Today the tech industry is so famously male dominated that its roots in female domination and mentoring are often overlooked.

Why mentoring matters – Tech Girls were always super heroes

If you’re a woman and older than 18, how often have you heard, or said “I’m not good at maths”? Next time you hear that phrase, mention Grace Hopper. Grace was a programming pioneer and mentoring in tech in an era when women dominated the field of programming. And not that long ago.

Today the tech industry is so famously male dominated that its roots in female domination are often overlooked. The reality is that female programmers and coders dominated computing from the 1940s. In the 1950s, women made up between 30-50 percent of programmers.

Then things began to change. The 1960s saw employer fondness grow for aptitude testing and personality profiling. In reality, those tests told employers more about an applicant’s quotient of stereotyped attributes than their fit for the job. Such tests tended to focus on tangible, one dimensional skills but didn’t adequately detect valuable intangible skills programmers need, like problem solving and creative thinking. The tests also explored questions that were skewed to topics men were more likely to have learned at school, in an era when women started being turned away from STEM subjects at school.

The 1970s economic recession meant that there were fewer programming roles for both genders. Then the 1980s saw the marketing of personal home computers as “boy’s toys”. Marketers targeted nerdy boys and sporty boys alike, with little messaging to girls. By 2013, women made up 25% of programmers. Deloitte Global predicts that this is likely to continue to decline.

In Australia today, fewer girls are entering STEM streams because of some additional localised dynamics. Math is not a universally compulsory subject at high school. A quarter of Australian students choose not to take math in Years 11 and 12 which automatically reduces university STEM intakes.

Schoolgirls are less likely than boys to choose math as a subject. One girl for every five boy students becomes STEM qualified. Based on their school subject choices, perhaps ill-informed or ill-advised, girls are actually closing the door on career paths in some of the fastest growing, most lucrative employment sectors in the world.

So why are schoolgirls opting out of math?

There have been some studies into this vexing question. The most common theories are that girls don’t have confidence in solving problems in math and science. And that many girls don’t fully understand the career options open to them by having STEM subjects among their portfolio, or the career doors that close to them by dropping STEM subjects.

Why is mentoring girls to choose STEM subjects so important?

Research shows some of the most powerful steps to support girls in choosing, and staying with, STEM subjects are grounded in education and mentoring. Mentoring by parents, friends and role models. Mentoring can help teens clarify their life path and give them the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about how to set goals and achieve them. Studies consistently show that mentoring by non-parents during the high school years helps teens grow intellectually, interpersonally and emotionally. Most teens teamed with mentors report they’re better planners, organisers and problem-solvers post mentoring. Many also reported improved self-confidence and self-awareness.

There are some incredible formal mentoring programs available around the globe. One we support every year is the Tech Girls Movement. The goal of this program is to see 10,000 Australian girls enrolled in STEM entrepreneurship by 2020.

Outside formal mentoring programs, every one of us can support girls by:

  • encouraging girls to develop positive learning attitudes and confidence around STEM. Belief structures are powerful influences but, at their core, they’re simply beliefs. Help girls embrace positive belief structures so they feel more confident to have a go.
  • regularising the conversation around math, science, technology and engineering. They’re a range of subjects, sometimes quite interesting ones! Not dastardly topics to be feared or avoided without consideration.
  • exploring careers across STEM categories to discover latent interests girls may have so they don’t inadvertently close a career door by dropping subjects at high school.
  • looking for role models of women who are in successful STEM careers so girls can envision a similar future for themselves.
  • normalising the notion of “failure”. Highlight the importance of failure in the learning process and that perceived failure isn’t necessarily failing
  • using positive language. Avoid talking about how much you hate(d) math at school or how much you suck(ed) at it. Focus instead on the career choices that opened up to you because of math skills, or how you practically use math in everyday life or your job. (You know you do.)
Why do we care about mentoring?

Why do we have so much passion around mentoring? Because we know that the school girls of today are the cornerstone of tomorrow’s society. They’ll be the mothers, teachers and leaders who shape the future. A positive mentoring experience for a teen is an investment in the rest of their life. And embracing STEM makes that future brighter, wider and longer, not only for each girl but for the world.

So next time it is on the tip of your tongue to say, “I’m not good at math”, look around and see who might be listening. If there are people there who see you as a role model, mention Grace Hopper instead. Or try out a simple “I believe girls can do anything.”

For more information on mentoring contact us.