level – that is, those who end up working as engineers – and finally drops to 0.03:1 at the professional level (that is, those who end up using the title Ingenieur or Ir.).

To put this into perspective, for each woman that you find studying and working in engineering, you will find two other male classmates, seven other male engineering colleagues and 36 fellow male professional engineers at the end. A female professional engineer is a rare find.

These numbers are alarming and are reflective of a larger problem in STEM industries. While there may or may not be a gender imbalance at school, it worsens significantly in industry.

Unfortunately, this is not merely a Malaysian problem. The situation is similar in other parts of the world.

According to Forbes, women hold only 27% of all computer science jobs and make up only 20% of the computer science graduates in the United States. According to QS (which ranks universities worldwide), women make up 12% of engineering students and 4% of engineering apprenticeships in the United Kingdom.

Among the many reasons suggested for the gender imbalance, gender stereotypes are commonly cited. This is probably why women shy away from Mechanical Engineering, which is often seen as ‘dirty’ when compared to something like Chemical Engineering.

Honestly, I won’t pretend to know the solution to the gender gap problem but various groups are trying different things.

Lego, the world’s largest toy-maker, has acknowledged this problem and is launching a new line of female scientist figurines to help address this issue. While having female Lego figurines is a good start, a figurine does not make a good role-model, nor a useful mentor.

Grassroots-driven female-focused events like Rails Girls KL and Penang – a one-day workshops that introduce beginner-friendly web application development to women of all ages – are an excellent effort to inculcate an interest for programming in women. Efforts like this help encourage women to take up STEM careers by building awareness and interest.

Women are increasingly being recognised for achievements in the field. An example of this is the Young Woman Engineer award given out by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Malaysia. These sorts of things should help develop role-models in the industry by highlighting their careers and achievements.

However, even at women-friendly events such as a recent Rails Girls workshop that I attended, where the participants were all women, the mentors were still nearly all male.

I think that we need to do something to address that too. This is where I think that the female minority in industry can and should take the lead. I hope that more women, from industry, volunteer at outreach events, and organise and run such events too.

Having more diversity in the work place is a good thing as it will bring different ideas and capabilities to bear, and I hope that the question will not vex me for too long.

First appeared on DNA here.

Hypocrisy in Selangor

Congratulations, rakyat of Selangor, for you have gotten the MB that you deserve.

According to media reports, it seems that Azmin Ali has successfully been appointed as the new MB of Selangor.

Now, this made me laugh out loud – seriously!

Demonstrably Less Popular
I definitely recall that Azmin has demonstrably got less support than Khalid as MB. This was evident in the run up to and right after GE13. When Azmin’s name was floated as an MB candidate, it was roundly rejected by both PAS and DAP.

Now, he is the new MB in-waiting. Both PKR and DAP has indicated their support for him. But that still doesn’t give him the majority support in the Dewan.

So-called Majority Support
The Lady of Selangor has got so-called demonstrated the support of the majority of the Dewan. However, Azmin has failed to demonstrate any support. In fact, he has got demonstrably less support than Khalid.

So, where is the call for Azmin’s resignation or for him to step down?

Blaming the Palace
Please DO NOT blame the palace for taking the action that it did. The Sultan acted entirely within his capacity and based on the best facts available to him at the time. If there is any blame to be had, it should be directed towards those who abused their power to cause the whole fiasco – namely Anwar Ibrahim.

If Anwar Ibrahim had any honour, he would resign to take responsibility for this failed coup. However, that snake has no such thing.

Follow Processes
I hope that this Selangor fiasco serves as a lesson to all people who wish to side-step process in the future. The Constitution spells out rules that regulate power for a reason. If you choose to avoid the Constitution by not casting a vote of no confidence and demonstrating your support outside the Dewan, you are asking for the Sultan to invoke his utter discretion as he has nothing to base his decision off!

If you want to Sultan to respect your decision, your decision needs to have the highest authority of the legislative. Then, the Sultan has something solid to base his decision on, instead of his own gut instinct.

