06 July 2016

Encouraging women in STEM—it starts young

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There’s no denying the strong impact that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions will have in the future. We’re watching the world around us become more and more digitalized, and these new technologies require people to invent and maintain them. According to a report released by the UN Women: National Committee Australia, in the future 9 out of 10 jobs will require STEM skills. With women only making up 16% of the 2.3 million STEM qualified Australians, it’s clear that we’re going to leave a major group behind unless we act now.

To close this gap, we need to start by encouraging young girls to study STEM. From a young age on, girls are exposed to stereotypes which negatively associate women with STEM subjects. And these words have a drastic effect—there have been multiple studies which have shown that women perform worse on standardized math tests after they are made to feel more aware of their gender. These stereotypes also lead to a lack of enrolment in STEM courses: only 6.6% of all female Year 12 students in Australia studied an advanced mathematics subject in 2013.

How do we counter this? Well, conversely, girls in STEM subjects perform at equal levels to boys when they’re exposed to positive reinforcements of their abilities.

Positive reinforcements need to start young, in order to counter these early negative stereotypes.
One way this support can be provided is through mentors. Mentors are important at any stage of life—but especially when you’re young. As a young woman who has taken many math and science classes, I can personally say how impactful my teachers and parents were with their mentorship. I had a couple of really great science and math teachers in adolescence who kept me challenged and engaged. They encouraged me to take advanced science and math classes, provided support when I dealt with roadblocks, and overall reassured me that I could succeed.

The role of “mentor” for young women like me isn’t reserved for only other women, I’d like to add. Men play an equally important role in empowering women in STEM. Whether it’s in the classroom or in the workplace, we’ll need everybody to work together if we want to effectively counter the negative stereotypes working against young girls.

Want to learn more about how you can be a better mentor to young women in STEM? Don’t miss Norman Gray’s (CEO, Box Hill Institute) “Mentoring for success” session in Akolade’s upcoming Boosting Women in STEM conference on the 28th-30th of September in Sydney. 

Sydney is from the United States and is spending her American summer /Australian winter working as a Marketing Intern at Akolade. In a few months she’ll start her third year at the University of Michigan and is working towards a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies. After she graduates, she’s hoping to work in consulting or marketing, but still isn't quite sure what she wants to be when she grows up.

This is Sydney’s first time in Australia, and she’s been surprised that people haven’t laughed at her name more. So far, she’s adjusting to the slight cultural differences (Australian coffee is better, some words are spelled a tad differently, and “carryout” food is called “takeaway” food). She’s excited to be working with the marketing team at Akolade and continuing her business education outside of the classroom.

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