It’s always a good time to teach young women tech skills but right now, with lockdown in some areas of Australia, training school-age women in tech is a great way to use this time constructively. Sarah Moran is the Co-founder of the Girl Geek Academy – an online community which aims to teach young women tech skills. You can go to the Girl Geek Academy website right now and join up for some free classes – simply register on the Girl Geek Academy site here and go from there.
As well as these regular classes, Girl Geek Academy and Sunsilk will be hosting some interactive YouTube workshops in the September school holidays which are designed to smash stereotypes, inspire and encourage girls – and even get their Mums involved! Guests will be able to code video games as a mother-daughter duo, engineer their own shampoo bottles, learn about the science of hair and learn practical math skills to set up their side hustle.
Here at Women Love Tech, we spoke with Girl Geek Academy’s Co-founder, Sarah Moran, and we asked her to tell us a bit more about why she set up the academy and what she’s aiming to achieve.
Women Love Tech: A new national study conducted by Sunsilk has found that only 18% of women currently study STEM at a tertiary level and only 4% at postgraduate. Why do you think this is still happening in Australia?
Sarah Moran: “Women and girls are pushed out over time. Remember when you were young, and you and your friends found things interesting and exciting and EVERYONE got to be curious? Slowly but surely, girls get pushed away from chasing STEM subjects until they’re the last ones standing in a room full of boys and men.
It’s pretty circular; young women see few women going into science, technology, engineering and math fields, so they have fewer role models and examples to follow. They often won’t end up pursuing this field because of it. Historically STEM fields have been dominated by men, which has created a taboo for women scientists and technologists. Women in these fields can be stereotyped, and this can cause women not to want to pursue these degrees and occupations.
So, it comes down to being the only girl, along with missing your friends, a lack of role models, conditions in STEM academics and conditions in STEM workplaces.”
Women Love Tech: There is a 50% drop off rate from the 36% of girls studying STEM in Years 11 and 12 – is this where it’s starting?
Sarah Moran: “The drop-off at that point is interesting because in high school you all of a sudden have to pick only six subjects in Years 11 and 12. But high school girls are often great at way more than six things! So, that’s very limiting at a time when young people are trying to test and learn and figure out who they are and what they want to do.
The decline is very pronounced by the last years of high school but it really begins when girls start to develop their interests and ideas around what is possible shaped by society and pushed away from STEM, which can happen even at the primary school level.
We then see the decline in girls studying STEM subjects from Year 8, when they’re compulsory, to Year 9, when they’re electives. Those decisions limit young women as they start to narrow the field of what they “should” study. We need to think about the information, resources and education they receive in the lead up to those crucial decisions.”
Women Love Tech: Is it difficult to have equal representation of women in large technical companies when only 4% of women study to postgraduate level and only 2.5% study at a Masters/PhD level?
Sarah Moran: “There’s a difficult challenge here, for sure, but we can’t let the enormity of the gender divide be an obstacle to making change. If we can begin rewriting the story for women in STEM from primary school onwards, we can start to see ripple effects that will extend through to postgraduate study at the student level. But there’s also a huge opportunity to encourage women who may not be interested in pursuing academia to follow a technical career that needs more hands-on experience than academic credentials. Those skills are where we start, and classes with friends and other young girls and women open up the aspirations of young women and girls.”
Women Love Tech: How can we make a career in STEM seem more appealing to young women?
Sarah Moran: “We have to ensure every woman understands the responsibility they have as role models to the young women and girls in their lives. So if you’re a mum, an aunty, a nana or a neighbour: what are the activities you could engage in with the young women and girls in your life that supports them to think about STEM careers?
We also need to showcase more women role models in STEM fields more broadly. We could do this by inviting scientists, makers and engineers into schools. Still, we also need more visible STEM leaders, founders and entrepreneurs that could help to boost confidence levels in students.
The girls see young women doing STEM things, the more young women you’re going to attract to those fields. This is because you’re not just telling women that they’re welcome; you’re showing them they are important and have a vital role to fill.”
