“Made with Code”: Will girls code more now?

Google recently launched Made with Code, a 3-year $50mil. initiative to attract young women to be more excited about computer science and contribute to reducing the apparent gender gap in the tech industry. The company published its current status of diversity here at the end of May this year, saying “we’re the first to admit that Google is miles from where we want to be.”

Excerpt from a TechCrunch article:

The Made With Code website will offer resources and projects for kids to learn how to code, communities to discuss different lessons and projects with each other and mentors, as well as information about regional events. This is all in an effort to get women in the driver seat when it comes to the technology of the future.

Looking at the numbers, women have actually lost ground when it comes to getting Computer Science degrees in the U.S.

Google X EVP Megan Smith explained that there are a number of factors that can turn this around, all of which are well within our grasp. The first is to encourage young girls to try coding, even if the person doing the encouraging isn’t technical. “You don’t have to know how to code to encourage someone else to code.”

The discussion on women in tech and engineering has been going on for a bit, and according to this Quartz article which quotes the data based on a public Google Spreadsheet, “tech companies employ an average of 12.33% women engineers.” (note: the companies appear to be mostly American, if not all.)

Is this a problem? Yes. Now approximately half of university students are women for most institutions, if not more. Choosing non-engineering and science discipline is not a problem per se, but the deeper societal issue is the way that we program (no pun intended) girls since they are young, telling them that they are not good at numbers and sciences and not believing in them, consciously and unconsciously. Lacking women’s representation (along with other minorities in terms of race, sexual orientation, age, etc.) is likely to lead to lack of their presence in creative process, decision making and corporate/organizational culture, not to mention that it is more likely to have sexist environments (read this NYT article discussing sexism in tech world).

So for now, I do applaud Made with Code initiative and am very keen on observing the progress. I would be curious to know other countries’ cases, such as India where institutions like the prestigious IIT are producing massive number of talented engineers (and not to forget the discussions on gender violence and sexism are actively happening throughout the country).


Confessions of a milestone-holic: Why milestones are so overrated and just like piñatas

A few weeks back, I received an email from a familiar name, who is not my regular email buddy. He was a guy from my high school. The email was titled “Class of 2005 Update,” meaning, clearly it wasn’t targeted just at me (phew, how awkward would it have been… Although, no offense Charles, it was still heartwarming). It started like this: Can you believe we’re coming up on our 10 year reunion next year?

10 years! A decade! I had a good fortune of attending the school that one of my favorite writers, John Green who graduated in 1995. Then I thought in 2005, when he published Looking for Alaska, wow, this dude is old. And now, I’m at the age where the upcoming graduating class of 18-year-olds are gonna think, “wow, this lady is old” (although I’m hoping that the fact that I’m Asian has aged me less rapidly, and I still look just out of puberty. One could certainly hope).

The following sentences were these: “During this time several of our classmates have completed advanced degrees, represented countries in global politics, started business, and found life-long partners. We’ve gone off to do some really amazing things with our lives, and I hope we can share our stories in person at reunion next year.”

Then I just sighed. Who are these kids who became so fabulous? What the hell have I done with my life over the past 10 years? I moved around like a freaking nomad, and now I’m a… I don’t even know how to describe myself. Sometimes, I feel like, I’m just a girl, not even a full-grown adult/woman. While my head knows that I’m more than that, my heart often succumbs to the hopeless monster I raise in me.

Trust me, I know in my head I’m a valuable citizen of the world who wants to (and will eventually) change the world one by one, the feminist way, the right way. But at the end of a particularly crappy day, I feel like I’m another problematic, entitled millennial that the society sees the needs of fixing to achieve greater things, maybe transforming the education system or something that’s messed up.

My agony runs a bit deeper than a generational issue in my mind however. Being a feminist and an avid reader, of course I have read countless books and articles, from Lean In (The famous book by Sheryl Sandberg) to Recline  to Lean Out to confidence gap. And at the end of the day, the issue is that I (and many other young women) may never get to all the milestones, because I’m not Sheryl Sandberg who can afford nannies, great hairstyle and work clothes and have great, laundry-doing (and hence sexy according to her) partners, because I’m never going to have those perfect babies who eat, sleep and poop regularly (while rarely crying and start to speak 2 different languages almost as soon as they’re born), because picture perfect milestones of others on facebook (or instagram, or pinterest) are perpetually ruining my expectations of my self-image, how I see myself. I have learned how to constantly objectify myself to be a perfect worker in the office, perfect friend to my friends, and eventually amazing partner (and mother) at home.

