Why STEM needs more than pink lego and 'girl power'

Few would argue against more young girls studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. Statistics show employment in the sector is dominated by men at all levels, from education to boardrooms.

According to Professionals Australia, in 2011 only 28 per cent of employed STEM-qualified Australians over 15 are women, compared with 55 per cent in all tertiary qualified fields.

"If we truly want girls to participate in STEM and encourage them to explore these fields, they need to feel part of a community with girls and boys, together as equals."
Carina Parisella, Business Enablement Manager in Technology, Services and Operations

In information technology it sits at 25 per cent women, while in engineering it is a mind-boggling 14 per cent. A similar disparity is reflected around the world.

Since then though, the business community has fought back, with many companies including ANZ running and supporting education and participation programs aimed at addressing the issue.

One such program is Robogals, an international not-for-profit organisation which aims to increase female participation in STEM through the application of fun and educational initiatives for girls in both primary and secondary school.

I have recently had the pleasure of working with the incredibly talented and dedicated team from Robogals Monash.

What I love about Robogals is it isn’t just about a bunch of girls getting together playing with pink lego screaming “girl power”. It made me realise when we talk about women in leadership or women in STEM we often jump straight into female-only events and networking sessions.

Instead, if we truly want girls to participate in STEM and encourage them to explore these fields, they need to feel part of a community with girls and boys, together as equals. And we need to start early.

Why STEM needs more than pink lego and girl power

Not early enough

In my view, these types of educational opportunities don’t start early enough. Some experts in Australia have called for special education for children as young as kindergarten age.

How are we meant to encourage youngsters to be innovative and learn these types of skills if we only offer electives later in high school?

Sadly more often than not teenage girls don’t feel welcome in STEM classrooms.  It’s simply too late or not ‘cool’ enough by then.

The sector has a huge incentive to get these programs right. According to Neustar president and CEO Lisa Hook, getting more girls into STEM is vital for the health of the industry and even the broader economy.

In the US the surging demand for skilled technology workers will leave the country without enough graduates to fill even 30 per cent of those jobs.

In Australia, the government’s chief scientist says 75 per cent of the fastest-growing occupations in the world society now require STEM skills and knowledge.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Fun times

As a sector, we need to start getting kids in STEM early and we need to make it fun. We need to invite young people like university students and others kids can relate to, to encourage children to be involved. Companies like ANZ have a responsibility – and strong corporate incentive - to help.

When we run speaker events and panel discussions, why aren’t we encouraging more young people to get involved and speak up?

I’m personally on a mission to start introducing young people at our ANZ events – we can learn just as much from them as they can us.

Finally, companies like ANZ need to continue to build partnership ecosystem with initiatives like Robogals to ensure the best results. We cannot solve these problems alone.

Carina Parisella is Business Enablement Manager in Technology, Services and Operations at ANZ. Twitter: @CarinaParisella

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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