Women Love Tech: The same Sunsilk study I referred to before found that 87% of women felt STEM subjects are critical to our future, and yet they still overwhelmingly feel studying in this field is inaccessible to them. How can we make a career in STEM more accessible to young women?
Sarah Moran: “There is an urgent need for at least a million more STEM professionals right now, and this number will increase over the coming decades. Without altering the environment and social belief system that affects girls’ interest and achievements in STEM subjects, we won’t reach that number. We need to demonstrate to women in tech that their work is just as valuable as that of every other employee and contributor. This will attract more women to STEM roles, and staff retention will also be more significant.
We also need to send a message to women across Australia: it’s not too late to change your career into a STEM career. You have learned incredible skills in whatever career you have pursued so far: but the internet is being built every day in new and exciting ways. Your skills are wanted and it’s worth considering how they could be applied in STEM.”
Women Love Tech: The Australian government has announced more plans to invest in the technological literacy of Australians – what will this need to include for young women?
Sarah Moran: “There needs to be almost a “rebrand” in how we approach, market and communicate the value of STEM education and careers to girls. The traditionally masculine way that these subjects are framed and the culture around tech is a challenge that will only be overcome by rethinking the way we talk about technology.
We also need more women teachers teaching STEM in the classroom, and to support those teachers with “real world” industry experience. Students get work experience: let’s offer the same opportunity to teachers so they can help young people understand how what they are learning in the classroom today contributes to their future career opportunities tomorrow.”
Women Love Tech: How important do you feel the parental mother role is to young women’s feelings about working in STEM?
Sarah Moran: “Both parents have a role to play in role modelling gender equality for young people. In terms of STEM, if a mother hasn’t pursued a STEM career there’s a great conversation to be had about why that may be. For example, my mother was a great role model for me but when she was growing up she was told her career options were either a teacher or a nurse. She didn’t think she’d make a good teacher and couldn’t handle the sight of blood, so she became a stay at home mum. She’s great at that, but she’s also an excellent mathematician, so when it came to having career conversations about the maths skills I inherited from her she didn’t necessarily have the confidence on how to advise me on what to do.
So it’s important that we equip mothers to be able to have conversations with their daughters because they possibly missed out on having those conversations with their own Mums in the past.”
Women Love Tech: Can you tell us a bit about why you co-founded the Girl Geek Academy?
Sarah Moran: “We were sick of being the only women at tech events, where the blokes drank beer and ate pizza and would ask us “why don’t more women come to our events?”. In 2014 we launched our own tech event for women, the world’s first all-women hackathon, #SheHacks. Instead of beer and pizza, we had cupcakes and tea and picnic baskets. It was so amazing and we made so many new friends!
This inspired us to found the company to help build communities and support networks surrounding women in tech — we were sick of being the only women in the room and we worked out pretty quickly we could help change that situation. Girl Geek Academy is now Australia’s first organisation solely dedicated to boosting the number of women with successful STEM careers. We do this by working with companies, schools and governments to improve their capacity to support women at all stages in the talent pipeline: from teaching young girls to code at age five right through to getting more women into senior technology leadership roles. We provide services direct to corporates, often in the form of collaborative problem-solving. We say ‘What problem can we solve together?’ and we find the resources to take action and get on with doing it.”
Women Love Tech: Together with Sunsilk, you’re hosting some workshops – what’s the aim of these workshops and what will you be doing?
Sarah Moran: “We’re challenging gender stereotypes with these workshops, and reimagining STEM with hundreds of women their daughters across Australia. Sunsilk’s Rethink Pink campaign highlights that ‘pink’ is what we make it, and STEM is for us if we want it to be.
This will empower mums to help show girls that they’re already capable of going into these sorts of areas and that there are vital and exciting careers that STEM skills will unlock. We need to give girls the opportunity to be excited by technology, fall in love with STEM, and find their passion. These workshops a vital example of this in practice, and it’s something we are excited to be collaborating on with Sunsilk.”
The YouTube workshops will be streamed live at 2:30pm (AEST) over the September school holidays. Sunsilk invites Australian girls and mums to visit this website here to register their attendance.
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