It’s no secret that the technology sector has a gender diversity problem. In Australia alone, less than a third of STEM university graduates are women, and the problem only increases by the time graduates get jobs, with women making up just 12% of the engineering workforce and only 28% of ICT workers. These numbers reflect a similar story worldwide, indicating that there is still significant work to be done to achieve equality for women in STEM industries.
So, why does diversity matter?
Diversity isn’t just good socially, it’s also good for business. A 2015 McKinsey report studied 366 public companies across a variety of industries from countries all over the world, and found that gender-diverse companies were 15% more likely to outperform less diverse companies. Not only this, but ethnically diverse companies were 35% more likely to outperform those that weren’t. This is precisely why companies should take diversity seriously – and why Vodafone is committed to leading the way in gender equality as a company.
STEM jobs are growing – so a lack of diversity is a huge problem for the future employment of women, and for men who work in these industries too. It’s an economic imperative that we find ways to engage more women in science and tech so that Australia can bridge the skills gap for these roles.
Driving change through a movement
The gravity of this problem in Australia is one of the reasons why Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen was inspired to start the Tech Girls Movement – a non-profit organisation that aims to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM, and inform them of the options that are available. The organisation’s overall goal is to engage 10,000 girls in STEM entrepreneurship by 2020.
One of the key barriers to getting more women involved in STEM is that girls are drawn away from science and technology at an early age. For instance, a recent survey conducted by Microsoft suggests that young women become interested in STEM at the age of 11, but start dramatically losing interest at about 15. Dr. Beekhuyen proposes that we’ve got to start encouraging them early.
“We have to go back to school – there’s really no other option. And because we’re losing them at such a young age, we need to give them lots of positive messages throughout their young lives to engage them in technology and STEM, and give them confidence – it’s all about confidence.”
Dr. Beekhuyzen says there are two main reasons why young girls drop off from studying or working in STEM fields: a lack of female role models and a lack of understanding of what technology people do. She suggests that some of this is largely due to stereotyping.
“You think of the geeky person you see on TV. It’s always a white nerdy guy with big coke bottle glasses, sitting in the corner with no friends – that is the image. Even being a scientist in a lab coat, that’s not appealing to a lot of women.”
To counteract this, she believes it’s important to show young girls that there are a variety of roles in tech – there’s a place for everyone. She’s been achieving this through a number of strategies, including the power of storytelling. Her book, Tech Girls are Superheroes, is now used as a resource in classrooms, career centres, and is free to order for Australian school girls.
“I think [a hard copy book] is an unusually powerful medium to get your message across. I’ve heard stories like a girl picked up our book at an expo we were at, and by the time they got home she pretty much stayed in the car – she wouldn’t get out of the car until she’d finished reading, which is awesome. It’s engaging, it’s fun, it’s about adventure – and we all like to go on adventures!”
Tech Girls are Superheroes Driving change through education
Coding is a skill that’s in high demand at the moment, and technology educator Coder Academy provides its students with the knowledge, skillsets, and industry connections they need to tackle the future of work.
Sally Browner, Educational Director of Coder Academy, believes that people who can understand the language of technology will hold the power in the future – and for the best society, it’s important that these people in power are as diverse as possible.
Embracing opportunities to learn about technology is one way to achieve this – which is why Coder Academy is about to launch their new Gen Tech bootcamp for school leavers, designed to provide students who missed out on sufficient coding and STEM training at school or university with the skills they need to pursue a STEM degree or career opportunities as a junior developer.
“I’d love to see 50% [women] in the Gen Tech, and try and look at that as a real vehicle for ‘how do we change the education system to provide opportunities for girls to build their confidence?’ A lot of the time it is a confidence issue, not a capability issue.”
However, when it comes to engaging children, and particularly young girls in STEM at school, Sally also believes that there’s an education piece to be done with parents.
“I think there’s a lot of people that don’t know what can be done, or what it is. I think there’s a massive job be done to educate parents, and what can be done as much as anything. Parents are the key ones.”
She explains that a lot of parents have the misconception that coding and tech skills are being covered off by schools and that no additional work needs to be done on their part. However, many schools are not teaching coding skills as part of the curriculum – students often have to seek this out as extra-curricular. Sally suggests that parents should start the conversation about technology at home, by teaching their kids computational or design thinking in practical situations.
“It doesn’t have to be complicated stuff, it could be paper planes, design thinking, even if you’re growing stuff – getting seeds from Bunnings, and growing them in your backyard, taking photos of it and measuring it – getting them to ask questions. Prompting them in how to filter the information and find answers themselves. I think that’s a big thing.”
What is Vodafone doing to help?
Vodafone is committed to helping close the gender gap in STEM as part of our diversity initiatives.
We’re working with Coder Academy to run a coding boot camp for high school girls called Code Next. In its inaugural year, about 60 students from Chatswood High School, Mosman High School and North Sydney Girls High School took part in the program, where students were taught the fundamentals of coding and design including HTML + CSS, and Ruby. Students were supported by two female Vodafone mentors in different STEM related roles.
We’re encouraging parents to start the conversation early with their children through our Code U program, which invites parents to learn exercises and games to share. 30 primary school aged girls attended our CodeHER event last year, a ‘bring your daughter to work’ day.
We were also a strategic partner with the Tech Girls Movement in 2017.
Ultimately, it’s important for organisations, teachers and parents to work together to recognise the contribution that women have made to STEM, and celebrate their achievements. Because as the saying goes, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’