Speaker by Various Artists

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Women, science and superheroes

by Alyona Medelyan

In August last year, I attended the Women in Innovation Summit organized by the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women. We discussed various issues that prevent women from choosing careers in technology, and from advancing their careers. But what touched me the most were facts mentioned by two of the speakers.

Frances Valentine, the founder of The Mind Lab, said that hardly any girls are enrolled in their after-school robotics classes, instead they do design and art. The sad fact is that this divide happens as early as four years old. Girls’ mums decide that “techie” things are not appropriate for their daughters, simply because this is something they are not familiar with themselves.

Hon Jo Goodhew, Minister of Women’s Affairs, revealed a shocking statistic that came from surveying New Zealand schoolgirls about their future career plans. The top two most-desired careers are airhostess and hairdresser. The lack of ambition is disheartening, and it comes most likely from the fact that these girls have not been exposed to other possible career choices and have not been encouraged by their mothers to achieve more.

I decided to do something about this. Together with The Mind Lab and Futureintech, an organisation that promotes careers in food technology, biomedical engineering, software development and forensic science, we have come up with a concept for an educational career event called “STEAM ahead”

STEAM is a variation on the commonly used acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), which adds an “A” as in “Arts” in between these fields. Girls excel at many fields that fall into the Arts category, and if they combine these skills with Science, Technology or Engineering, this will open up more career choices for them. My personal career in a field called Natural Language Processing is based on studying both Linguistics (I hold a Master of Arts) and Computer Science. Apple has used a creative industrial design strategy to create products people love using. Girls need to be aware of ways to combine their strengths in careers that are future-proof.

The “STEAM ahead” events don’t just educate girls, but also their mothers about such career opportunities. The tag line is “Bring Your Mum (or alike)”, which makes it into a fun mum and daughter event. Dads are also allowed if mum is not available.

The first pilot event, sponsored by Serato, engaged 20 girls and the feedback from parents was encouraging:

“As a parent it was great to have an event that had young women, telling their pathway stories, who were not much older than the girls present. For my daughter, (17 yrs old) at least, it demonstrated well that many industries, that she could relate to, require IT experts.

Our next event is called “Superheroes STEAM ahead” and it will use the powerful imagery of superheroes to speak to both girls and their mothers. The first speaker, Michelle Dickinson, calls herself  Nanogirl and has been actively promoting science to school kids with initiatives like the 100 Days Project. The second speaker, Jenine Beekhuyzen, founded the TechGirlsMovement and has published a book called “Tech girls are superheroes”, which uses fictional stories to tell girls about the lives of women who work in tech.

This event willbe held at the Neon Foyer at the School of Engineering on February 27th, and was made possible through a crowdfunding effort published through PledgeMe. In just a couple of weeks we raised more than $2000 from private people, companies and organizations, which shows how much interest there is in this cause. A female CEO called me and said it’s her New Year's resolution to support causes that get girls into technology.

At “Superheroes STEAM ahead”, apart from listening to two inspiring talks, girls and their mums will also have the opportunity to talk to women who work in a variety of companies and organizations at a small career fair, featuring Vend, Orion Health, Westpack, Entopix, Skills, SumerOfTech, and She#. They will also find out about courses at The Mind Lab, the Gather Workshops, Code Club Aotearoa and other opportunities to get started while still in school.

I am myself the mother of a two year old girl, who is "girly" in many ways. She is fascinated by jewellery and shoes and likes to play with her dolls. But she is also interested in playing with nuts and bolts. Once we found her gliding a stud finder along the wall, just like her grandad a day before. It would be a shame to discourage her from such activities just because they are not suitable for her gender. I’d like her to try things out and choose for herself. With the STEAM ahead initiative, I’d like to show mothers who think in terms of “girly careers” that there are many more options out there for their daughters.

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