In reality, I wolf down half a bag of corn chips for breakfast. I constantly worry that I will never be able to prove myself at work. I don’t know what to do with my hair. My bedroom looks like a Gap clearance section on Black Friday. Most of my relationships have been mixture of disasters and lame guys. And I don’t see that all these magically correcting themselves and helping me get to those milestones. I’m screwed. If I were to attend that 10th reunion, what can I tell others about who I am and what kind of milestones are under my belt?

Of course, deep down, I know that there is no answer, and that’s why I think that we should all laugh at those milestones, as feeble goals, as piñatas that we need to beat the hell out of, because we may get some sweets at the end of the constant labor, some frustration, and most importantly, laughter.

Despite the fact that “what the hell am I doing with my life?” and “what will I do with my life?” have been the two main discussion topics with my 20 and 30-something friends in any occasions (brunches, weddings, hiking…), it seems like no one real (note: exceptions are applied to Chelsea Clinton and Mindy Kaling, in my book, but they are as good as my perfect imaginary friends) knows what the right paths are to get to those milestones, and as cliché as it sounds, the paths and roadblocks and piñatas on the road are the ones that really matter. I will twist my ankles just as often as in every hike, will want to throw up and/or poop in my pants where there is nowhere discrete, and may feel like there’s no one to hold my hand whenever I’m trembling in the dark in fear. I will have to beat the hell out of the piñatas on the way whether I want to or not, while not knowing what’s really inside.

But somewhere on the path, I hope to learn what I value and what are meaningful to me. I may never become fully happy and content (oh being human!), but I will meet people who will hold my hand from time or pat me on the back with knowing smiles. Maybe on the path, I will finally learn to do what normal and responsible adults do, like ironing my work shirts, eating healthy, and being a loving and generous daughter/sister/friend/partner, etc. to those who mean so much to me.

And meanwhile, I will try to beat the piñatas as hard as possible and laugh as much as possible while doing so (and enjoy the candy of course!).

What makes a slut? The only rule, it seems, is being female (The Guardian 23/6/14)









It’s a warning more than a word: a reminder to women to adhere to sexual norms or be punished. 

By Jessica Valenti

Sandra Fluke heard it when she talked about insurance coverage for birth control. Sara Brown from Boston told me she was first called it at a pool party in the fifth grade because she was wearing a bikini. Courtney Caldwell in Dallas said she was tagged with it after being sexually assaulted as a freshman in high school.

Many women I asked even said that it was not having sex that inspired a young man to start rumors that they were one.

And this is what is so confounding about the word “slut”: it’s arguably the most ubiquitous slur used against women, and yet it’s nearly impossible to define.

The one thing we do know about “slut” is that it’s the last thing a woman should want to be. Society is so concerned over women and girls’ potential for promiscuity that we create dress codesschool curriculaeven legislation around protecting women’ssupposed purity. Conservative columnists opine that women having sex is tantamount to a “mental health crisis”, and magazine stories wonder if we’re raising a generation of “prosti-tots”.

Leora Tanenbaum, the author of SLUT! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, told me that “a ‘slut’ is a girl or woman who deviates from norms of femininity. The ‘slut’ is not necessarily sexually active – she just doesn’t follow the gender script.”

This nebulous, unquantifiable quality of the slur is what makes it so distressing – there’s no way to disprove something that has no conclusive boundaries to begin with. And because it’s meant to be more of an identity than a label, it’s a term not easily shaken off. “Slut” sticks to a person in a way that “asshole” never will.

So what makes you a slut? It seems the the only hard and fast rule is that you have to be a woman.

Men, of course, are immune – absent, really – from the frenzy of concern. For instance, a new study out of the University of Michigan showed that teen girls who “sext” are called sluts while boys who do the same remain free-from judgement. In another example, the American Medical Association breathlessly released a study in 2006 with the headline “Sex and Intoxication More Common Among Women on Spring Break”, intended to warn women about their “risky” behavior while on break – but there was nothing about the men the majority of these young women would supposedly be having all this drunken sex with.

