Creating a generation of changemake-hers

Issue: Volume 98, Number 13

Posted: 1 August 2019
Reference #: 1H9wW9

Students at Wainuiomata High School were visited by ‘GirlBoss’ Alexia Hilbertidou on her tour of New Zealand schools and participated in workshops that encourage young women to pursue STEM careers and leadership roles.

One of GirlBoss founder Alexia Hilbertidou’s favourite statistics highlights the fact that in New Zealand there are more CEOs named John than there are CEOs who are female.

Speaking to a group of young women at Wainuiomata High School, Alexia uses the statistic to highlight the gender gap – not just in female representation in leadership, but under-representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), where the number of young women entering jobs in these fields is significantly lower than that of their male counterparts.

Wainuiomata High is one of 20 stops on GirlBoss’ tour of wharekura and secondary schools around New Zealand. Alexia says that the workshops encourage young women to defy stereotypes and realise that they can go into any field that they choose. “They also teach students how to make positive change in their communities through science and technology,” she says. 

“I really emphasise science, technology, engineering and maths because they are careers where girls can scale their impact on the world. Regardless of their passion area, regardless of what industry they would like to go into, they can use science and technology as a tool to create such positive change. It’s really important that our young women are part of that journey.”

Challenging gender roles

“I’ve wanted to be a nurse since I was a little girl, and this has boosted my confidence and made me want to do it even more. It’s helped me to be more confident.” Trazel

Though among the fastest growing industries in New Zealand, technology paths such as computer science see the biggest drop off in interest for young women when they are between the ages of 13 and 17.

Wainuiomata High teacher Cherie Holmes believes it’s because of preconceived ideas that jobs are gender specific. 

“If I talk to girls about trades, or about a girl being a mechanic, the response is ‘…huh?’ It’s still about how those careers are perceived.”

“I’ll have people from trades companies come in, and they will say to me, ‘Have you got any lads that want to do this?’ They’re never saying, ‘Have you got any students?’ It’s ‘have you got any men, have you got any boys that are keen?’ The language, the way we talk about these roles, isn’t there. We need to be changing our ideas.”

Her students agree. Head students Eva Bryant and Cerie Milovale observed that STEM careers are so male-dominated that it has become a stereotype. 

“That stereotype has stifled our mindset, so we think, ‘oh, I can’t do that’,” says Eva.

Growing confidence

Another factor, says Alexia, is misconceptions of difficulty. 

“Despite men and women’s equal ability in maths in NCEA in New Zealand, young women rate their maths ability 30 per cent lower than young men do. Confidence is a really big part of it.”

She says that often young women believe STEM subjects are too challenging. 

“They don’t have the self-belief that they can actually succeed in those fields. In their heads, they imagine Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk… and they go, ‘you know what, I don’t feel that I’m capable of doing that’.”

Preparing for the future

“It was so inspirational. I thought we were just going to do a bunch of stuff about science, but instead I learned that I can make a change in the world, and that I shouldn’t stop myself from doing something because I don’t think I can do it; I should just go for it. It’s changed my perspective on science and how it works, and how I can use it to make a change.” Lucy

The world of work continues to change and it’s important that students are well prepared for the future. 

Alexia says she’s really motivated by the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, which shows that women’s current dominance in fields such as administration and retail means they are going to be the hardest hit by the rise of automation.

“They have such low representation in science and technology, engineering and maths, entrepreneurship, which are set to grow. We’re really passionate about mitigating that by encouraging women into these exciting fields.”

Alexia says she’s fortunate to be able to reach out to more girls in schools, particularly in the regions. 

“Sometimes that opportunity just isn’t there. What I’m really passionate about is widening that viewpoint of what’s out there and what’s available for them to go into.” 

Lightbulb moment

Alexia says that often she will go into a school and see just two or three young women considering a career in STEM fields. 

“But we’re really seeing that shift. By the end of the programme, around 90 per cent are considering a career in STEM. I’ve seen girls who come through our programmes have that lightbulb moment, and now they’re studying engineering at university.”

As head of careers at Wainuiomata High, Cherie readily agrees, highlighting that whether or not the workshops got her students into STEM careers, they have given them confidence and demonstrated to them that girls can succeed.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:15 pm, 1 August 2019

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