Empowering The Next Generation Of Women In STEM

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Bringing coding to high schools across Sydney, Coder Academy is working to get girls interested (or at the very least, aware of) the opportunities that are available in STEM fields - before they begin to think about their university and career choices.

The program, dubbed "Code Next", is so important that Vodafone has thrown its weight behind it. This initiative, and others like it, are making a real change.

"The jobs of the future are changing," Vodafone's Director of HR, Vanessa Hicks told Gizmodo Australia, "and that means skills such as coding are becoming increasingly valuable for students to compete in the workforce."

But the fact is, in Australia, a lot of coding programs designed for children are offered as an extracurricular activity. Code Next, however, is offered at school, as a part of the student's regular day. Not only does this make it far more accessible, but teachers also have the opportunity to learn along with their students.

"It is particularly valuable for young women, who are far less likely to be exposed to STEM–related subjects before leaving school," Hicks says. "Code Next gives them the opportunity to get hands on with coding, learn some new skills and make a more informed choice about their future."

Coder Academy prioritises skills like computational thinking, problem solving and design thinking, Managing Director Sally Browner told us.

"It is these skills that will be valuable regardless of subject selection and career path," Browner says. "We want participants to leave our courses feeling empowered and confident that if they don't know how to do something straight away they will be able to figure it out."

Girls aren't choosing STEM subjects

Statistics clearly show that girls choose these subjects less frequently than boys. This then translates into very skewed classrooms, university courses and technology workforce, Browner points out. But they key question really is, why?

"We suspect that this is due to a range of factors including family, education and lack of role models," Browner says.

"Our belief is that girls-only classes are a good short term solution to build confidence and try to encourage more girls into these subject areas. When they don't represent the clear minority in a coeducation classroom then this is likely to be the optimal learning environment. Ultimately life is coeducational so learning to collaborate with the opposite sex is an important part of problem solving."

This is a model of thinking that has proven successful for other programs, as well, such as Girls Make Games.

Browner says there are "so many examples" of girls who have had their eyes opened to different careers through the program, and the power that coding gives you.

Girls only programs are working

What makes the Code Next successful? It's not just about teaching coding.

"Code Next is about solving problems using code as part of the solution and introducing girls to women who are already working in a variety of areas of the technology industry."

As a part of the company's involvement in Code Next, two female Vodafone employees act as mentors to each school taking part in the program - discussing each of their different STEM-related roles which range from strategy, to technology security, to social media management.

"We think it's important for young women to see that there is a huge variety of roles that are linked to STEM," Hicks says, "and it's a great opportunity for them to ask questions and find out about other women's real experiences."

Hicks says Vodafone globally and locally is committed to diversity and inclusion.

"It's not only about changing the numbers today, but creating a more balanced workforce through a strong pipeline of females for the future. This is not a quick journey, but a sustained effort we have embarked on and its programs like Code Next that are helping to drive that change."

Investing in emerging female talent is a priority for Vodafone, and Hicks says this is in order to grow a "more equitable and inclusive" workforce.

"Removing glass ceilings for current and future generations is the responsibility of all business leaders, as we work to create a culture that encourages this change."

The responsibility of parents to help make change

What can parents do to encourage their daughters? Browner says starting young is a good first step.

"My own daughter is 11 and has been learning how to code with Javascript, HTML and CSS," Browner shares. "From the age of 8 she was coding in Scratch."

Parents need to push for STEM activities within school time and after school hours, Browner says. The education system hasn't yet caught up to keep pace with the rate of technological change, and they need support to help train teachers and provide children with adequate access to these skills.

A Girls Make Games workshop

And there are plenty of options out there - if you know where to look.

"There are a huge range of STEM events in Sydney from the Australian Museum, The Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences to free events at libraries," Browner points out. "Model the behaviour you want to see in your children. For example, I am a reformed Luddite! I have to work hard to learn to code, to build robots and understand electronics."

As well as supporting Code Next, Vodafone runs a number of programs internally to help encourage employees and their families "to bridge that generational technology gap that we see so often", Hicks says.

"We recently hosted a STEM education session specifically for Vodafone employees and other corporate women to engage, swap ideas, and learn about the fundamentals of STEM, known as Connect, Code & Create."

Vodafone has also hosted a number of sessions called Code U - which aim to address the technology gap between generations and help participants develop their STEM knowledge, and will soon be starting workshops called CodeHer.

"CodeHer is designed to engage our employee's daughters between the ages of 5-12 years old," Hicks says. "These workshops are very exciting because we will be bringing in some of the wonderful Code Next students to act as mentors to our employees daughters – just as our employees did with the Code Next girls."

Planning for the future, always

Coder Academy is also constantly looking for innovative ways using technology to reduce inequality.