In conclusion, what this fiasco has demonstrated to us is the utter hypocrisy of Pakatan, particularly the PKR and DAP. PAS has been the most consistent of all the parties – while they may have flip-flopped in action, nobody can fault them for being consistent on principle.

Congratulations to Azmin! You have finally achieved the goal that had eluded you for so long, while being the good guy and team player in all of it!


Online Dating: OKCupid in Malaysia

Article originally appeared on DNA here.

I HAVE been dabbling a little in online dating recently but unlike most people who dabble, I did some quantitative research on it out of curiosity. Blame it on the academic in me.

I even wrote an academic paper on it for part of my law degree. The actual focus of my research paper was on the effectiveness of techniques for detecting fake profiles.

I wonder what the lecturer thinks of the results. Anyway, I thought that I’d share some findings here.

If you browse around, you will find a lot of research on online dating. However, such research is largely focused outside of Malaysia while my data collection was focused purely on Malaysian, specifically Klang Valley, profiles.

Also, I limited my data collection to OKCupid (OKC) users only.

If you search further, you will find a lot of research done on OKC by its own users. There is even an interesting TED talk on how people can work the system to optimise their chance of success. OKC itself has admitted conducting experiments on its own users too.

My research was neither as big nor as ambitious, but I learned some interesting things about Malaysian OKC users nonetheless.

As usual, I started by sizing up the demographics of the pool. I limited my population to users who had used the service within the last month only as I wanted to count the profiles that were relatively active, and discard non-active ones. Otherwise, the numbers would just be too unwieldy.


The graph above shows the distribution of the profiles, segmented into age groups (Umur) and divided by gender (Lelaki = male; Wanita = female).

The shape of the curve itself is probably as most would expect it to be – that is, a lot of people in their 20s and early 30s on the site, and fewer as one gets older. This, of course, assumes that people report their age accurately, which I have found to be true.

However, the more interesting finding from this is the ratio (nisbah) of men to women on OKC. While the average (purata) is about 2.8 men to each woman, the number peaks at around 4.1 men to each woman in the under-21 age group and drops to 2.0 men to each woman in the 41-45 age group.

Then, things pick up again in the 50s.


Read what you will into these numbers, but fellows, be warned: The competition is pretty stiff. If you are a woman on OKC, the odds are definitely in your favour. You are definitely going to get hits, but whether the candidates meet your criteria are another matter entirely.

From the conversations that I’ve had with several women who use OKC, the problem that they have is that they generally get inundated with messages and various propositions. So, they need to spend some effort in filtering the hits from the misses. This is actually a good problem to have.

Therefore, if you are a man trying to message a woman on OKC, don’t be surprised if your message gets lost in the pile. You may have already experienced this, but you now know how high the deck is stacked.

So, that initial message needs to catch their attention fast, or you risk your message getting ignored, deleted or blocked.

Now, with regards to the authenticity of the profiles, the results are interesting as well. The results for both genders are fairly similar and so, I’ve combined the results into a single graph.


As you can see, fake (palsu) profiles start to pop up in the 20s and 30s as the number of authentic (tulen) ones start to drop.

I think that this graph could also serve as a corollary for the growth of social networking sites. This is probably due to the techniques that I used to verify a profile.

The most effective technique that I used was the reverse image search. This technique allowed me to detect if the photographs that were used in these OKC profiles were found elsewhere. Based on the context where the photographs were found, the profiles were classified as fake or otherwise.

So it is likely that the profiles of younger users could be easily verified as they tend to be users of Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and various other social networking sites, while the profiles of older users could not be verified as easily as they have generally missed the social network bandwagon.

This also means that people need to be careful with the photographs that are posted online as these could be used by others for various purposes. I know of one OKC user who has even resorted to threatening those who do so with a lawsuit, but I don’t know how effective that strategy is.

Finally, the main takeaway from all this is that you cannot really tell if the profiles are fake or not for the vast majority out there. Therefore, one should always exercise caution when dealing with other users of online dating sites.

Rogue MB

I’m kind of sick and tired of the political games being played by PKR in Selangor.

