The STEM sell to Girls

27 March 2017 By Will Brodie

Image Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC
Image Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC

Have you ever met a female astronomer? A woman working as an industrial engineer? A girl coding?

Not many of us have, because the gender gap in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is immense, and growing.  

Halt and Catch Fire, an engaging US drama about two women running a gaming company in the 1980's, is bringing this subject to the fore.  The show is based on fact; there were more females working in computer science 35 years ago than there are today.

In 2011, only 28% of those employed in STEM fields in Australia were women. In engineering and related technologies, tertiary enrolments are 84.7% male.

But technology is not an innately male domain. For example, girls like maths as much as boys and are just as good at it. In the paper Busting Myths about Women in STEM, The Office of the Chief Scientist concluded that the problem is that “false perceptions are holding back science and society”.

So how do leaders bridge the gap?

1. Change attitudes

Psychologist Sapna Cheryan found that “gender gaps in computer science and engineering are a result of a masculine culture… environments that foster a greater sense of belonging and ability to be successful in boys than they do in girls.”

Erin Stewart writes that “Both students and teachers need to stop believing the stereotype that girls are not good at maths, and reject the stereotype that computer scientists are socially awkward young men who are naturally gifted (and haven't worked hard for their success).”

2. Educate the educators

Busting Myths about Women in STEM concludes: “To progress, we need to adopt education practices that encourage girls to feel more comfortable and confident engaging with mathematics”. 

Technology blogger Cassie Phillips insists that parents, educators and industry must “actively encourage” young women. Girls need role models in STEM because “you can’t be what you don’t see”.

In tertiary education, only 17% of senior positions are held by women. Professor Nalini Joshi, co-chair of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot program, says academia must provide more job security and workplace flexibility.

"Changing this situation is about local actions at all levels… this is not just an issue for women, it's an issue for the whole of society and science," she told the ABC.

3. Targeted the willing

Women are not waiting for institutions and attitudes to change.

Girl Geeks Sydney offers Girl Geek Dinners, a networking group for women in IT, and a free ‘Hackathon’ at which women meet to engage in collaborative computer programming. They’re aligned with Women Who Code, a global non-profit organisation dedicated to “inspiring women to excel in technology careers”.

In Melbourne, a local branch of Girls in Tech has attracted Victorian government support to focus on the “engagement, education and empowerment of women in digital technology”. Run by industry professionals volunteering their time and sponsored by major companies, it provides free services like the Global Classroom Program, which provides structured courses and mentorships.

Code the Future, Tech Girls Movement, and Rails Girls Summer of Code all seek to empower, teach and connect women interested in IT, and raise awareness of their feats. TGM distributed the Tech Girls Are Chic book free schoolgirls free, and run competitions promoting ‘Tech Girl Superheroes’.

At the top end of town, the Male Champions of Change features prominent businessmen vowing to “step up beside women” to use their “individual and collective leadership to elevate gender equality as an issue”.

It is little wonder such innovative programs are flourishing. When it comes to STEM jobs, promoting diversity is pragmatic.

As Erin Stewart reminds us: “Any industry that relies on innovation benefits greatly from people who can bring different perspectives or look at problems in new ways. A lab or office filled only with men misses out on the potential insights of the other half of the population.”