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Girls mean business

Young people entering the workforce today are likely to have at least seven different careers during their working lives, and many of today's careers won't exist in 10 years.

Research shows that a lack of female role models and a lack of confidence are the main reasons girls think STEM careers are not an option for them. Pic Getty.

Transferable skills, which can be used in any career, are thus becoming vital for young people to master if they are to thrive in the rapidly-changing future of work. These entrepreneurial skills include critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, creativity, confidence, resilience, willingness to take risks, ability to learn from failure, and problem solving.

Dr Christine Woods, associate professor in entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland Business School, says that while everyone can benefit from being entrepreneurial, girls seem to have trouble learning or retaining some of these skills, particularly confidence.

“Studies show that girls as young as 6 believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, and that being ‘brilliant’ is a male quality,” says Woods.

“Women are also both underrepresented and underpaid in numerous fields such as business, science, technology, and engineering.”

Keen to change this perception, Woods has co-created a social enterprise, ‘Girls Mean Business’ (GMB) with Dr Laura Sessions, an entrepreneur with a PhD in science communication. The women have partnered with The University of Auckland and the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset in girls by designing programmes for primary and high-school students.

Having successfully piloted a holiday programme for 19 primary-school-aged girls, the programmes will soon be rolled out across New Zealand. Woods says they’re focusing on the 8-13 age group, “because we found there is a real gap in entrepreneurial education for girls this age”.

The flagship primary school programme has girls working in teams to develop their own business idea, and then test that idea to determine if it is a feasible business opportunity.
“They learn about ‘knowing the numbers’ and what it means to ‘break even’ as well as how to plan and market their idea. On the last day, they present their idea to family and friends,” says Woods.

The programmes are available on request and are currently four half-days during the school holidays, with an after-school format in the pipeline.

GMB can either facilitate the programme or train group leaders. “If you’re interested in starting a programme or enrolling your daughter in an existing programme, please get in touch,” says Woods.

Later this year, GMB will launch high school international programmes with a plan to take groups to the USA to study entrepreneurship and innovation, and bring American students here to study earth and marine sciences. Professional women and female university students will teach the students, who will in turn volunteer at a primary school to teach younger girls.

“This inter-generational model will provide a support network for girls for the rest of their careers, as they move through the different life phases from high school to university to the workforce,” says Woods.

Woods says girls start opting out of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) during their high school years, and by adulthood the gender gap in STEM-related jobs is stark, with only 13 per cent of those employed in engineering and architecture being women.

She says this is because of a range of societal factors, including a lack of role models and the perception that certain subjects are not ‘appropriate’ or even achievable for girls. “This is actually starting to change at high-school level, but once girls get to university and into the workforce, their numbers really start declining in STEM fields.

“We are trying to build support for girls through multi-generational networks that will help prevent this.”

Woods says there is a moral imperative to keep girls engaged in STEM subjects, but also an economic one.

“A 2011 study estimated that in the Asia and Pacific regions, between US$16 billion [$23 billion] to US$30 billion is lost annually as a result of gender gaps in education.”
Research shows that a lack of female role models and a lack of confidence are the main reasons girls think STEM careers are not an option for them.

“Having more women as role models and mentors will make STEM subjects more engaging for girls to learn, and give them the confidence to continue in them.

“Our programmes specifically focus on these two factors to change this mindset, and we think the programmes can make measurable and significant changes,” says Woods.

“People say ‘girls can do anything’, but the tragedy is that many girls believe they can’t. Girls tend to try to gain approval, while boys are more willing to take risks.

“This can translate into girls ‘playing it safe’ and being hard on themselves when they make mistakes. We teach girls that it is okay to take risks and to make mistakes and then learn from them.”



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