The long-term solution to women being underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) lies in fostering gender equality in the classroom, according to Sarah Moran, co-founder and CEO of social impact business Girl Geek Academy.
The Melbourne-based marketer, unapologetic geek and “Let’s Talk…” contributor spoke to Dynamic Business about the barriers women face to carving out successful careers in STEM, the support Girl Geek Academy is providing women at all stages at the talent pipeline, the need for gender equality to be everyone’s priority and how Australia compares to Silicon Valley.
DB: What is the elevator pitch for Girl Geek Academy?
Moran: Girl Geek Academy is Australia’s first organisation solely dedicated to boosting the number of women leading successful careers in STEM fields. We do this by working with companies, schools and governments to improve their capacity to support women at all stages of the talent pipeline – from school-age girls through to women in senior technology leadership roles.
We work with some of the best people in the industry, both men and women, to build programs that will increase the number of women working in STEM fields. Our key programs include #MissMakesCode, which presents STEM to girls from the age of five in a fun format, hackathons like #SheHacks and our upcoming #SheHacksGames, which will see us assemble teams of women with complementary skills and mentor them to build a product – be it a video game, a mobile app or online marketplace.
We also provide services directly to corporates, often in the form of collaborative problem solving. We say, “what problem can we solve together?” and we find the resources to take action and get on with doing it.
DB: What motivated you and your co-founders to launch the company
Moran: I have always been a girl geek – I learned to code at the age of five and have fallen in love with how the internet has shaped our lives. So, when I was working in marketing for some of Australia’s most innovative companies, I thought to myself “how can we make working in tech as cool and attractive as these major brands?”
I met my Girl Geek Academy co-founders Lisy Kane, Tammy Butow, Amanda Watts and April Staines while working on various ‘women in tech” initiatives’. When Tammy launched the world’s first all-women hackathon, #SheHacks, that inspired the five of us to launch Girl Geek Academy in 2014. Tired of being the only girl geeks in the room, my co-founders and I resolved to build communities and support networks surrounding women in tech, providing them with a safe space where they can come together, network, be inspired by those in the industry, and potentially build a business.
Today, we work tirelessly to see an increase of women in tech, women in games, women who make, female designers and female founders. Our mission is to teach 1 million Australian women to build technology and create startups by 2025.
DB: What are some of the successes you’ve had with Girl Geek Academy?
Moran: The Girl Geek in Residence program is by far our most innovative program to date. Through it, we’ve collaborated with one of Australia’s largest banks, NAB, to increase the number of women in senior technology leadership roles. We have since been able to scale this program to a prominent girls’ school in Melbourne as well as ACMI, where we supported the delivery of their Xcel technology accelerator. This process has enabled us to collaborate in a way that’s embedded across a number of organisations rather than everyone working in pieces across the ecosystem.
On a more personal note, my co-founders and I love to hear how we’ve inspired girls and women to fight for their position in the technology industry. Lisy recently received an email from a computer science student. She told Lisy she had been suffering discrimination from her mostly-male peer group plus racist and sexist remarks online in the gaming community – to the point where she was forced to stop playing. By sharing her own story, Lisy cleared up a lot of the student’s doubts about being a woman in the game development industry, which is where her passion lies. Receiving feedback like that is everything to us and provides validation as to why we created Girl Geek Academy.
Another interesting success story is actually one of my Girl Geek Academy co-founders, Amanda. She co-founded brand delivery platform BrandSpot with a startup founder she met during a #SheHacks event, proving first-hand how this initiative is working to create more women-led startups in Australia.
DB: What are the barriers women face to having successful STEM careers?
Moran: One of the issues we’re unpacking right now is the retention of women in the technology industry. We frequently hear about women who have left the industry due to toxic cultures. Part of what we do is to upskill and support women to pursue STEM-based careers, but what happens when they make it? It’s all for naught if there isn’t enough support within the industry to make it a safe and inclusive place for women to work. One of the most insidious barriers we are tackling is unconscious bias. It’s one thing to overtly and actively exclude a demographic from your workplace, but what about if you don’t even know you’re doing it? It’s important that we reprogram ourselves to refrain from using language and behaviour that can create non-inclusive workplace environments.
Having worked in the tech industry in both Australia and Silicon Valley, I can confirm that sexism in the U.S. technology industry is much more entrenched than in Australia. And that is because we are a newer market, so we need to learn lessons and make sure we don’t head down that path. That’s not to say that Australia is perfect by any means, we still have kinks to iron out, but I do feel like the industry here is more on board with equality and there are a lot of voices contributing to this.
DB: Given these barriers, what must female startup founders do to succeed?
Moran: They need to know the how the system works and how to position themselves in that system to be a backable founder. Part of what we do with our Girl Geek Academy initiatives is to work with women to develop their startup skills (technical skills, pitching, business acumen) as well as building confidence and the ability to communicate directly and unapologetically. We often curate impressive, high-achieving women to be the keynotes at our events – for example, Holly Liu, who started gaming company Kabam in her garage and later sold it for over one-billion US dollars, making it a real-life unicorn. It’s important that women be able to see role models like Holly and know that there is the possibility they can achieve the same success.
The most important tool a woman can have is a solid support network. It’s important for women to extend a hand and help others climb the ladder. And it’s even more important for women to be visible as role models and show other women that a software engineer, game developer or startup founder looks just like them.
DB: What big conversation needs to happen in Australia to remove barriers?
Moran: The big conversation needs to focus on education system. Specifically, we need to tackle the incorrect assumption that “girls are less interested in STEM than boys”. If we continue to plug this assumption, then we’re effectively fostering this mindset in young girls before they’ve even been exposed to STEM. Research shows girls start to develop gendered beliefs around intelligence at age 6, so it’s critical that we work with schools, parents, and society to expel this myth and ensure girls are electing to continue with STEM studies at HSC and university levels. By first creating gender equality in the classrooms, this will then transcend into the workforce. This is the long-term solution.
For those already in the workforce, we need to tackle the ‘boys club’ mentality that prevails in the technology industry and make women feel comfortable and included. That includes more women visible in leadership positions, and also more men working with us to understand the issues, so we can all work together to resolve it. Gender equality in the workplace should be everyone’s priority, it’s not just a nice-to-have. It largely goes unsaid about gender equality, but once you get a higher rate of equality in society family violence rates starts to go down. We do what we do at Girl Geek Academy because we want to affect the whole of society.
DB: What do you hope Australia’s startup ecosystem looks like in ten years?
Moran: My co-founders and I want the startup ecosystem to look like an actual representation of our society, with equality present not just across gender, but also colour, culture, sexuality and everything in between. This is what a real society looks like and if we’re going to be building products that benefit communities as a whole, we need a lot of voices around the table to ensure the product fits.