After two years of virtual conferences, more than 1,700 school-aged girls from more than 70 Victorian schools will converge on Deakin University’s Burwood campus on 18 August for a day of experiential learning designed to pique their interest in STEM subjects and careers.

Hosted by not-for-profit organisation Vic ICT for Women, the conference – called Go Girl, Go For IT – will include a range of workshops, hands-on demonstrations and technologies including robotics, virtual reality, 3D printing, and more across a range of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

The ability to offer Grade 5 to Year 12 students hands-on exposure to technology-related exhibits, made possible this year after two years in which the events were pushed online, is “incredibly important” in invigorating students’ interest in critical technical fields, noted Jessica Huynh, volunteer and managing director of the conference that she called “a showcase of STEM careers designed to put stars in their eyes.”

“We need to help overcome stereotypes and misconceptions,” she added, “because research has shown that girls as young as 11 years old decide what they’re good and bad at.”

The Department of Industry, Science and Resources’ most recent STEM Equity Monitor found girls aged 12 and 13 still have a strong belief in their abilities, with just 12 per cent saying they aren’t smart enough to be studying STEM subjects.

By the time those girls reach 18, that number has more than tripled, with 41 per cent believing they aren’t smart enough for STEM.

Contemporaneously, interest in STEM subjects drops off steadily as girls progress through their teenage years: for example, while 52 per cent and 37 per cent of young girls express interest in mathematics and engineering subjects, respectively, those proportions drop to 35 per cent and 27 per cent by the time they reach university age.

Early intervention is seen as critical to reducing the disenfranchisement of girls from tech, and research has shown that students warm to STEM if it’s taught right.

And that, Huynh said, is why the event “specifically focuses on that age group, to help them understand all the possibilities a STEM career can give them.”

Priming the skills pipeline

As with a growing roster of student-focused programs, increasingly targeted engagement with young girls is designed to stoke their interest in critical technology areas before they strike STEM subjects off of their list of potential careers.

The event has proven to be a drawcard for both urban and regional schools, with Ringwood’s Yarra Valley Grammar sending 210 girls to this year’s event and hundreds of girls bussing more than 2.5 hours to get there.

“Being a country school over three hours away, there are not many opportunities for our girls to access anything like this,” said Travis Cartwright, IT leader at Echuca Primary School in northern Victoria.

The event “offered girls who are interested in IT a platform to see that they will need IT skills in the future,” he said.

“Girls at our school are not exposed to ICT skills, especially in realising where they need to use them and how most careers are impacted by ICT.”

Recognising that girls play a large role in the future workforce, corporate sponsors are lining up, with the likes of ANZ, NAB, JOST & Co, Australia Post, TPG Telecom, Art Processors, Aleph Labs, ASD, Carsales, and more signing on.

As well as getting early access to the next generation of STEM talent, such companies are also building bridges to what is becoming an increasingly vocal and powerful community of female entrepreneurs.

The vibrance of that community was evident in LaunchVic’s recent announcement that its Alice Anderson Fund has supported 11 women-led startups in its first year of operation.

Those early-stage startups – which each received between $50,000 and $300,000 in support – unlocked more than $12.5 million of capital and delivered close to $2.5 million in direct investments, with a further $10 million from private investors.

That included healthtech company Telecare, which recently closed a $2.2 million seed funding round with the support of Australian Medical Angels and is scaling up a virtual medical clinic that has already delivered over 40,000 virtual medical consultations.

“LaunchVic is working to close the gender investment gap by backing women-founded businesses at their earliest stages,” said LaunchVic CEO Dr Kate Cornick, “so they have every opportunity to succeed in entrepreneurship.”