Monday, 20 June 2016

CECS and the City Episode 1: Mentor Me.

Most people agree that we need more women to start and stay in STEM fields, especially engineering, computer science and maths. I definitely agree. I think women, men, businesses and the world in general have a lot to benefit from increased participation of women. One thing I spend a lot of time thinking about is how many more? Is 50% realistic? Would a success story in Australia see numbers increase by 5%? 10%?

I don’t want to convince girls to do something they don’t want to do. But I do want them to know more about STEM careers and feel empowered enough to take those sorts of paths.

I’m going to use engineering as my example here, because I have the stats and it’s what I’ve experienced. But most of what I say applies to the physical sciences, maths and computer science. Perhaps even especially to computer science!

ANU engineering has just under 20% women in the undergraduate population, which is pretty good compared to other Australian universities. In 2015, 14.4% of Australian engineering undergraduate commencements were women [1]. So knowing that ANU is doing a bit better than average, should we stop there? Hell no! MIT has an undergraduate engineering population of 46% women [2], Brown has almost 40% [3], and there are many other great engineering colleges and universities in the USA with numbers in the range of 30-45% [4]. So it’s definitely realistic for us to bump those figures up so we can lead the Australian statistics in the same way MIT is leading the USA’s.

So, now that we’ve established that…what can we do?

As we sat in the New York Academy of Science (NYAS) on the 40th floor of the World Trade Centre overlooking the city scape, we heard about some really great things happening in this space.

The NYAS runs mentoring programs for high school students around the world, scholarship programs for undergraduates, networking opportunities between women of all ages and heaps of other things. All of their initiatives focus on the long term. The 1000 girls, 1000 futures program is a 3-year online mentoring program. They’re really showing what a big organisation can do with a little funding!

Kimberley Bryant, set up Black Girls Code in the USA. It started out as a bit of creativity for her daughter and her friends, and has now turned into a program that transforms thousands of girls into creators of technology, not just consumers of it. She showed us what one person can start, even when they’re not intending to do so!

The examples of awesome programs kept on going all day. It was pretty clear that they all had one common element. Mentoring! It seemed to be the number one driver at all stages. We need to provide mentors from kindergarten up until retirement day.  These can be teachers, role models, supportive family members, older students, bosses, professionals, anyone.

Mentoring can manifest itself in a whole variety of ways, some of which are organic and not necessarily over the long term. Mentoring can be as small as telling your cousin how cool it is she did well on her maths test each time you see her, or helping a College student know what degree options are out there.  At ANU, we’re working on the opposite kind of mentoring. The kind that involves a long-term structured program with input from a huge team of mentors.

Since leaving New York, we have expanded our first year women in engineering and computer science mentoring program which we are hoping to open up to all genders next semester. We have set up programs for later year students to be mentored by professionals from PwC and Cisco. We have more new programs in the pipeline too, from ANU students mentoring Canberra primary school students, to peer-to-peer mentoring between students in Cambodia and Australia. We’re creating a network and we want as many people to get tangled up in our web as possible!

I encourage you to join our network, or start your own. Go find a mentor. Or, better yet, find someone to be a mentor to.



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