"We have just launched a Social Techpreneurship program in partnership with Young Change Agents," Browner revealed. "This is a week-long program and will immerse kids aged 12 and over in emerging technology, support them through the process of developing and pitching an MVP and then kickstart the process of developing this MVP."

According to Browner, girls - on average - are more driven by helping others.

"This program gives them the perfect vehicle to develop a business idea that gives back to their community, while motivating them to develop the tech skills to support this business development."

Engineering and Computer Science are also a keen focus of Coder Academy.

"We are about to launch a School Leavers' Bootcamp that targets girls 18-25," Browner told us. "It will be a 12 month, part-time version of our regular Bootcamp."

The bootcamp will provide an opportunity for girls who haven't has access to coding training at school or at home to develop the skills quickly and in a small, supportive environment.

"The idea is that following our Bootcamp, they can transfer into a Uni degree and significantly reduce their risks of dropping out or they can secure a relatively well paid job as a junior developer."

Ultimately, though, we shouldn't be relying on external programs.

Coding needs to be practiced, Browner points out - and ideally it needs to be embedded into the curriculum. If this isn't happening then Browner says parents should view it in the same way they do sports lessons.

"Australian children go to swimming lessons from when they are babies until well after they can swim competently. Vital future skills like coding need to be thought of in the same way."



    All for encouraging gender equality in STEM but this needs to be done in an inclusive fashion, gender specific classes punish the kids of today for the choices previous generations made. Don't create divide among the sexes, it's only going to exasperate gender stereotypes, teach teamwork from a young age without the clouded gender perceptions of previous generations.

      So ... you recognise that previous generations made bad choices that keep women out of STEM, you just think that we should pretend that it didn't actually happen and do nothing specifically addressed at righting the imbalance? Cool.

        We should raise them up there by increasing intolerance due to the age old "why do they get special treatment and I don't" then when they do reach the same potential turn around and say now were going to take away all your extras.

      So your solution to the lack of women in the industry is do nothing to encourage them and revert back to how it was where barely any women got into the industry?

    Statistics clearly show that girls choose these subjects less frequently than boys.

    There are biological reasons for this. Take Norway for example: almost all employment barriers to women have been removed, yet male engineers far outweigh female, and female nurses far outweigh male. When the playing field has been levelled, the only differences left are biological.

    Last edited 22/11/17 11:04 am

    With more females going to uni now, more females graduating from uni now equality is needed.Everything needs to be equal , male to female nurse ratio male to female ratio in teaching.People make choices , choices have consequences.

    Great article Rae. Always great seeing programs like this and it gives me hope for the future.

    I very much doubt the claim that girls-only classes are "working" because they're girls-only. I would suspect the reason they are working is because the educators are successful women in STEM. Something that has been severely lacking in STEM education. Not to mention the fact that these women who are teaching these classes come from successful roles making them ideal mentors. Again something that has been completely lacking to-date. But this is not a reason to justify sexism. I fear its more damaging to do this than beneficial. After all if they chose to a career they certainly wont be isolated from other sexes. All sexes would benefit from the experience from the educators and how they women succeeded. It would build resilience and compassion in everyone.

      Hey Mark! You should read this article - it goes into more detail about the experiences of STEM educators and the benefits they have personally seen to having girls-only STEM classes: https://www.kotaku.com.au/2015/02/cannot-to-can-do-the-workship-helping-girls-make-more-video-games/

        Alrighty. So my take was:

        * They found boys to be enthusiastic and potentially "competitive". Although the word is not used, it's implied as a justification. Forget the fact that girls in girls only classes are just the same.
        * Girls just "wait for their turn" - great behavior (not limited to girls). Its something myself and my partner are toiling over with our eldest at the moment. However it has its disadvantages in every situation not just STEM and its certainly present in same sex classes.
        * Anxiety that if girls sign up, they will be the only girl in the class. Certainly a legitimate concern. This can be resolved by signing up with friends or perhaps a parent simply making a call and finding out if other girls have enrolled. After all they have the numbers for a girls only class.

        Jesus... "triggered" "safe spaces".. how about "esteem" and "strength". I'm now struggling to want to continue reading. The fact that this situation was let to slide by the educator is a testament to the educators poor performance than anything. The bullshit that only boys are nasty to girls makes the situation worse. Any parent will attest to the fact that their daughters are harassed significantly more by girls than boys. It's nasty to a whole different level.

        Interesting discussion around themes. Though this is not an issue in the arts with arguably large parallels here with the opposite problem of attracting boys. After all boys don't have feelings (sarcasm).

    Is there a reason my initial comment is taking so long to be moderated?

      Hey theseeker - I can't see a problem with your initial comment from my end - is it not showing up for you?

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