Where the battle to get more women in STEM begins

Board quotas and leadership programs may be steps to address gender imbalance in STEM, but its impact will be limited unless steps are taken to address systemic issues.

As part of their Masters at Melbourne University’s Wade Institute, Madeleine Grummet and Edwina Kolomanski mapped out the typical ‘STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) journey’ for a woman.

They found there were several ‘drop-off’ points at which a woman gives up STEM as a viable career option.

But the pair found one glaring spot where the attrition rate gathers pace: secondary school.

“The drop-off becomes pronounced at secondary school when girls start making decisions about their post-school life,” Kolomanski told The Pulse.

“At that age you’re starting to select a career.”

READ: The one problem crippling Australia’s tech ambitions

There have been several efforts to encourage STEM skills and enthusiasm in primary-aged schoolchildren, but secondary school is where the rubber meets the road.

Once the pair had zeroed in on the secondary school black spot, they started to come up with a solution.

The GirledWorld summit

The #GirledWorld summit, running this weekend is the pair’s response.

The two-day summit will seek to inspire young women with both TED-style talks from female STEM leaders.

They’ll also be given hands-on experience with STEM technologies, while being exposed to concepts such as lean and agile.

“We thought if we could create an intervention at that early attrition phase, we could bring the numbers up at the end of the pipeline,” said Grummet.

“It’s about equipping girls with the mindset they need, the role models they need, and the tools they need.”

MYOB will support the event by sending a team of User Experience (UX) engineers to give students an insight into UX and life in STEM.

READ: How UX designers are shaping modern reality

Identifying the influencers

When Grummett and Kolomanski identified secondary students as a key ‘intervention point’, they also asked why young women elected to drop STEM at this stage.

The research found that family heavily influenced young women, so parents have been invited to the second day of the summit.

“We think a shared experience is important to carry conversations around career decisions beyond the summit,” said Kolomanski.

If they can inspire a conversation between parents and children, the child will be more likely to pursue further opportunities.

The pair also identified peers as a key influence group.

“We know that girls are pack animals, and they like doing what others are doing,” said Kolomanski.

“If other girls in your network dropping out of STEM subjects…it makes it harder for them to stay in those classes.”

A a lack of female role models in STEM leadership turned out to be another influencing factor.

“They largely indentify celebrities as leaders,” said Kolomanski, “not female CEOs.”

But the pair said the summit this weekend was only part of the journey for GirledWorld. They are developing a global mentorship program and educational resources.

“We want to build a pipeline and develop an ongoing point of engagement between the STEM sector and these girls,” said Grummet.

“We need to shape mindsets early…so we don’t have all these systemic issues that will keep cycling through generation after generation,” added Kolomanski.