As always, women are sluts and men are, well, men.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of being called promiscuous, it may be hard to understand just how profound an impact it can have. Women’s value and morality are closely – though wrongly – tied to their sexuality. So “slut” (or any of its variations) is an accusation with power behind it.

When multiple attackers videotaped themselves brutally raping an unconscious teen girl in California, for example – stopping to take dance breaks and find new objects to penetrate the young woman with – the first trial resulted in a hung jury because the defense argued she was promiscuous. “The things she wanted done were done”, argued one lawyer. Another asked the jury: “Why was her vagina and anus completely shaved? Sex! She’s a sexual person!”

The accusation doesn’t have to be that explicit to have real power. Cherice Moralez –raped by her 49 year-old teacher when she was just 14 – was called “older than her chronological age” by the judge in the trial – a more diplomatic way of saying she had it coming. Her attacker was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Moralez later took her own life.

Multiple girls have taken their own lives of late after being “slut-shamed” – an indication that the slur shows little sign of waning in the damage it does personally.

Tanenbaum, whose forthcoming book is I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, said that many of the girls she interviewed “had intentionally embraced the ‘slut’ label as a badge of honor to advertise their sexual empowerment.”

But, she added, “they ended up losing control of the label when their peers turned it against them”.

Broader efforts to “reclaim” the word – via marches like SlutWalks, for instance – have largely failed. While the anti-rape protests that spread across the country a few years ago were popular in terms of attendance and media coverage, and I was an early supporter, many women felt the word “slut” was irredeemable – especially women of color, for whom racist stereotypes about their supposed innate promiscuity always presented a unique danger.

The “slut” idea hurts women politically as well. A safe contraceptive and a cancer vaccine were both held up for years because of fears they would make women “slutty”, and anti-choice legislators and activists insist that that abortion providers are in the “business” of promiscuity – and use that accusation as a way to defund critical health care providers like Planned Parenthood.

So, what’s a “slut”, then? It’s any of us, and all of us – especially those of us who step out of line in some way real or imaginary. It has little to do with the number of our sexual partners, or the way we dress or flirt, or if we take birth control or not.

It’s a warning more than a word – a reminder to women that we must adhere to the narrow standards of femininity and sexuality set out for us, or be punished accordingly. And in that way, the real meaning of “slut” is terrifyingly clear.

Link: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/23/slut-female-word-women-being-female?CMP=fb_us

From Singapore to London

When I started researching Public Policy and International Development programmes in the UK, it never crossed my mind that I would apply for LSE. When I eventually filled out the applications in October, I thought “no harm trying” and submitted one to LSE apart from 5 other universities. Even then I did not imagine I would get in. I did not graduate from an Ivy League school or with a First Class degree, I did not volunteer or work in a poor or conflict area, I was not the president of a debate club, nor did I spearhead a community initiative.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why I did not apply for US universities. Master programmes in the US are typically 2 years in duration and given that I am making a career switch, I reckoned a 12-month programme was more suited to me.

By mid-November I got admitted to all of them except for LSE. At that point I was pondering between Warwick and UCL. One Saturday morning in January I woke up to the email tone of my phone. It was about 6am. I grabbed my phone, read the email, acknowledged that LSE admitted me, then went back to sleep. At 8am I woke up, realized what I read and started murmuring OMG to myself.

That could have been the most beautiful dream I ever had. But it was not a dream. Soon after emails started streaming in regarding document submission, offer acceptance, scholarship and accommodation. The offer package was mailed to me a couple of weeks later.

In retrospect I suppose these are the factors that led to my admission:

1. I applied early.
Admission to UK universities usually starts early October. I submitted my application to LSE in end October and got the result early January the next year. I guess they review the applications in batches so early applications may stand a better chance given the fewer number of competitors.

2. I wrote a candid personal statement.
I would imagine most candidates have a First or Second Class degree and impressive records of volunteer and/or extra-curricular activities, so personal statement is what makes you stand out. I don’t think mine was an outstanding one but what probably made me stick was that I wrote candidly. I did not have a challenging childhood or any “wow” factor and I did not try to “dramatize” stuffs. I was honest that I was brought up in a well-to-do loving family and was fortunate to pursue my undergraduate studies in Singapore. But I witnessed poverty in the neighbourhood and I talked about how it affected me since childhood and shaped my world views.

