Getting more girls to participate in technology is one of the challenges in an increasingly digital world.
DigiGirlz, organised by Microsoft in partnership with Auckland University of Technology on May 19, has addressed the problem by expanding the definition of tech.
“The whole premise behind the event is to highlight to the girls that there are so many different careers in technology,” said Sarah Bowden, Microsoft New Zealand’s Small, Medium and Corporate Business Lead.
“It’s not just about coding and robotics. Every career they choose will fundamentally have technology underpinning it.”
A common response from girls when asked about technology is that “it’s a boys’ thing”, Bowden said.
“What we’re trying to encourage is a change in that perception, so girls feel comfortable that technology is something they should be pursuing.”
The gender imbalance has been highlighted by Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Clare Curran, who notes that just 23% of employees in New Zealand’s technology sector are women.
“It needs to be much higher,” she said in a speech in Wellington on May 21 at ShadowTech, which pairs girls for a day with women working in IT and in which Microsoft participated.
DigiGirlz is designed to inspire female students to consider a job related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Around 70 school pupils attended the Auckland event, which included speakers in what might not be considered conventional tech jobs.
Politics graduate Rachael Crosby is a digital strategist with creative digital marketing agency YoungShand, solving clients’ business problems using digital channels.
Her decision to pursue a tech-based career came as she did research for her master’s degree at the University of Auckland.
Her thesis compared the social media use by the two main contenders for an electorate seat in the 2011 general election.
That year, Jacinda Ardern – who became Prime Minister after the September 2017 election – was Labour’s candidate against National’s Nikki Kaye in Auckland Central.
“I chose them because they were both young women and were both starting to use social media,” Crosby said.
“You fast-track to now and you see Labour press conferences live on Facebook, which we would never have imagined a few years ago.”
Her research made her realize: “I really love the whole social media business side of things.”
Crosby is encouraging girls to consider a tech future of their own and her advice is to embrace change, believe that nothing is impossible, and have a focus.
“You don’t have to be good at everything – I tried coding a couple of times and I’m useless at it,” she said.
“You just have to focus on what really gets you going and use that to go forward.”
Elise Beavis has managed to take what gets her going – sailing – and fulfil her dream of working for America’s Cup syndicate Emirates Team New Zealand.
“I thought it would be maybe down the track, when I’m in my thirties or forties, that I’d finally get there,” the 23-year-old University of Auckland engineering graduate said.
A specialist in computational fluid dynamics, she joined ETNZ on an internship and stayed on as the syndicate prepared to challenge for the America’s Cup in Bermuda in June 2017.
ETNZ went on to claim yachting’s biggest prize and Beavis has since helped in designing the new class of boat for the next cup regatta in Auckland in 2021.
Her advice to girls is to be aware that technology is a big part of the present and will only become bigger.
As well as role models, DigiGirlz included hands-on activities, with the participants getting experience of the Microsoft HoloLens and of robotics.
Yuvika Sharma, a year-seven pupil at Ormiston Junior College, was pleasantly surprised when she did some coding to get a model car to go around a track.
“Before coming here, I used to think robotics was boring and it just irritated me because I didn’t know how to do it properly,” she said.
“I found out how you actually do it and it got better and better each time. I’m looking forward to doing more robotics.”
The message that so many jobs are underpinned by technology struck home with Yuvika, and also Jade Nomani, a year-eight student at St Kentigerns Girls’ School.
“I really thought tech was pretty boring to be honest” Jade said. “I really had no idea it impacted different areas, like filming, photography, fashion.”
Hearing from the event’s speakers has encouraged her to consider going down the tech track.
“They’re women and I thought: if they can achieve what they’ve achieved, I can go out there and do it.”
DigiGirlz will be repeated in Wellington on June 27 in partnership with Transpower, adding to the programme’s impact across New Zealand.