Wanted: Female Stem professionals

Today, they are young girls taking apart printers and doodling designs for drones.

Tomorrow, they could be making the next great scientific breakthrough.

Such is the vision of Girls2Pioneers, a campaign to get more young girls in Singapore interested in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).

Founded last year by the Singapore Committee for UN Women, the programme holds day camps and field trips for girls aged 10 to 15, exposing them to fields that range from engineering and cyber security to astrobiology.

Girls2Pioneers organiser Mrinalini Venkatachalam said that gender stereotypes and a lack of female role models can discourage girls from taking the courses necessary to enter these fields.

According to a 2010 survey by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), the proportion of men outweighed women by 30 per cent in Singapore's engineering and technology sectors.

There were about 19,000 male Stem researchers and scientists to about 6,700 female ones, and only 27 per cent of IT professionals were women.

Ms Venkatachalam, 30, said: "We're keen to empower the next-generation workforce in Stem.

"So much innovation and change is coming out of these four areas and it's appalling that half the population might not have the access to becoming a key part of those solutions."

The programme organised about 30 day camps for 3,000 girls last year.

Sponsored this year by MasterCard, it aims to reach out to another 3,000.

During the camps, the girls try their hand at activities such as building aqueducts from recycled materials, learning to write computer code, and even designing alien life forms.

They also get to go on field trips to Stem facilities.

On a visit to a cancer research lab, they experimented with cell samples. On another to the Hewlett-Packard factory, they discovered how printer parts are manufactured.

Although the programme involves girls from all walks of life, Ms Venkatachalam said it is especially crucial for them to reach out to girls from low-income or at-risk backgrounds.

The group contacts them through family service centres and shelters.

She said: "These girls are doubly disadvantaged because their parents can't afford to send them for programmes or give them the same level of privilege as other students."

Girls2Pioneers also works with parents, teachers and employers to challenge existing stereotypes about women's roles in Stem.

Ms Venkatachalam said many parents she met worry that their daughters may not have a full family life if they enter demanding fields like Stem.

"But what if by doing this, you're restricting the next Marie Curie?"

Tanjong Katong Girls' School student Sneha Babu, who attended a recent programme, has decided she wants to be a stem cell expert.

"Science is really an interesting topic, as you can ask a lot of questions about it and you can theorise answers, discover and explore," said the 14-year-old.

"I would be the first girl in my family to go to college and study. I want to help the community and pursue my dreams."

Added Da Qiao Primary pupil Rachel Foo, 11, who attended a Girls2Pioneers day camp: "I like technology because with technology, you can make things, that you could only imagine, real."


This article was first published on June 20, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.