March 08, 2021

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

Female STEM teachers and mentors key to get girls into STEM

Rachel Tougher loves sport; she’s scored national championship medals in gymnastics, surf lifesaving and athletics, has been a competitive swimmer and played netball and touch football at a high level.

“Until about a month before I sat for my HSC last year, I had always expected I would do something related to sport like physiotherapy or exercise science,” she says.

Instead, she started this year at the University of Sydney where she is doing a double degree combining chemical and biomolecular engineering, with a science degree majoring in neuroscience.

Tougher says two ‘pretty amazing’ female science teachers persuaded her to consider an alternative career path.

“They both told me they knew I could do more and that I should push myself,” she says.

“I found a degree combination that incorporated the subjects that I really loved and did well at in school.”

Tougher was dux of Engadine High School in Sydney’s southern suburbs and her ATAR of 98.1 meant she was spoilt for choice at university. 

“Engineering is quite a male-dominated field, and before this year, I had never thought about engineering, because I’d thought it was all building and bridges,” she says. 

“But having teachers who are women and who are teaching STEM subjects themselves, and who try to encourage girls in school to think about different futures, that really changed things for me.”

Pay gap driving girls into STEM

National strategies to tackle Australia’s gender pay gap – currently sitting at 13.4 per cent – include addressing the gender stereotyping of career choices at school and in higher education. 

The multiple programs designed to encourage girls into STEM-related fields include a $4.5 million, four-year Women in STEM package announced in the 2018 Federal Budget, the Federal government’s 2019 Advancing Women in STEM strategy and the Australian Academy of Science Women in STEM Decadal Plan, which began in 2020. 

The Australian Academy of Science found more than 330 different initiatives across Australia aimed at raising the participation of girls and women in STEM, including camps, competitions and workshops for primary and secondary students, over 120 tertiary education scholarships, and various programs, networks, mentoring and online resources for women working in STEM.

Many of these programs recognise something that Rachel Tougher’s experience confirms: female role models in STEM can be a powerful influence on girls at the critical stage when they choose a degree, or even earlier, when girls select subjects in senior high school. 

School program push

A range of independent schools tout their STEM-focused programs aimed at girls. Science and technology centres have sprung up in girls’ schools in recent years, and Tara Anglican in Parramatta NSW even has its own large telescope and observatory. 

Meriden in Sydney’s inner West is one of a range of public and private schools where HSC Engineering students can do part of their subject at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) campus through the university’s Wanago Program. 

St Francis Xavier College, a co-educational Catholic school in Victoria’s Beaconsfield links selected female students in Year 10 with Monash University’s WISE (Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship) Program to attend workshops on connected technology and (in pre-Covid days) compete for a trip to Silicon Valley. 

Robots and uni students inspire tech’s next generation

Monash University engineering student Emily Qiao is looking for intern placements this year, and her leadership experience as Chief Operating Officer of international mentoring organisation Robogals, has put a sparkle in her resume. 

Qiao completed high school at John Monash Science School, a Victorian government selective STEM-focused school for students in Years 10-12, adjacent to Monash University. 

“I had some female teachers at my local high school, Bentleigh - they got me interested in maths and science which inspired me to take the exam and get into John Monash school,” she says. 

Qiao’s debating coach at John Monash invited her to the school’s upcoming Robogals workshop. “At the time, I had no clue what engineering was,” she says – but from her first workshop, she was determined to pursue engineering as a career. 

Founded by University of Melbourne engineering student Marita Cheng in 2008, Robogals now has chapters at over 30 universities around Australia and worldwide, and university student volunteers running workshops on building and programming LEGO Mindstorm robot kits to move and perform tasks. 

“The Robogals in-school engineering and technology workshops show girls from primary school to high school to show them what engineering is, they get them excited about tech and let them see they have the skills and mindset to be able to do engineering,” says Robogals CEO Morgan Marshall.

Marshall says when school teachers stay for the workshop and realise how easy – and fun – the activities can be, there’s a real chance for change to flow.

“A big barrier for girls to stepping into the field of engineering, comes down to the lack of role models,” says Qiao. “For people like me, getting a female role model at an earlier stage in my life - it really makes a huge difference.”