I also talked about my course work, essays and extra-curricular activities that demonstrated my interest in economic growth, human development, poverty and inequality. I described the skills I acquired from work and my professional achievements that I believed were highly transferable across sectors. I talked about my influencer, the challenges I would face working in development policy research and consulting in Vietnam and how I was going to tackle them (which largely mirrored the way my influencer has done). I concluded with what drew me into the university and the programme. I customized my statement for each school and included some key details of the programmes to show that I did my homework.

3. References count, too.
I started to reconnect with my dissertation advisor and a professor for whom I worked as a research assistant months before I submitted my applications. At that point I had graduated 3 years ago and I was anxious as to whether they still remembered me. Luckily they did. I asked them for advice with respect to choosing programmes and application.

I suppose working with (a) professor(s) in your undergraduate is highly useful – the connection tends to be deeper and s/he has more to write about your qualifications and qualities. Meeting your advisor frequently is crucial as well. I had fortnightly meetings with my advisor throughout my final year. Even when I did not make any significant progress in the first term, I discussed with him what I had read, my understanding of the literature, possible research methodology and how I might proceed. I reckon sharing my thought process with my advisor provided him with more inputs to write me a letter of recommendation.

4. Most importantly, aim high!
Many successful women have pointed out that women tend to think they are not qualified enough and/or they are not cut out for a particular job. In other words, as women we more often than not discount our ability, and that usually results in us failing to realize our full potential. Ultimately, we learn by doing, and by refusing ourselves an opportunity to do something we may never know how to do it. So I’d say we women should always aim higher and believe in our ability to pull things off.

Women’s rights in Vietnam

A while ago The Guardian compiled World Bank and United Nations data and created an interactive snapshot of countries’ legislation in 5 areas of women’s rights: violence, harassment, abortion, property and employment rights, discrimination and equality. Let’s take a look at Vietnam:

We fare quite well in terms of property law, abortion rights and employment rights. Our constitution explicitly recognises gender equality before the law.

women rights 5 vnwomen rights 7 vnwomen rights 4 vnwomen rights 2 vn

women rights 6 vn

However, our legislation does not address domestic violence, sexual/physical/emotional/financial abuse of women and sexual harassment in education, work and public places.

women rights 1 vnwomen rights 3 vn

Does this surprise you?

For me this is alarming given that women constitute 24% of members of our parliament.

Link: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/ng-interactive/2014/feb/04/womens-rights-country-by-country-interactive

Violence Against Women: It’s a Men’s Issue (Huffington Post 29/8/13)

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Mobina Jaffer

I recently watched a TED Talk by Jackson Katz called “Violence Against Women — It’s a Men’s Issue.” Domestic violence and sexual abuse are often called “women’s issues.” In his talk, Jackson Katz, stresses the importance of changing the way we think in order to realize that violence against women is very much a men’s issue. As a result, men play a key role in the solution to violence against women.

“Calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem,” argues Katz. “It gives a lot of men an excuse not to pay attention.” Unfortunately, placing the responsibility on the minority and forgetting about the role of the dominant group is not uncommon. When we say ‘gender’ we think of women, when we say ‘sexual orientation’ we think of gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals, and when we say ‘race’ we think of people of colour. Katz questions “Why are men, heterosexuals, and Caucasians — the dominant groups in society — exempt from these discussions?”

Violence against women is not solely a women’s issue. Katz recognizes that violence against women can have profound effects on other men and boys as well as society as a whole. Katz explains, “The same system that produces men who abuse women, produces men who abuse other men.” It is clear that this is an issue that both men and women must be engaged in.

Katz is a pioneer of the “bystander approach” to gender violence prevention. With the bystander approach, instead of seeing men as perpetrators and women as victims, or vice versa, the focus is on the bystanders. Essentially, the goal is to have anyone who is not a direct victim or a perpetrator of violence against women to stand up against it. Silence is seen as a form of consent.

When it comes to male culture, Katz stresses that the goal is to get men who are not abusive to challenge men who are. He states, “We need more men who have the courage and the strength to start standing up and saying some of this stuff. And standing with women, not against them and pretending that this is somehow a battle between the sexes and other kinds of nonsense. We live in the world together.”

