Friday, March 31, 2023

Promoting Equality In The Future of Tech: Meet The Computer Engineer Trying To Close the STEM Gender Gap

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Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh juggles many hats. Not only is she a computer engineer, senior lecturer and Director of Women in Tech at AUT, she is also the founder of She Sharp, a charitable trust and learning community for women and girls looking to make their place in the technology sector. She was also recently appointed to the board of Variety – the Children’s Charity, an organisation dedicated to supporting children and young people in need across New Zealand. Having been part of the minority of women in tech during most of her study, Mahsa has written this guest letter for Capsule about why she wants to disrupt the status quo by encouraging girls to take up a STEM-based career.      

As the school year begins, many students from around the country will be offered the choice to study maths, science, engineering and technology (STEM) subjects. This is an opportunity to educate students – especially girls – about the wider STEM industry, and the career opportunities that lay ahead.

The gender gap in New Zealand’s STEM industry is alarming, with only 20 per cent of women working in the STEM field. In addition, only 13 per cent of the engineering workforce are women and 23 per cent of women make up the IT sector.

Closing the gender gap in STEM starts with educating girls at school when they’re young and continuing to cultivate their interest throughout their education.

Whether it be through the school curriculum or by attending extra-curricular activities, we should be providing female students with the right opportunities, resources, role models and enthusiasm about STEM subjects – so that we can help encourage more girls to explore these fields and the career paths these subjects can take them on.

Considering how technology is reshaping everything we know about our world, it’s not difficult to understand the importance of taking the right steps in its development.

Everyone uses technology to some extent, and considering the population demographics, half of technology users are women. That being the case, it’s not unreasonable to say that there should be a corresponding representation of women at the technology development level.

Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh

No one can deny the evidence of the benefits that a balanced, diverse workplace brings – increased productivity, efficiency, and innovation. It’s been shown that companies with gender diverse teams consistently outperform those with a gender imbalance. This is because diverse teams are more adaptable and have a broader spectrum of experience and mentality.

One of the most effective ways to promote and encourage more girls to consider tech as a career path is to highlight female role models in these fields – women who our next generation of girls can aspire to be like.

For myself, I was particularly inspired by Dr Anita Borg, and her vision of closing the gender gap. She was an American computer scientist who founded the Institute for Women and Technology and started a digital community for women in computing way back in 1987. Seeing how she paved the way for other women in tech has been one of my biggest inspirations and continues to help drive me in the work I’m doing now through She Sharp.

Another way to promote this sector is to showcase the different paths a career in tech can take, by removing any discouraging misconceptions that can turn girls away.      

Movies, television shows and other popular media have historically depicted the tech industry to be male-dominated and filled with negative ‘nerd’ stereotypes, which creates a false perception for the younger generation. Being subconsciously exposed to these ideas tends to lead to a preconception of who ‘should’ work in technology fields, which holds girls back from their huge potential.

At She Sharp, we use both these approaches to help stimulate interest in STEM. Through hosting events, high-profile women in tech can share their career experiences with the next generation, and we also visit high schools on their tech days, showing high school girls the exciting and varied work that a tech career encompasses.    

All this being said, there’s also the foundational barrier (that is often forgotten) to a career in technology: poverty. Going to school and learning more about STEM is something all girls (and boys) should have access to, yet that isn’t the case in Aotearoa. Currently 1 in 5 Kiwi kids go without the basics such as clothing, warm bedding and school essentials like uniforms and stationery – because their families struggle to pay for food and rent. That’s why when I was offered a chance to become a board member at Variety, I immediately said yes.

By supporting Variety’s work, either through child sponsorship or by contributing to their appeals, we can offer all children and young people the opportunity to live to their greatest potential – and hopefully find themselves one day making waves in New Zealand’s tech sector!

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