Helping western Sydney girls and women overcome stereotypes for a STEM career

Sandy Lindsay has been fascinated by chemistry since she was a child in Sydney’s outer west and her science teacher poured two clear liquids into a flask. “They lit up bright yellow,” she remembers, “it was like magic”. Yet a lack of family and community support meant she dropped out of a university chemistry course – twice. Now 35 and on her third attempt to finish the course, she hopes to finally graduate from Western Sydney University next year. Lindsay was the first in her family to go to university and her parents had different ideas about her career ambitions, especially after she had children of her own. “My mum very much expected that I would be a stay-at-home mum,” she says. “That was something we had conflict about.”

Lindsay is in the vanguard of girls and young women from western Sydney battling the stereotypes which still hold sway in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. She joined Western Sydney University’s women in STEM networking group, WiSE, which holds enrichment programs, workshops and industry visits and she has now been offered an internship at a government chemistry lab.

Even so, she remains concerned about finding work in her chosen field. “It’s a very unforgiving industry,” she says, noting the difficulties of working from home and working part-time in many of the STEM fields. “I don’t think the problem is attracting women to science, it’s keeping them in science.”

Australia’s chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley estimated in February that Australian jobs in STEM were expected to grow by 13 per cent over the next two years, “significantly faster” than non-STEM jobs, and these jobs were expected to be in the expanding fields of renewable technologies and recycling, biotechnology, new forms of food and medicine, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence and robotics.

Yet according to the federal Department of Industry’s STEM Equity Monitor report published last year, only 27 per cent of employees and 23 per cent of managers in the STEM workforce are women and significantly fewer girls than boys choose STEM subjects at school. The report found that girls were less “interested” than boys in all four STEM subjects and the gender disparity increased in less wealthy areas such as western Sydney. It also found girls were half as likely as boys to aspire to a career in STEM fields.

A range of government and privately-funded networks and programs encourage girls and women to consider a career in the STEM fields and to help them progress in STEM companies. These programs offer workshops, work experience, mentoring and assistance.

Professor Olivia Mirza, associate dean of engagement in the school of engineering at Western Sydney University, set up a network called Women of Wisdom (WoW) to encourage women students to stick with engineering. About 35 per cent of the university’s 800 engineering students are women, Mirza says. “There’s a lot of encouragement to get started, but once they’re enrolled they need encouragement to continue.” The WoW network’s aim is to ensure that women lecturers and industry partners are available to support women students who are having trouble with their studies.

Mirza visits western Sydney schools to encourage girls to consider a career in the STEM fields, and she says she finds many career advisors fail to promote the sciences and instead suggest girls consider careers in teaching or administration.  Families, too, can resist girls’ plans to pursue STEM education and employment for a variety of reasons, including cultural expectations.

“One girl was given a scholarship to a one-week STEM camp but she pulled out because her father said that once she left high school it would be time for her to get married,” Mirza says. “We spoke to the parents, we said ‘let her go, you do not have to pay a cent.’ They did not let her go.”

Girls should see women at work in STEM fields to counteract prevailing notions that the harder sciences such as engineering are best left to men, Mirza says. “We have to make women’s success visible,” she says. “We have to go and talk to the young kids.”

Western Sydney Women, a women’s advocacy and support organisation, runs workshops and ‘bootcamps’ (these in partnership with the Endeavour Energy company) to give western Sydney schoolgirls a glimpse of STEM careers. So far about 400 girls have spent a day learning about career alternatives in science, technology, engineering and maths, spiced with the chance to fly a drone or climb an electricity pole. “We wanted to give all girls in western Sydney the access, the resources, the encouragement and the hands-experience to build their confidence,” says WSW founder Amanda Rose.

Sixteen-year-old Rivaa Thite, from western Sydney, has set her sights on a career as a fighter pilot and aeronautical engineer with the Australian armed forces. “I did a STEM bootcamp and an aviation workshop,” she says, adding she found the bootcamp helpful – she now understands what electrical engineers do and how people program drones. “There are lots of jobs out there I didn’t know existed.”

Perhaps more excitingly, she also had the chance to co-pilot a small propeller plane with the Sydney Flight College as part of the WSW aviation workshop. “I always found jets, F14s and Hornets, super-cool,” she says. Then Top Gun 2 came out and I thought maybe I should look into this as a career path.  I fell in love with it.”

WSW founder Amanda Rose says girls and young women need ongoing encouragement and support to consider STEM education and employment and to thrive in male-dominated industries. “I grew up in western Sydney and I wasn’t given same opportunities, it wasn’t considered you might be interested,” she says. “I loved physics and chemistry, it was never discussed or considered that I could do any engineering or anything like that.”

WSW runs programs for both girls and women including a program designed for women in middle-management STEM careers to boost their confidence and encourage networking with mentoring and workshops. For a younger cohort of schoolgirls and their families, Rose ensures her organisation respects any parental trepidation concerning bootcamps and workshops. Parents are greeted and questions are answered, she says. Parents can even stay for a look if they want to.

An early understanding of the scope of STEM careers can be useful. Janhavi Shinde, from Schofields in western Sydney, says she switched from midwifery to a university course in information and communications technology once she understood more about the tech course.

The 21-year-old says there are few women in STEM careers in her community and although she enjoyed her minimal exposure to technology studies at school she didn’t see a way to continue with technology in university. A sudden and serious illness gave her time to reflect and Western Sydney University’s WiSE (Women in STEM Education) program, which offers mentoring and employer visits, provided her with information about the different opportunities that were available to her. “I loved it,” she says. “I thought ‘why didn’t I see this earlier’?”

Now interning full-time as a systems engineer at Cisco, Shinde invited Cisco executives to the university to discuss their industry and their careers in tech with interested students. “I wish I had seen something like that earlier on in my journey,” she says. “If I had I probably would have switched to IT much sooner and been so much more involved from day dot.”

Australian Financial Review