Willow Bingley, there’s a lot resting on your shoulders.
Willow, aged 15 and who has just finished year 9 at St Francis Xavier College in Canberra, has been singled out for intensive mentoring in a program aimed at getting more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.
That comes as data shows women continue to be severely under-represented in STEM professions; the office of the chief scientist says only 16 per cent of university and vocational training STEM graduates were female in 2016. And a woeful 17 per cent of STEM professors are female, even though 40 per cent of junior STEM academics are women.
The Curious Minds program, running at the University of NSW in Sydney this week, will match each of 58 girls from years 8, 9 and 10 with a woman scientist. The students have been selected on the strength of their performance in school science and maths competitions. They’ll spend a week studying physics, chemistry and mathematics, then be matched with a mentor.
For the next six months, they’ll meet weekly with their mentors to discuss science news, career paths and study options.
“I definitely want to go to university and study vet science,” Willow said. “I get the general thing about how all things work. I feel like I could always learn more. I do pretty well at maths. I find the class work is quite easy for me to understand. Actually I got 69.5 out of 70 for a trig test.”
Not all students have pinpointed their interest area. PhD candidate and Australian Signals Directorate mathematician Chaitanya Shettigara will be one of the mentors this week. She’s mentored twice before and says not all people in the program are focused on careers yet.
“STEM social groups are male dominated,” she said. “Science clubs and computer clubs are male dominated. Programs like this are aimed at girls being comfortable so they can see their pathways.”
Curious Minds is funded by the federal government and its patron, science director of manufacturing at the CSIRO Cathy Foley, says the worst imbalance is in physical sciences such as mechanical or electrical engineering.
“Mechanical sciences are attracting 5 or 10 per cent of women,” Dr Foley said. “In my field [super conducting], it might be up to 15 per cent. But it doesn’t have to be that low. In my immediate group it’s about 50 per cent so, if you’ve got the culture right, you can lift to higher levels.
“The careers and jobs in the future are all going to be in tech, engineering and science. If you look at the companies that are that are going ahead, they’re all technology based. If girls are steering away from STEM subjects, we’re losing.”
The most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – a major global report produced every four years, and which came out in December 2016 – showed Australian school children were falling behind other countries in maths and science and at least a quarter of year 4 and year 8 students were not meeting the international benchmark.