Does Mentoring Girls in STEM work?


75% of the fastest growing occupations require science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills. The variety of professional roles open to graduates is much greater than those accessible through year 12 completion. Yet girls and women are severely under-represented in STEM subjects at school and university. That means fewer women in occupations requiring STEM skills – and in the future that’s likely to be most of them!

Why so few girls in STEM?

I asked mentors in a new program for girls, to talk about the barriers and obstacles that reduced girls’ participation STEM. Their own experiences included:


  • Early gender conditioning and stereotyping
  • Lack of female role models
  • The isolation of girls and women being the minority
  • Lack of confidence, fear of failure
  • Self-doubt and imposter syndrome
  • Nerd culture that is not attractive to girls
  • Lack of knowledge about careers

The number of high school students taking intermediate and advance maths has been dropping for the last 20 years and girls participation is significantly lower than boys. Given that higher level maths is a prerequisite for engineering, IT and science at university, girls progress will be blocked.

Image Credit: Courtesy Company


We are getting some traction in challenging gender stereotyping. Disney was chastised in a social media campaign #WheresRey, after it failed to include the woman protagonist of a recent Star Wars movie in the figurine merchandise. Meanwhile, we’ll see a female lead in the next Dr. Who series and Lego has released a mini set of female scientists (the idea of geochemist, Dr. Ellen Kooijman). There is still a long way to go. Obviously, mentoring isn’t the complete answer, but it has a lot to offer.


What do mentors do for girls in STEM?

Mentors can:

  • Get girls thinking about possibilities for themselves
  • Point to and encourage them to see role models
  • Explore a wide variety of careers
  • Help them see themselves, their talents and strengths
  • Be a role model – share their challenges and achievements


Mentoring gets results!

Recently released findings show the difference mentoring makes for 13-17 year old girls. The Curious Minds program, funded by the Australian Government and administered by Australian Science Innovations and Australian Mathematics Trust, is now in its third year. One hundred and eight high achieving girls with limited opportunities participated in Curious Minds between 2015-2017. The infographic below tells the story. A similar program for boys and girls DigIT, began in 2016 and links students with professionals in ICT related occupations. Both programs sandwich 6 months of mentoring between 3-4 day academic camps involving supercharged sessions, excursions, guest lectures, career speed dating and experience on a university campus.



A program that is partnership between the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and the BHP Billiton Foundation runs a different model. CHOOSEMATHS uses online mentoring circles to change attitudes, increase participation in maths studies and improve maths-related career choices for girls.


I’ve had the privilege of working with all three of these programs. What I’ve noticed is the passion of the (mostly female) mentors and organisers. It is a thrill to see students’ enthusiasm for STEM grow and the innovation and creativity of their projects and presentations at the end.


“The growth of jobs requiring STEM skills far outweighs the growth in other areas.

So, can we really afford to push this issue aside and accept that in the future, male students will have more job opportunities available to them than their female counterparts?”


Dr. Megan Sebben, Hydrologist, supported last year’s Flinders University “Illuminating the face of (women in) STEM”


Programs like Curious Minds, DigIT and CHOOSEMATHS are important not just to the girls

and boys who participate, they are vital for al of us. We need all the young people we can to develop their talents and skills for the future, so we all survive and thrive in an exciting and demanding world built on science, technology, engineering and maths.












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About Ann Rolfe

Ann Rolfe is internationally recognised as Australia's leading specialist in mentoring, and is available for speaking, training and consulting. Here Ann shares her knowledge and allows you to ask your most pressing questions about mentoring.

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