If you want to engineer the removal of the Menteri Besar, the Law already provides for such a thing. Trying to oust him through extra-legal methods is sickening. I can expect such things from PKR, which is a party made up of largely UMNO rejects, but I certainly hope that the DAP and PAS do not support such a move.

The things is that as political parties that purport to support the Rule of Law, you need to show that you are actually capable of using the Law correctly. While the post of a Menteri Besar is a powerful one, it is not absolute. There are checks and balances built into the system.

All that they need to do is to muster enough votes in the State Assembly to pass a vote of no confidence against him. This could come in the form of a money bill, for example. That will show that the MB no longer commands the house.

He will then be forced to either tender the resignation of the entire Exco (including himself) or to call for snap elections.

I for one, think that snap elections is a good opportunity to poll the people for their views. If the people think that you did the right thing in booting out the MB, you will be returned to power without question. However, if you did not do the right thing, then you’re in for some shit.

That’s the sticking point.

I think that PKR knows that they are not doing the right thing and they are fearful of snap polls. I think that if snap polls were to be called for, it is PKR that will suffer the wrath of the voters, and not PAS. Now I know why the UMNO rejects joined PKR.

Even if they kick him out of the party, he would still be the MB as there is no recognition of political parties under the Law. If PR chooses to get the Sultan involved in replacing the MB (ala Perak), they will lose all moral authority in that case as they demonstrate just how low they will stoop to get shit done.

They can choose to do the right thing by simply letting things be.

Yes, they now have a rogue MB in their midst but until he does something that is actually wrong, they do not have any reason to remove him. In fact, most quarters seem to think that he is doing things right.

Personally, I think that he’s doing the right thing by doing the right thing and not consulting with the component parties. I have personally always been against the idea of decision making through consensus. That just encourages irresponsible decision making as nobody is held to account.

With a rogue MB in town, the MB is held to account. If things go wrong, he will have nobody to back him up and nobody else to blame. Therefore, he will have to be held responsible for his actions. Personally, I think that will encourage better behaviour.

Personally, I hope that the MB fights this tooth and nail. While I do not deny that the political parties have a role to play and the MB can be replaced, I fervently hope that they actually use the Law to do it correctly.

No closed-door shenanigans please.

PS: Please stop making unfounded accusations against the MB. If there is a clear back-room deal with regards to his debts, show the public the evidence. Then if snap polls are called, the people will back you. However, the replacement had better be cleaner than Khalid!

Agreement Disclosure – Non!

This article first appeared on DNA.

THE non-disclosure agreement (NDA) has come to be known as the ‘Silicon Valley Handshake,’ and is now de rigeur in our local industry, especially when dealing with technology companies.

It is often signed right after exchanging our salam (greetings), before any serious business is done.

Over the years, I have developed a certain disdain for the venerable NDA and I now refuse to sign any, as a matter of general principle. Needless to say, I have lost some valuable business due to this as it is often considered sine qua non in commercial relationships with certain types of companies.

And it seems that I’m not alone in this. IBM refuses to sign one unless it is required to receive specifically identified confidential information, while Intel and Microsoft include clauses that exclude from the NDA any information that their employees manage to keep in their heads.

But my personal bias aside, there are some real issues to think about when one is considering whether to sign an NDA or otherwise.

First is the issue of practicality.

When I released my first product in the late 1990s, I was advised to get everyone to sign an NDA before showing it to them. This is what a lot of startups do these days too. I was told that this would help to protect my intellectual property.

Not knowing any better, I blindly followed the practice.

Later, I learned how silly this was as it is impractical for me to enforce the NDA anyway, due to a lack of financial means.

I also learned that business relationships are built on trust. The NDA does not build trust but actually erects hurdles to idea exchange and increases the cost of information management.

Besides lawyers, I do not know of anyone who actually thinks that it is ever a good idea to enforce an NDA in a costly legal battle. It is well known that prevention is better than cure. Therefore, the best way to protect truly confidential data is to, simply, never reveal it.

Second is the issue of legality.

As someone reading law, I have learned that a mere NDA is not enforceable as it often lacks legal consideration – a required element for any enforceable contract. In legal parlance, consideration in this case means receiving something for a promise to keep the secret.

