Empowering The Next Generation of Women in STEM

By Gizmodo Australia on at

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, 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.

"It's about building resilience, persistence and problem solving skills."

"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."

"I persevere because demonstrating persistence, and a constant love of acquiring new information is possibly the best skill you can impart."

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."


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