In 1990, the buzz around STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) just didn’t exist. When I was doing my HSC, my subjects were all humanities. Lots of English and history broken up with a bit of French. For me, it was a dream. No science and maths – subjects that I was quite average at but most importantly subjects I really didn’t like!
Was I an example of gender stereotyping? Was I responding to societal expectations that girls are ‘better with words’ and more communicative, and boys are more naturally talented at maths and science? Or was it just simply that I loved English and history more? So many questions…
Research Shows Few Women Involved in STEM Industries
Fast forward to 2017 and the educational landscape has definitely changed. Our girls have benefitted from the hard work of their feminist sisters including Germaine Greer and are far more empowered than their mothers. But there is still work to be done. A detailed report into STEM by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel in 2016 shows that just one third of STEM university graduates are women. And even worse, of the 2.3 million STEM-qualified Australians, only 16% are women – with the engineering industry showing even lower rates of participation.
As a society, we’re genuinely starting to embrace that we need to get more women involved in STEM FAST. There is a new-found awareness that it is time to rid our society of the job role gender biases and stereotypes that have pervaded our thinking over previous generations, and robbed our STEM industries of the valuable contribution women can make.
So, what are we doing?
Science and Technology Australia (STA), Australia’s peak science and technology body, is a great example of what we are doing to fix this problem and promote equal representation of men and women in STEM. In its Superstars of STEM program, STA is working with 30 of Australia’s most respected female scientists and technologist to create positive role models for young women and girls.
Organisations like Tech Girls Movement, Women In STEMM Australia, Code the Future, and the Rails Girls Summer of Code are also working hard to inspire and encourage women and young girls into STEM and support them along the way.
What Can We Do as Parents?
There are many organisations, schools and government bodies that are to be commended for seizing the STEM baton and running hard to try and address the gender imbalance. But that’s not the end of the story. As parents, we need to address this issue at the coalface – in our own homes. Here are my top 10 tips to help you get started:
1. Choose Your Words Carefully So You Don’t Create Any Limits
Words are so powerful!! So please ensure you don’t impose any limits or include any bias in your conversations with your girls. When discussing future education or career opportunities with your daughters, don’t direct them into ‘female friendly options’ thinking you are doing them a favour. Focus on their interests and dreams!
2. Encourage an Enquiring Mind
Do NOT dismiss the copious amount of questions your girls ask. Breathe deeply if you need to and help them find the answers. Go to the library, Google it together or maybe do an experiment at home to find the answer.
3. Go on Lots of Science and Technology Excursions
Fill the weekends and school holidays with trips to the zoo, dam, pond, museum or aquarium. Why not visit a planetarium or organise a road trip to visit a giant telescope or observatory? Mudgee in Central West NSW has a great Observatory, Wollongong on the South Coast of NSW boasts an impressive Planetarium and Science Centre and the Siding Springs Observatory in Coonabarabran in NSW is also an excellent places to enthuse your aspiring scientist. And if you want to engage in a little NASA history, then the CSIRO telescope in Parkes or the Honey Suckle Springs site near Canberra should be top of your list!
4. Get a Science and Robotics Club Happening
If there isn’t already a science and/or robotics club happening at your girls’ school then make this happen. Get to the P&C meetings, meet with the principal, do whatever you need to make this happen.
5. Invest in Some Engaging Science Books – Both Fiction and Non-Fiction
Fiction is a fabulous way to weave in some positive female science and technology messages. Check out this list of great fiction books that star girls and women who love science and technology. But don’t forget about non-fiction books. As tweens and teens, my boys all adored the wonderful Bill Bryson’s engaging science picture book A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. One of my best investments ever!
6. Surround Your Kids with Positive Female Role Models
Exposing your girls to strong, female role models is essential. Take them to female doctors and dentists. Pepper the dinner conversations with stories of successful female scientist – check out the Superstars of STEM page for loads of inspiration.
7. Seek Our Movies with Positive Female Role Models
Mix up your Friday Movie Nights with movies and tv series that celebrate strong empowered women. Suffragette (2015) is an amazing film as is 2016’s Hidden Figures that celebrates the story of 3 African American female mathematicians who work for NASA in the 1960’s. Also check out The Bletchley Circle television series that focuses on 4 female code-breakers who worked at Bletchley Park during the 1950’s.
8. Shake Off Gender Stereotypes at Home
Why not get your daughters involved in ‘handyperson’ work at home? And how powerful would it be if they could see their mother changing lightbulbs, painting furniture or undertaking small repairs? It would definitely stop the formation of traditional gender roles in their tracks. And with the increasing trend of ‘lady tradies’, why not weave the possibility of a career as a tradesperson into conversation? Remember, no limits!!
9. Find your Science-loving Teen a Mentor
If your teenage daughter is showing an interest in engineering, find her a mentor. Contact your local university and get in contact with one of the Engineering clubs who would be more than happy to assist.
10. Include Science Kits and Construction Blocks in your Toybox
If your kids still have a toy box, ensure you have a broad range of toys on offer. Include construction toys alongside Barbies. Why not choose a Science Kit as a birthday present?
And Why Should We Bother?
Firstly, there’s not scrap of evidence that girls are less capable in the areas of STEM. Any belief that this is the case is based on stereotyping and bias. As the Chief Scientist said in his 2016 report:
‘…maths ability is not determined biologically by sex…girls and boys have vastly different attitudes to studying mathematics; more girls tend to be fearful and cautious while more boys are confident.
‘During secondary school, a gender gap in self-concept emerges; many girls perceive they have less ability than their achievements warrant, in comparison to boys with the same scores.’
Secondly, the lack of women in STEM creates a bias or lack of true gender representation in research and analysis. A gender balanced research team would be more likely to address this. The current lack of women also transpires into fewer female role models both for existing female STEM employees and for girls still forming their career choices.
And finally, with STEM tipped to be the jobs growth sector of the future, who would want their daughter to miss out?? STEM graduates are in huge demand with many students being scooped up by the major tech companies even before they finish TAFE or university. Many cyber security experts believe this skills shortage is making Australia more vulnerable to a large scale cyberattack.
So, let’s get to it people. Let’s inspire our girls to take on the world of STEM, help keep us safe and make their mark on the world!