Image: Girls Gearing Up participants in 2016
It’s hardly news that women are vastly under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. We know a lot of it has to do with the fact women aren’t provided the same opportunities as cisgender men. And we also know they face barriers cisgender men don’t.
The people behind Girls Gearing Up know this, too. And although the organisation is based far away in Germany, its mission of inspiring girls to be the change in their worlds is something that can be applied everywhere.
That’s what co-founder Courtney Adams believes. “Girls Gearing Up was founded by Chineme Ugbor, Christina Limbird, and myself,” she explains. “All three of us had spent time working with youth to build bridges of understanding, and empowering youth to drive positive change in their communities. Among other things, Christina and I co-founded the Youthbridge Initiative, an organisation that fostered peace- building skills in Serbian and Croatian youth in the post-conflict Balkans, and Chi worked with the European Peace University on numerous peace-building projects and had experience as a personal coach for teens. Through our work and in our individual professional lives we recognised that the messages girls receive about who and what they can be are too narrow, and that there is a serious lack of diverse role models for girls to look up to as they are forging their paths in life.”
The idea for Girls Gearing Up came about after the Women’s International Networking Conference in Rome in 2011, Adams says. “While listening to a panel of women from diverse professional fields speak authentically about their career paths in front of an audience of about 800 women from around the world, Christina said to me: ‘Why weren’t we here 10 years ago? Twenty?’ Fairly quickly, the Girls Gearing Up concept was born. Similar to the WIN Conference and based on our previous bridge-building experiences, we wanted to bring girls from around the world together to connect, learn new skills, and be inspired by female leaders.”
Officially founded in 2015, Girls Gearing Up has had success with events such as a one-week leadership academy that takes place every Northern Hemisphere summer with 25 to 30 participants from the ages of 13-17 from diverse backgrounds. At events, mentors and female leaders (including engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, activists, and more) share their stories, successes, failures, and lessons learned. Participants also discuss global social issues that are important to them, and work together to identify steps they can take in their communities to make a positive difference. Oh, and it also connects girls from all over the world, creating a strong support network for the next generation of leaders.
“At the beginning of 2017, we’re still looking at women holding around 15 per cent of board seats and fewer than 20 per cent of tech leadership positions globally,” Adams explains. “At the same time, you have new studies coming out showing that girls as young as six years old think that boys are naturally smarter than they are. And this is detrimental to all of us - girls and boys, women and men. We know that diversity and inclusion benefit everyone in a society, driving innovation, creativity, and problem-solving. And our world is in need of some serious problem-solving these days.”
Although Girls Gearing Up events are only hosted in Germany at the moment, there are plans hopefully have a YouTube channel in the future, Adams says. But even though Germany is thousands of kilometres away and 12 hours behind Aotearoa, she says the need to promote equality is a global one – and that the Girls Gearing Up model can work anywhere.
“One thing that we see over and over again is that there is power in building bridges between people from diverse backgrounds,” she explains. “Every summer when our academy begins, we bring 25 to 30 girls together who don’t know each other and whose life experiences have been vastly different until this point. Very quickly, they find that what unites them is so much greater than what separates them. Within a matter of days (hours, even!), these girls step way out of their comfort zones to create an incredibly supportive community where they are able to challenge themselves to learn and try new things - and maybe even to fail. In a community like this, girls are able to identify their own unique strengths and celebrate the contributions of others. What is especially powerful is that the girls take these values home with them and spread them in their communities. They also provide an international support network for each other as they continue on their individual journeys, and they are allies going forward in addressing society’s challenges. Girls Gearing Up is a unique model, but it could work anywhere. All you need is a group of girls and some diverse, exciting women to tell their stories. The concepts of mentoring and finding power in a strong community of girls are universal.”
Earlier this month, Girls Gearing Up partnered with FrauenLoop – an organisation that teaches coding and web design skills to European Union resident and newcomer women – to host a one-day, free hackathon at internet audio hosting service SoundCloud’s global headquarters in Berlin. Among other things, the hackathon had two two-hour coding blocks, during which participants went from having little if any knowledge of coding to creating their own web pages. There was also a panel discussion featuring three leading women in Berlin’s dynamic tech scene: Caoimhe Keogan (senior vice president for People, Places & Community at SoundCloud), Raffaela Rhein (founder and CEO of CareerFoundry) and Halle Winkler (CEO of Politepix).
“Among the participants was a 16-year-old from Syria, who arrived to seek refuge in Berlin last year and participated in our 2016 summer programme,” says Adams. “At that time she told us she dreamed of creating a website for girls to share their stories. During the workshop, she created that website’s landing page.”
And Adams adds that wasn’t the only thing that impressed her. “It was really amazing to watch the girls evolve so quickly from thinking that web design is too difficult to feeling confident and proud of their work. At one point, one of the girls said: ‘I just want to build a bunch of websites now. This has opened up a whole new world to me.’”
All this also has Adams and Girls Gearing Up thinking about how women are under-represented in STEM courses – and what can be done to address the problem.
“Like everyone else, I’ve read plenty of theories about why more girls and women aren’t involved in STEM, including stereotypes, gender bias, and unwelcoming, often male-centric climates in science and engineering classes and departments,” she says. “I think an easy first step we can all take locally is to encourage girls to try STEM topics out, especially in welcoming environments, like in after-school clubs or at weekend workshops. Also, I think it’s crucial that girls see and talk to women in STEM roles so that they understand A) what those roles are, B) why they’re interesting, and C) how a person like them would get there.”
And Adams is unashamed in proclaiming her feminism. “I definitely consider myself a feminist,” she says. “For me, a feminist is any person who believes that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Ideally, a feminist is also a person who is willing to put in the effort to make equality a reality. For me personally, being a feminist means that I will stand up for and with other women, and honor their unique experiences – often related to race, religion, sexual orientation; that I will listen and try my best to understand their perspectives, and that I will support them in achieving their potential.”
And that’s not all. “We envision a world in which girls and women from all cultures and backgrounds lift each other, are inspired to embark on their own unique journeys, and have the skills and confidence to positively impact the world.”