How can we encourage more females to enter STEM area studies and careers?

From theSSA December 2015 Newsletterby Marie-Louise Rankin, edited by Sonia Langford, speech below by Claudia Kos

I recently had the opportunity to attend a public speaking event for high school students organised by UN Youth Voice (https://unyouth.org.au/event/voice-qld/). Sitting for three hours in a lecture hall listening to speeches given by students from year 7 to year 10, you can’t help but let your mind wander from time to time. However, one speech topic that made me think about other things, in this case my work, was “How can we encourage more females to enter STEM area studies and careers?”. Several other female students also spoke about their love for numbers and their aptitude for anything to do with maths, and the fact that they were the only females in their respective coding classes. One student used an example from the TV series “The Big Bang Theory”, where the academic girls are portrayed as nerdy and not so attractive, whilst the non-academic girls are the “hot” ones. If this is how academically inclined females are viewed, no wonder that most high school girls shy away from STEM area subjects.

Whilst I understand that it can be difficult to get some girls to believe in themselves enough to take up these subjects, I do feel that the female population is quite substantially represented amongst our members and at our statistical conferences. When I look out from my SSA stand at the different Australian Statistical Conferences that I have attended over the years, it always fills me with pride for my gender when I see the (attractive!! Hello Big Bang!) women there.

On the way out after the above mentioned speeches, I started chatting with the mother of one of the girls who had spoken about girls taking up STEM area studies. She gave me her card and I emailed her some information on careers in statistics. When the mother replied to my email she told me that she and her daughter had had no idea about the vast career opportunities that a qualification in statistics offers. To me that shows that the school which the girl attends has not done an adequate job in educating students in the career choices available to those who love maths. It also shows an opportunity where the SSA could play a greater role – spreading the word on what statistics is all about and the many faces it can have. Peter Howley and Michael Martin of the SSA Statistical Education section have made a fantastic start with the High School Poster Competition – now in its second year (http://www.statsoc.org.au/events/ssai-events/national-statistical-literacy-project/). I tried to get my children’s high school involved with this event and sadly never received a reply to my email, but I will try again next year.

Another initiative is the A$22M partnership launched in April 2015 by BHP Billiton and the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI).This aims to increase the representation of women in the field of mathematics, by influencing the perception of mathematics amongst girls and young women (http://www.bhpbilliton.com/investors/news/the-bhp-billiton-foundation-helps-girls-to-choose-maths). The funding will be provided by the BHP Billiton Foundation over five years. It is expected to go some way towards addressing a decline in Australians studying maths and entering STEM related careers.

In terms of positive role models, our former member Inge Koch, Executive Director for AMSI, is leading the Choose Maths program, building on her passion for engaging girls and young women in her love for mathematics. She is an inspiration to girls who love maths.

Another inspiration for these girls is Nalini Joshi. In October this year, Nalini was recognised as a “Woman of Influence” on the 2015 Australian Financial Review-Westpac 100 Women of Influence list. As a Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow and the first female professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, Nalini is not just a passionate advocate of her discipline, but would like others to embrace maths just as she does: “I would like to tell everyone how human mathematics is. It is not an esoteric and elitist pursuit, but a beautiful creation of the human mind, which has turned out to be useful in all walks of life.” (Indian Link – http://www.indianlink.com.au/women-of-influence/).

I think this is a wonderfully positive note on which to end this newsletter and the year 2015. I wish all our members the very best for the festive season, safe travels if you are going away and some quality time with your loved ones.

PS: Here is the speech that impressed me and made me think about our female members. It was written and presented by Claudia Kos, a year 9 student at St John’s College, Nambour. Claudia was successful with this speech and became one of 16 semi-finalists at the UN Youth Voice Public Speaking Event. Her speech is food for thought and should inspire all of us to have more discussions with our daughters, nieces and friends about the possibilities out there for everyone:

How can we encourage more females to enter STEM area studies and careers?

I am a girl. I also love maths and science. But I am a girl and these areas in education and the workforce are still male dominated. Why should I limit myself? Or allow others to limit me? Because I am a girl?

My name is Claudia and I go to St Johns College.

I am here to talk about encouraging more females to enter in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, or STEM for short.

Here are some facts:

  • In 2011, only 28% of STEM employees were female.
  • Only 33% of tertiary qualifications were awarded to females in STEM fields.
  • In 2013, less than 7% of female Year 12 students studied an advanced mathematics subject.
  • Of the 27 students in my graphics class, there are only 5 girls – including me.

There are many limitations on females choosing STEM subjects and careers. They start almost from birth. Although women have come a long way, from a young age there is still stereotyping, negative perceptions and bias against girls having interest in, and entering, STEM areas.

The causes are deep in our culture.

As a Year 9 student, I see many of the girls my age already tuned out of STEM subjects and careers. Research shows, even in university and into a STEM career, the barriers and bias continue.

These barriers also hurt the Australian economy. We think differently from men, and diversity is key to Australia becoming a world leader.

We are a technology driven society and, if we are losing roughly half of our trained workforce and not utilizing their potential expertise, we lose competitiveness and future prosperity.

Much has been done to tackle the issue by government, organizations and professional bodies.

The Government allocated 12 million dollars into improving the quality of STEM subjects in schools in this year’s federal budget.

Google Australia announced a 1 million dollar fund to help 10,000 young people consider STEM careers.

Engineers without Borders Australia is expanding its STEM and computer science focused training to 5,000 young people, with a particular focus on young women.

There are many similar initiatives out there.

Despite all this, research shows the number of people in STEM is declining.

The solution I propose is a national advertising campaign under a unique, easily recognised logo.

For the campaign to be successful, it requires an emotive approach. It will have slightly different messages and deliveries for four key groups – teenagers, people in STEM, parents and teachers of children and the general public.

Teenagers live in the social media era and would be best reached through social media campaigns similar to US’s #runlikeagirl.

This flips a common phrase on its head.

People in STEM need a reminder that we support, encourage and are proud of what they are doing. This can be done with a campaign with STEM women sharing their experiences and achievements.

Parents and teachers of children could be reached through a campaign modelled on Ver-i-son and Maker’s “inspire her mind”. An emotional campaign, such as this, that hits home is vital for success.

A campaign for the general public to spread awareness and help stop unconscious bias about genders in STEM is essential.

The biggest hurdle is funding. We need federal politicians and professional STEM bodies on board. The federal Office of Women in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet could coordinate.

I hope, little by little:

  • That maybe more girls enrol in my graphics class.
  • That maybe the statistics will be different.
  • That maybe Australia becomes a leader in innovation.

But I am just a girl, and these are just ideas. But this is a real issue facing Australia today.

 

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