Women in STEM: Interview #1

By Lisa Banti


Sorada Kanokpanont is an Associate Professor in Bio-chemical Engineering at the Chulalongkorn University of Thailand. She is 53 years old and an accomplished professor.

I spoke with her the morning of June 29th 2021. She shared interesting opinions and outlooks as answers for the questions I asked her during our interview.

“You are not defined by your gender”

What type of vision do you have for the near future, regarding gender equality in the workplace? Thailand has already progressed much more in this social aspect, compared to many Asian countries with the modernisation and implementation of gender equality in society. I wish for there to be more women in Engineering occupations and in higher job positions, administrative and policy committee wise. In my Engineering Department, there are fewer women than men and I wish for this to change. I aspire for there to be an equal number of men and women not only in my Engineering Department, but also in our society.

What do you think are the barriers that prevent from achieving gender equality in the workplace? We will achieve gender equality once we have equal opportunity, equal number, equal rights and equal treatment between the genders in the workplace and overall society. A major cause for these barriers is related to the upbringing of our youth. Many gender-related barriers and biases have declined over the years but gender stereotypes continue to create problems in the progress of women’s careers. The availability of opportunities for the career progressions of women continues to be negatively affected by gender stereotypes, which are embedded into our mindset from birth.

Gender prejudice and resulting discrimination begin in childhood. In Thailand, female and male children are brought up in different manners. From the moment they’re born, girls and boys face unequal gender norms regarding expectation, codes of conduct, and access to resources and opportunities. Gender discrimination starting in childhood continues to rob children of their childhood and limit their chances at success, disproportionately affecting the way of life women follow. This upbringing causes lifelong consequences to present and future generations – in their homes, schools, communities and work places.

For example, boys are taught to protect and provide for the family from early on. To go to school and to get and education to prepare for work, while girls are taught to prepare for heavy household responsibilities that keep them from school which later on prevents higher graduation or the possibility of preparing for work in the outside world, increasing the odds of child marriage and pregnancy.

In Thailand, gender equality is progressing. Nevertheless, many still follow a preordained mind-set where men are told to be proud, ambitious and to lead. Women are taught to have a sedentary, different role. A code of conduct is followed; one that has been passed down over the centuries, from generation to generation. They have a different value of each gender in all of Asia.

Because of this mentality and mind-set that’s been passed down, the role of men and women is well defined and clear-cut, occupations and job opportunities are also divided according to this stereotype. Some occupations are deemed suitable only for women while other occupations are thought of as suitable only for men. Skills, expertise and competence are not regarded while in a job interview, gender is. Unless these values change, there will be no way to fully achieve gender equality in Thailand, Asia or all over the world.

What does your experience amount to in working in a predominantly male workplace? Men are not dominant in all workplaces. There are many workplaces in Thailand where female employees out-number male employees. In my experience, there are two main reasons as to why the worldwide work environment is predominantly male. An example is the medical industry, where old values are still followed; where women are told that they are destined to become nurse, while men are encouraged to become doctors. While male nurses do exist, they are quite unusual to find. These values are one of the main reasons why, right now, there are only 20% of women engineers.

Other major causes are the personal relationships and connections a person has. The more connections and contacts in higher places the more opportunities open up for the person looking for to be promoted to a higher position. To gain support and favor from these contacts one has to nurture the connection through socialized activities. For example, after work, employees will go drinking with their colleagues and boss to gain their favor. In my opinion, the majority of women don’t do this enough. Like myself, I just go home after work. I think it’s more likely for a male employee to seek the favor of their boss by doing various activities with and/or for them – like playing golf or drinking beer.

From my time here, I’ve noticed that in chemical engineering, some of the job opportunities we receive, require us to go to more isolated locations, like the Middle East. When announcing these job opportunities, the employers ask specifically for male employees. Their general explanation is that women are not suited for the job because it’s in a dangerous place and therefore will be dangerous to them. I think they exclude women from these job opportunities because they do not want to pay more for extra security. I believe that this is wrong, and that instead of restricting these job offers to only male employees, they improve their workplace safety so that these opportunities are available to both genders.

What role do you think women should play in STEM? In STEM, which represents Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; we will think of the role both genders should play, not only women or men. Everyone should have the same role in STEM. I think parents should give equal opportunities to their children by raising them unbothered by old traditions. Traditions dictate that a man shouldn’t wash dishes but instead prepare for work, or that a woman shouldn’t study but instead stay home and learn how to sew and knit. I think parents should raise and educate their children equally and teach them to respect and be considerate equally to both men and women.  Both genders should be given equal opportunities.

Being an engineer, I think that as a father or mother we have a greater ability to educate our children on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I strongly believe that if the enthusiasm of teaching STEM to our children was the same for educating gender equality, we’d have progressed farther by now.

This change must start from within families, then spread to kindergarten schools and primary schools. Teachers must be appropriately trained to educate students about gender equality. For teachers to be trained, the government must take charge and be aware of the issue concerning gender equality. All these factors, if well applied, should create a chain reaction leading to an increase in gender equality in our future society. Through all of our efforts to achieve gender equality over decades and centuries, I believe that the reason we haven’t been able to progress at all is because we haven’t tried to eradicate the problem from its foundation. The base of prejudice, gender stereotype and discrimination is tradition.

Have you seen or experienced a difference in the way you are treated, while working as a woman in an academic environment and/or in industrial companies? Working in the economic sector, I don’t experience differences in treatment in respect to men. However, some of my female students, who work in the industrial sector, miss some promising job announcements because most specify that they require men. Sadly, we don’t have a law that opposes to this sort of thing. However, the number of female and male labor workers, in factories in Thailand provides a different perspective. There, many Thai women are working very hard to procure a living, but unlike female workers in the industrial and economic sectors, reaching a higher position job is even more difficult. Not many women are in high positions now, job-wise. The reason for this is that not many young women have the resources or opportunities to access higher education.

Do you remember what profession you wanted to pursue when you were a teenager like me now? I had always wanted to become a scientist, an inventor. I am very lucky to be able to work my dream job. I have a lot of freedom in my work. I don’t have a boss, but many tasks and responsibilities.

I want to add, that there’s an example of the progress of gender equality in our University. Out of 20 presidents, we have 1 female president. Although the difference in numbers is immense, this is still progress. The reason for this sole female lead isn’t because we don’t have many female faculty members, it is because of her ambition, hard work and drive that she was able to reach this high position job. This woman made the choice to fight for this position and to not settle for the title of professor. Statistically speaking, where 9 men apply for a job position, only 1 woman will apply. The statistics aren’t in our favor.

That is all I have to say about the process towards achieving gender quality in Thailand. It is a slow process, especially in this part of the world, the Asian world. Because of the deeply rooted beliefs we have, it takes us longer to adapt to change. But we are working very hard to change this. Soon enough, with the help of the government there will be visible change. Hopefully.