Schoolgirls challenge IT stereotype

Balloons, feather boas and robots combine at IBM’s Sydney EXITE camp

The thought of robot programming typically conjures images of socially inept mathematical geniuses wearing coke-bottle glasses and pasty, CRT-tanned complexions. But one time, at IT camp, a 28-girl army shattered the traditional geek stereotype for good.

IBM's heritage-listed Innovation Centre was last week invaded by the brightly coloured ribbons, feathers and balloons of secondary schoolgirls from Sydney's western suburbs. Shrieks of excitement filled the otherwise serene building as the girls' dancing robot battalion took on Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean".

It was one of many scenes from the company-organised Exploring Interests in IT and Engineering (EXITE) camp, which was run in 50 locations worldwide this year. Three week-long camps were held in Australia from August to September; on the Gold Coast, in Ballarat, and in Sydney.

Through activities such as robot programming, digital music-making, and hands-on mechanical engineering, the camps aimed to inspire girls in considering IT-related careers. Camps were lead by young female IBM employees like 26-year-old IT consultant Saloni Jirathaneswongse, who was enthusiastic about sharing her passion and world of opportunities with the girls.

"A lot of these girls are from schools with career counsellors who are from an older generation to us, and most often have got stereotypes that women should go into careers like teaching and nursing," she said.

"I think it's really important that this mentoring program [which is a part of EXITE] opens their eyes to other careers and opportunities, because they don't get that awareness from their backgrounds."

Jirathaneswongse was a camp facilitator at the Sydney camp, and mentors two girls as part of the follow-up mentoring program that EXITE will continue to facilitate over the rest of this year. The mentoring program will be conducted predominantly via one-on-one message boards on which mentors discuss technology-related topics, and girls have the opportunity to ask questions to do with their careers and further education.

"One of the questions they would ask me is 'How did you get where you are?'," Jirathaneswongse said, "and I'd respond by saying, 'By setting goals for myself; setting small goals for the near future and setting some longer-term goals and reassessing the goals every six months.'"

Jirathaneswongse attributes her initial interest in engineering to her Thai background.

"Coming from a developing nation, you see lots of need for things," she said. "In being an engineer, you've got lots of skills to help developing nations and I guess that was my initial desire to become an engineer."

EXITE Sydney camp leader Alison de Kleuver, who manages IBM's Australia and New Zealand Sales Operations, found that a similar ideal captivated the interest of Sydney EXITE participants.

"Girls at this age are quite idealistic," she said. "They come out of this [the mechanical engineering activity] saying, 'Wow, if I'm an engineer I could change the world!'"

But inspiration is only one of many ingredients for successfully pursuing a career in IT, de Kleuver noted. EXITE aims also to nurture the girls' interest in IT by building confidence in their own abilities and providing a peer support network.

In the end, it all boils down to flushing out outdated stereotypes, because despite common beliefs, IT can offer an exciting and promising future to both men and women.

"There is no in-a-box description of a woman in IT," de Kleuver said. "We all feel that we're in an industry that's treated us very well, and we don't want girls to be making uninformed decisions."

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