Startup Opinion

In an increasingly digital world, getting girls into tech is essential

Helen Souness /

Advances in areas like automation and artificial intelligence promise to upend almost every industry and replace today’s jobs with tomorrow’s technology.

One popular estimate cited in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report claims that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new roles that don’t yet exist. The truth is, exponential technologies will continue to impact our daily lives, and while the migration of the workforce to this new economy presents a challenge, it also brings with it incredible potential.

Digitisation has unlocked a vault of fresh opportunities as companies look to fill newly created roles, many of which will require a completely new set of skills.  This somewhat levels the playing field and brings with it a vast opportunity for those who want to skill up to meet the demands for what we’re calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As we become more governed by digital technologies, data and innovation, it’s undeniable that the future of work will be largely underpinned by a workforce trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). STEM-based careers will drive breakthrough innovations and create jobs of the future.

It’s so important we prepare the next generation for the new economy that will define their working lives. Girls are already chronically underrepresented in the technology sector: the recently-released Women in STEM Decadal Plan revealed that girls in Australia were the least likely out of all Asia-Pacific countries to undertake STEM subjects in school: just 27 per cent did so, compared with 76 per cent in China and 69 per cent in India.

STEM powers our nation’s innovation and, therefore, its wealth. We recently saw the federal government pledging $3.4 million to improve STEM equity in Australia and boost the participation of girls and women.

Indeed, STEM roles are so impactful to our nation’s prosperity that just a one per cent increase in people choosing a STEM career could contribute over $57 billion to the economy over the next 20 years (PwC, “Future proofing Future-proofing Australia’s workforce”).

Yet, despite the growing opportunity for STEM careers, in the developed world, women account for just one-quarter of graduates in information and communications technology – even though women outnumber men in graduate schools overall (source: OECD). According to a report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, men accounted for around four-fifths (81 per cent) of the 2.7 million people with higher level STEM qualifications from 2010 to 2011.

Change begins at childhood

These figures point to a deep-set representation problem. If women are to adjust to the demands of a job market that increasingly requires technical proficiency, there must be a radical change to close the gap between men and women in STEM roles.  The long-lasting equality solution, I believe, begins in childhood.

Many girls turn away from STEM at an early age from a number of factors, including exposure to stereotypes that dissuade girls from pursuing STEM as well as a lack of role models. Despite her parents’ love of technology, until recently my own daughter did not want to join the robotics club at school because she had a somewhat dystopian view of robots as somehow threatening.

Many interests are developed in childhood, and too many girls are turning away from STEM studies too early.  As an immediate step, we must overcome these negative attitudes and replace them with a more positive mindset. Schools need to help us as parents to encourage girls into STEM subjects and interest in much larger numbers.

Groups like Girls in Tech are important catalysts for change in driving gender diversity in Australia’s technology ecosystem. The organisation’s events create an encouraging and fun environment wherein girls can safely learn and explore different areas like coding while forming friendships with other girls interested in it too. This “sistership” creates an empowerment cycle to give girls the support and confidence they need to stick with it.

By cultivating the development of digital skills from a younger age, we’ll prepare our girls to grow into women who not only benefit from but drive the opportunities that result from digitisation. Getting more females into digital careers means inspiring them while they’re young, giving them the skills they need to compete in a digital economy and then supporting them as they move into their careers.

Breaking up the boys’ club will also require joint efforts on part of government and industry, in association with educational institutions, to implement the right measures and effective training measures to prepare women for the next generation of work.

To combat its talent deficit in the digital economy, Singapore’s government, industry and education sector have joined together. The country’s government-backed upskilling initiative, SkillsFuture Singapore, recently announced a programming cohort with Apple and several university partners to boost the country’s pool of developer talent.

In Australia, many companies across the technology ecosystem are doing their part in breaking down the male-dominated stereotype that plagues the broader industry by transforming how they hire, train and retain women in technical roles. Last year Envato announced its Apprentice Developer Program to boost the pipeline of female developer talent in Australia. At Realestate.com.au their Women in Tech programs have increased females in tech roles by more than 8 per cent in a year and helped them to achieve more satisfying careers.

As a mother, I know my role as a parent in encouraging my daughter to challenge her perception of what a data scientist, a coder or a CEO might look like. As a leader in the education sector, I understand my role in preparing our workforce to be future-ready. It drives me to find leading industry players such as realestate.com, AWS, Salesforce and Accenture, many of which are driving the innovation agenda forward, to develop courses that will prepare our workforce – including our girls – for the demands of tomorrow.

The future of work will bring with it a wave of changes that we can only begin to imagine. But where there is change there is also opportunity. We should use this opportunity as a chance to build our girls up for a digital future they can confidently tackle head-on.

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Helen Souness

Helen is chief executive officer at RMIT Online.