Cultivating women in STEM

Article by Freya Campion, Director of STEM Strategy and Innovation
Kambala School, NSW / 13 September 2021

It is no secret that STEM based roles, and skills to acquit these positions, are growing. The National STEM School Strategy (2016-2026) highlights that 75 per cent of roles in the future will require STEM based skills, and growth in STEM based occupations was, in 2018, 6.3 per cent higher than in non-STEM based occupations (Australian Bureau of National Statistics, 2018).

Fig 1: Employment growth in STEM vs non-STEM related occupations – Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018).

Despite this growth, women remain underrepresented in STEM roles. In 2015, men held 76 per cent of the share of STEM jobs, compared to 24 per cent of women.

Fig 2: Percentage of women vs men in STEM jobs in 2015. Source: Noonan, 2017.

This gap has reduced somewhat; it is now thought that women make up 28 per cent of STEM roles, with increases evident in women enrolling in STEM fields at university, but men are 1.8 times more likely than women to remain in a STEM role 5 years after graduating (Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, 2021).

As educators we must recognise these areas of growth in the job market and devise strategies to prepare our young women to succeed in the STEM workforce. We must engage them and encourage them to be excited and curious about STEM based careers, as well as equipping them with an armoury of skills to be successful in STEM-related degrees and subsequently, in their careers.

Kambala is a P-12 girls’ school, offering the HSC and IB, located in Rose Bay, Sydney. It has an exceptional reputation in Humanities, topping the state in HSC English in 2019 (Kambala, 2019). Students are diligent, striving for excellence in academic areas and a wide range of extra-curricular activities. Of course, there are many other high performing girls’ schools undertaking similar programs with great success, providing deep foundations for our future employment opportunities for women.

In schools like Kambala, with a strong history in the Humanities, ensuring students recognise the value of STEM can be challenging. The key to our success was to devise and execute a school wide STEM Strategy which has driven student (and parent) interest and engagement.

The STEM Strategy is running from 2020-2023 and comprises three pillars:

  • A ‘focus on the independent STEM disciplines.’ Initiatives include the support and development of teachers within STEM based subjects in order to enhance teaching and learning, as well as increasing student engagement by implementing workshops and providing speakers beyond curriculum time to show the real-world applications of STEM subjects. The aim is to increase uptake within these subjects both at HSC/IB and University levels.
  • A focus on the ‘development of STEM related capabilities and skills.’ Initiatives include the implementation of cross departmental STEM experiences, STEM clubs that run from Transition to Year 12 and the creation of a STEM Committee (Prefects and Senior Leaders who take responsibility for creating and running STEM activities and competitions).
  • A focus on ‘connections with industry and the broader community.’ This aims to expose students to real world experiences and understand STEM careers through a range of opportunities.

View Kambala STEM strategic plan

A recent government article (Government News Team, 2021) spoke of the importance of immersion and increased visibility in the workplace as key components drawing young women into STEM industries. The Women in STEM forum at Kambala does this by hosting women who speak about their careers (from aviation, to forensics and film), how they got there, what interests them, and the highs and lows of being a woman in their role. Students are able to interact with the speakers in order to gain further insight. Additionally, we have started the ‘Women in STEM’ page on our Learning Management System, to whom students can submit questions in order to find out more about them and their work.

This initiative consistently garners positive feedback, with our STEM Prefects explaining,

…we see it as a crucial steppingstone, offering our Kambala community these incredible opportunities to interact with old girls and provide them with further guidance on STEM careers. This allows them to learn about potential career pathways and not see this transitional process as something to be feared, but one of excitement.

This program has been successful to date, as it allows girls to meet women in STEM and find out about the ‘nitty gritty’ of the job, with real life examples of qualifications and career paths. It allows students to understand that career progression is often not linear,  freeing them from the anxiety of securing their future with their immediate post Year 12 choices. The program has allowed for some students (who tell me on the way into the forum that they are ‘not interested in STEM’) to hear about careers they did not even know about. Finally, it has allowed for mentorship which is key to motivation and development of women in STEM roles. Developing these relationships with inspiring women in their profession of interest is an invaluable tool towards encouragement and professional ideas.

The second aspect to this pillar is the Kambala STEM Industry Immersion Program. The School wanted to steer away from traditional work experience models, which can often be very observational in nature. As the title of the program suggests, girls are immersed in the industry they visit; working within a team and producing material that would offer a valuable contribution to the workplace. This shows the diverse processes that form the day to day interactions of individual roles, allowing the girls to gain real insight into the workplace and the role itself.

The program utilises a variety of companies from Qantas to Nine, to a farm in rural New South Wales. Students undergo a rigorous application and interview process, giving them the experience of applying for a job and preparing for a formal interview. Each year we have placed around 20 students who are given complete ownership over their placement. Students spend two weeks immersed in their mentor’s team, and are required to produce a research project, which they present formally, demonstrating their learning progress through the placement.

An example of this in action is at Qantas. Two students noted that they were interested in pilot flight and rest time. Whilst working with their team, they created a flowchart and an app that would enable Qantas to regulate rest. From their ideas and contributions Qantas has since the built the app which is now used by flight crew.


Fig 4: The flow chart and app created by Kambala students during their immersion experience at Qantas.

On return, the students are surveyed as to their placement. Feedback from this Qantas placement was that,

…the opportunities that we were given were great as they allowed us to see many aspects of the aviation industry. The contrasting work environments such as the office environment and the on-site environment were handled well, as we were exposed to both parts of the industry. I very much enjoyed going to the airport and inspecting the plane as well as problem solving.

Feedback is consistently positive across the STEM Industry Immersion Program, and it enables us to refine our processes to give more valuable experiences.  One such area has been the leveraging of the placement as a tool for future preparedness and as an item to be used in university applications. With many universities moving towards Early Entry programs – such as the Edge Program for Engineering and IT at UTS (UTS, 2021), the importance of an in-depth and exciting portfolio is growing.

To formalise the experiences and learning from the placements, we created pathways on Portfolium that allow for students to demonstrate their learning, and to assign skills; highlighting their growth in specific skill sets. This enables the Program to benefit students not only when on placement, through development of skills, but also afterward when they reflect upon and continually utilise their learning process.

Fig 5: An example of the Kambala STEM Industry Immersion Program learning pathway on Portfolium, showing the student work and the skills selected.

The importance of STEM in education is growing, and as educators it is vital that we prepare our students for the world outside of our schools, developing their interest, engagement and skills. Through the implementation of Kambala’s STEM Strategy we are confident that we are providing girls with the tools and opportunities they will need to become successful Women in STEM. However, there will always be more to achieve, and we are already looking at how to continue to develop STEM post the 2020-2023 Strategy. There are opportunities to develop ‘entrepreneurship electives’ in middle school in order to develop not only STEM skills but also idea invention and innovation and how to conceive a start-up itself.  How we accommodate this STEM movement will no doubt differ from school to school, but it is also vital to share ideas and expertise so we can ensure that we collectively prepare our students for success in this changing and fast paced world, in the best ways possible.