As an example, a legally enforceable NDA is one that a new employee signs at point of hire because he or she receives a job for a promise to keep the secret. But one that is signed after the person is gainfully employed is not usually enforceable unless there is additional consideration given to the employee.

Therefore, asking a potential investor to sign one before a product pitch and getting an external consultant to sign one before preliminary discussions are two situations where the NDA is not enforceable for want of consideration.

Third, an NDA may force the signee to violate fiduciary duties.

This is true for company directors under S.132 of our Companies Act 1965. Amongst other things, it requires a director to consider only the interests of the company alone and no one else, not even personal interests, when exercising his duties.

A company director who signs an NDA can be caught in a situation arising out of a conflict between the company interests and the NDA signed with another company. In such a situation, said director can be sued as a result of not acting in the best interest of the company.

This is also true for consultants. It goes without saying that professionals, such as engineers, owe a duty of care to our clients foremost amongst others, but a consultant will have other clients in the future, often the competitors of their current client as they are operating in the same sphere or industry.

A consultant who signs an NDA can be caught in a situation of conflict between the interests of their future clients and the NDA signed with the current client. They can then be sued by their future clients under negligence for not providing a professional standard of service.

I’d also like to highlight that a registered engineer can get deregistered under S.15 of our Registration of Engineers Act 1967 for a disgraceful act, which includes things like revealing client secrets.

Therefore, an NDA actually creates a no-win scenario for the signee, such as registered professionals and company directors, or anyone else who owes a fiduciary duty to another.

In conclusion, I personally think that NDAs are a silly thing to have and the distasteful practice should be discontinued. In most situations, it is neither legally nor practicably enforceable. It is much better to never reveal trade secrets or to get all intellectual property properly registered and protected.

A good recommendation is that one should only sign an NDA if, and only if, the other party signs an agreement indemnifying the signee against all future lawsuits arising from a conflict between the NDA and any future agreements or fiduciary responsibilities. Personally, I like this idea.

As per my usual disclaimer, I am not a lawyer.

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Examine, Evaluate, Estimate

I recently read that the new Form 3 exams are going to be called PT3 – Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3. As far as I understand it, taksir means to estimate. Checking the DBP dictionary, it seems that I am not wrong in saying that one of the meanings of taksir is anggar or estimate.

So, we’ve moved from examinations, to evaluations and finally to estimations. Whomever came up with the idea for PT3 deserves a medal. I can imagine all the jokes that the kids are going to crack about their PT3 results – merely an estimate.

The idea of decentralisation is great, assuming that we have the system in place to manage it. Otherwise, it is just going to be abused by the schools to improve their own rankings by ensuring that everyone scores. It’s a win-win situation.

This is probably why they’re calling it an estimate – because the results are not accurate as they’re subject to what the teacher had for breakfast that day. A student’s results will vary depending on which school they were enrolled in.

In order to moderate and mitigate such problems, teachers need to be transferred regularly. This is the same system that I always use to moderate marks when judging national/international competitions.

The typical way of doing judging at these competitions is to break the teams up into groups and have each group judged by a different panel of judges. The judges then select the best from each group and then filter out which ones are the winners. If necessary, the finalists are called for another round of judging.

Much like the World Cup, actually.

However, this results in a lot of favouritism as each panel will have their favourites and will try to stick to their favourites. This is what I’ve seen every time I conduct judging at these competitions. To solve the problem, I rotate the judges at the group stage.

As a result, there are no fixed panels and every judge sees a different set of teams. So, it’s not easy for anyone to hold onto their favourites. We’ll still need to find the best teams from each group, but the judges in each group are now rotated – and moderated.

So, I’ll recommend a similar system be used for PT3 – that teachers are rotated regularly so that they do not keep to their favourites. At the very least, their exam papers should be divided into groups and marked by teachers from different schools.

But this is just going to complicate things and I doubt that the MOE has the resources to coordinate such things.

Good luck to those taking their PT3 this year though. It’s tough being the guinea pigs.

Disoriented Musings of a Technology Romantic


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