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For Young Girls STEM Equality Starts at Home!

by | Mar 4, 2017 | The Agenda

This is a shout-out to the parents of girls.

Look around you right now. What do you see and what are you touching? Chances are you’re surrounded by man-made things, and you haven’t noticed in quite some time. Often, we only notice how technologically rich our world has become when things that we expect to work don’t. Like the lights.

There’s a live debate in Australia right now about what direction to go with the national grid. I don’t want to enter into that debate here. But I do want to ask the question, do you really believe that those leading the public debate actually understand the real issues and possibilities? Are there a sufficient number of Australians who understand enough about the technical issues and possibilities to hold our politicians to account? Most importantly, do you think that in time to come your daughter will be impressed by the quality of thinking that went into these critical decisions?

So take a good hard look around you and ask yourself, how much of my daily life actually relates to naturally occurring things? Our world is becoming more and more technologically rich. Entire job categories – including unexpected ones within the disciplines of law and medicine – are about to adapt or disappear under the march of technology. Effective economic, political and social participation will increasingly rely on a good grasp of technology.

In the 21st century, mastery of engineering and technology is no longer optional – even if you don’t want to be a scientist, engineer or computing professional. But – and here is the message to parents – without your active intervention, it’s likely your daughter is going to get left behind.

Young girls are opting out of science and maths classes in primary school and high school at alarming rates. So are young boys, but the situation is much more dire for young girls. According to Engineers Australia, only 6% of year 12 girls are taking the combination of classes that would qualify them to enter into engineering degrees. Nationally, fewer than 20% of engineering or computing students in university are women[2]. The numbers are worse again in the engineering and technology workforce or in the Vocational Education and Training sector. What’s even more alarming is that things aren’t really getting any better – the participation of young women in university computer science peaked in 1984!

The issue of female participation in engineering and computing is exercising the minds of all of my fellow Deans around Australia and much of the world

I’m the Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at The Australian National University. I used the phrase “man-made” in my opening paragraph. That wasn’t a thoughtless accident. The issue of female participation in engineering and computing is exercising the minds of all of my fellow Deans around Australia and much of the world. We see the current situation, we see that things are not changing fast enough and yet there’s only so much that we can do about it.

We really need the help of the parents of young girls. It doesn’t matter what she wants to do when she grows up, please let her know that she’ll need to master STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) skills no matter what.

We urge parents to encourage their daughters to push past the initial challenges when exploring and developing these skills – young women tend to have lower confidence than young men, even when they are just as competent. If your daughter is young enough, try to steer her towards toys that build confidence in STEM reasoning. Maybe even learn some new skills with her.

Young girls need role models. Sadly, there are currently very few technically-proficient women in the STEM space who stand out as guiding lights, or shining examples to girls about what is possible. There’s a glass cliff in STEM, and we all need to stop young women from taking that fall.

I encourage you to look past the issue of being “interested” in science or maths at school. Why not ask your daughter about the problems that are worrying her – climate change, clean water, cyber-bullying – and point out that solving those problems requires an understanding of science and maths, an understanding of people, and an ability to engineer solutions to these problems using technical and people skills.

Young women tend to have lower confidence than young men, even when they are just as competent

We’ve recently entered a world where the fate of politics increasingly hangs on the algorithms used by social media sites to populate your daily “news” feeds. What’s more, our globe is now so highly interconnected, that this has knock-on effects everywhere. That makes many of us instinctively uncomfortable. But how many people do you know who have the technical skills and knowledge to actively participate in changing things to create and build better outcomes? Many of us know more than a few people, who deep down inside, might feel a little bit helpless.

In this first edition of BroadAgenda, at a time when we are celebrating International Women’s Day, it’s timely to ask – what do you want for your daughter? Do you want her to master technology, or be mastered by it? Do you want her to participate in one of the greatest phases of technologically-driven transformation since electricity freed women from domestic purgatory? We, the current generation of STEM professionals, want your daughter, and many others, to join us in this grand challenge.


[1], 2015 Enrolment Data

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