One excellent example of men speaking out and being leaders in the fight against gender based violence is the White Ribbon Campaign. The campaign is dedicated to the 14 women targeted and killed in the 1989 massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. Today, the White Ribbon Campaign has spread to over 60 countries where men wear white ribbons as a pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women.

I have always been an advocate for including men and boys in ensuring women’s rights. The involvement of men is crucial to ending violence against women, yet it is not an easy task. However, adopting Katz’s bystander approach and making ALL voices heard — including those of men — in the fight to end violence against women is a critical place to start. We all must speak out to end violence against women.

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/senator-mobina-jaffer/violence-against-women-_b_3837766.html

I dream a dream

I’m probably someone you can call a planner, that is I plan ahead whenever possible. So in my third year in college, I did research on the types of jobs that might be of interest to me. My major was Economics and since I was a foreigner in Singapore, it was virtually impossible for me to work in policy, research or statistics for the government or public agencies which were what I was formally trained for. Finance was in fact a very viable option given the proliferation of multinational and local banks, investment firms, hedge funds, etc in Singapore. Let’s face it: it pays well and is considered an “esteemed” profession. So with the student loan baggage, there I went.

It was by no means a smooth journey for an introvert without a formal finance degree, especially in the midst of the Great Recession of 2008-2009. I graduated at the time when the recession was in its full swing, affecting all the major financial capitals in the world. Massive layoffs at banks and financial firms were the daily headlines. There was a hiring freeze in the industry except for some big banks and boutique firms. The central bank came up with a clever scheme: they sponsored a handful of banks to hire fresh graduates on the basis of a 1-year contract, paying each a below-average salary and banks may or may not pay an additional amount. I got into a local bank via this scheme.

My 8 months there was an eye-opener, albeit in a largely negative way. Being reprimanded by senior colleagues for simply doing your jobs collecting data from them was definitely not a pleasant experience. I told myself, that was real life and I’d rather experience shit sooner than later. I did shed a tear or two, but I tried not to let it get to me. All I could do was to make the most out of my job. Ultimately what I could control was what mattered.

One time I met with a good friend of mine and lamented about my job. She said her firm was hiring and told me to check the website. Hers was a financial data and analytics provider. And so I tried my luck although I did not meet their requirement of working experience and I knew nuts about fixed income which I was supposed to specialise in, and I got in.

My new firm was pretty cool. I worked closely with some senior colleagues who had worked there for over 10 years. They treated me as their equal and assisted me whenever they could. I could ask to talk to my bosses any time. It was something called a flat hierarchy where there was no cubicle, no corner office and no “senior” in the titles. I progressed quite fast: coordinating a group of more than 20 colleagues three months into the job and leading several projects in Asia Pacific after six months. I was selected to attend a course for potential managers after 2 years.


I never intended to make finance my career. Not even after one, two and three years at the firm. Not even as my social circle comprised of primarily bankers and financiers. Even until now I have not met my role model who has a career in Policy or International Development, but I have this probably naive belief that if I wholeheartedly set my mind on something, I will get there some day.

My dream came about in my second year when it struck me what Economics was truly about. That “enlightening” moment came when I read about Amartya Sen’s “development as freedom” framework in which he argues that development is about enhancing people’s capabilities in a number of fronts and enabling them to shape their destiny and influence the world. That said, economists’ concerns about the boom-burst cycle, inflation, unemployment, Pareto efficiency and so on are all very legitimate and crucial. But ultimately Sen’s somewhat utopian view is what we all should aim for, isn’t it? Shoot for the moon and we may land on the stars rather than doing nothing and remaining on the ground.

So even as I was anxiously looking for a job as graduation neared, I was determined to make it to the United Nations, World Bank and/or Asian Development Bank some day. I may not get there in 5, 10 or 15 years. I may not land on the “moon” at all, but the idea that I would do my very best and would eventually arrive somewhere along my dream path kept me moving forward. In other words, being a shiny tiny grain of sand amidst the vast ocean is better than not trying to shine at all.

And so after I paid off my student loan, I found myself staying up until 2, 3am several nights writing my personal statement.