SMH Opinion Piece: Early start a must for girls to go technical

This piece appeared in the Weekend version of the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend...what do you think?

SMH piece

A recent YouTube sensation has reignited an age-old conversation about the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

GoldieBlox, the crowd-funded toy company claims to be on a "mission to inspire the next generation of female engineers". It is doing so by selling toys themed around invention and construction, and pitching them to girls. The concept of encouraging girls into these disciplines at an early age has merit. Yet if society is serious about encouraging more women into technical areas, a variety of factors must be addressed. It must start early, but effort needs to be spread across the board to entrench change.

An Early Start

An introduction to the technical world at an early age would be a great start. Unfortunately, these disciplines continue to be seen by society as largely unfeminine, leading to an unconscious bias in the way we talk about them with young girls. This bias is then internalised, affecting their interests, subject and career choices down the line.

However, an early introduction does not necessarily have to be swathed in pink and lace to appeal. It can simply be in the types of activities young girls are exposed to. My father, an engineer, took my brother and I to science and rail museums, bought us a microscope and Meccano sets from a very early age. Our gender was no point of difference and the family environment was such that science and engineering were seen as interesting and exciting for all.

That kind of introduction needs to be reinforced by conscious (and unconscious) encouragement of girls into technical subjects throughout school. The numbers now are not encouraging; in 2010, there were 33 per cent more boys in advanced mathematics in year 12 than girls, and girls only made up a third of the physics cohort.

To say that female minds are less attuned to technical fields is fallacious and dangerously misleading. Correlation does not equal causation; and anecdotally, girls tend to do quite well in technical subjects. Perhaps that can be related to the fact girls are unlikely to choose a "male-dominated" subject unless they excel at it, because of societal expectations. We have not yet earned the right to be mediocre.

By actively engaging girls, the exciting realities of what science, technology, engineering and mathematics actually involve can be better illustrated and communicated. A clear understanding of what engineers do is often lacking, and the stereotype prevails. The image of a mechanical engineer as a man working on cars and covered in grease is all too common, notwithstanding the fact that it is often far from the truth.

Role Models

Another critical component of attracting girls and retaining women in these fields is the use of role models. This is imperative, and they should not only be celebrated simply as anomalies due to their gender but as inspiration by virtue of their achievements. The talent pool of role models to choose from at the moment is solid and inspiring, but hardly expansive. Engineers Australia's Statistical Overview of the profession describes the situation diplomatically. "Australia has some extraordinary women engineers but this should not be confused with improvement in the status of women in engineering." For more role models to exist, we need more women achieving at higher levels in industries. To do so, labour market imbalances and obstacles to women's true engagement in these sectors must be addressed.

In 2011, the proportion of women in the engineering force was 10.9 per cent. Unemployment numbers between men and women in engineering were also starkly different, with 2.5 per cent for the former and 9 per cent for the latter.

Ultimately, the numbers will remain low if society continues to perceive technical disciplines as a fundamentally male-dominated space. Until this deeply entrenched gender expectation shifts, girls and women who choose these fields will continue to exist in minorities. We must focus on the way we talk about and present these disciplines to our young girls to ensure they grow up with choices free of gender bias.

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