How to talk to girls about STEM

To mark International Women’s day, UNSW held Women in Science and Industry Symposium at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Hosted by Professor Veena Sahajwalla, the director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology at UNSW, the event brought together about 250 school girls aged 13 years upwards to consider careers in science and technology.

The day featured presentations from high profile female scientists like marine ecologist Professor Emma Johnston who studies human impacts in marine communities, Dr Katherine Dafforn who works in marine artificial structures, marine biologist Dr Inke Falkner who studies the underwater ecosystems in Sydney Harbour and last but not least Astha Singh who has completed her PHD in plant pathology and a Masters in research on Cotton Xanthomonas bacteria.

It’s known that the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are typically male dominated, so what can we do to encourage girls to get involved in STEM careers? How can we attract their attention and communicate with them about the exciting possibilities that flow from tertiary STEM studies?

The program Science 50:50 aims to do just that: inspire Australian girls and women to study and work in STEM fields by informing and engaging them in conversations about the kinds of career options that are available to them.

Science 50:50 above all seeks to redress the STEM gender imbalance. Its founder, Professor Sahajwalla, who was the only girl in her engineering course at university, said this underrepresentation has a lot to do with young women’s perception of science as a career.

“If we want to secure Australia’s future prosperity, challenging the stereotype of the scientist as a man in a white lab coat is a good place to start,” she said.

Professor Sahajwalla was last year awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship to enable her to promote women in research. She is very keen to reach young women with her message that science is not just for “nerds”, but for all those who are looking to discover more than meets the eye.

The difficulty, as researcher Dr. Astha Singh pointed out, is that there continue to be many more male than female researchers. In her classes, for example, there were 117 boys and only 3 girls (herself included). So how can we change the status quo? How can we motivate girls into going into STEM careers?

While the goals of the Symposium were to inspire women into science and technology careers, a clear challenge across the day was keeping the girls interested. Professor Merlin Crossley, the Dean of UNSW Science, engaged the audience with humor, and Adele Preston, a young business woman working at Woolworths, was also successful in grabbing their attention by inviting their participation.

She asked the girls to stand in order to answer questions and raise their hands for different reasons. She also invited the girls to talk to the person next to them, making sure that they were actively involved in the conversation.

When it came to individual presentations by guest speakers, I couldn’t help but notice that a large number of girls were staring at their mobile phone screens, responding sarcastically to claims from the stage that they were “… inspiring, intelligent, bright young women” or struggling to stay awake. The fact that a large number of girls were distracted, muttering to each other in response to speakers and not raising hands at question time raises the issue of how to communicate with this notoriously hard to reach audience.

Having recently left school myself, I can vouch for the sometimes impolite and ungrateful attitude of teenage girls. They can be awful! But I reckon the girls at the STEM Symposium would have been a lot more engaged if they were asked to be more physically involved throughout the day. They could have worked in small groups, with a researcher seated at each table, or had activities to complete during a workshop style session. Better still, how about arranging for some small groups of girls to follow along for a day with professionals to find out what life as a researcher is actually like?

The guest presenters were very interesting, but I think to engage girls of this age group, you need to have a different approach that revolves around smaller conversations rather than lectures. We are all looking for people to admire and look up to, and people who in turn make us feel important and valued. This connection is what empowers us to believe that we are capable of achieving great things in life.

More girls need to be asked to actually participate in the discovery of what STEM careers might mean for them instead of being lectured at for several hours by people they cannot relate to. I fully support the Science 50:50 initiative but hope that future activities are able to connect more effectively with the girls it seeks to inspire.

About the author
Lara Till recently completed high school and is about to begin a Marketing Communications degree. She attended the Women in Science and Industry Symposium as part of an internship with Inspiring Australia (NSW).