The first time 15-year-old Mikayla Stokes went along to a tech event, it was as a punishment for some long-since-forgotten misdemeanour at home. She was 12, and her father dragged her along to a VEX Robotics Competition with her younger brother. It was embarrassing – after all, robotics and lasers were for nerds (like her Dad and her brother). And they weren’t for girls.
Mikayla was right - and wrong. Yes, there were lots of tech enthusiasts, and there were more males than females, but about 25% of the people in the room were girls. More importantly, Mikayla found she was enjoying watching the robots compete. The next time there was a VEX “scrimmage”, Mikayla went along voluntarily, with a robot she and her brother built. Soon she began helping out with other tech organisations, including children’s workshops OMG Tech, innovation not-for-profit PDMA-NZ and Start-Up Weekend. She also joined a women’s tech networking group She#.
Last November, Mikayla, now a Year 11 student at Auckland’s Western Springs College, won the top female prize at the ASB Bright Sparks Challenge for young science and technology enthusiasts. Her invention was an “internet of things” particulate pollution sensor she had designed, adapted, programmed, and soldered herself. It took more than six months to get the coding right so that the sensors (placed by the roadside in friends’ gardens) would send the pollution readings to her laptop reliably, and Mikayla spent large chunks of her school holidays working at the Photon Factory unit at Auckland University with her mentor Andy Wang to get her product working.
Mikayla’s view of technology and science as a career choice has totally changed from when she was dragged along to her first robotics event. Her long term plan is to be a mechatronics (mechanical, electronics and software) engineer.
What hasn’t changed is the stigma she feels is still attached to women in technology.
Take IT giant Google. The company’s latest diversity stats, released in July, showed only 19 percent of the company's technical roles are held by women - a miserable 1 percent increase on 2015. At Facebook the figure is 17 percent.
In New Zealand, the July 2016 Absolute IT Remuneration Report shows women make up only 21 percent of the tech workforce - the same as last year, and up only 2 percent on 2013.
NZ Tech sector split - male/female
2013 - male 81%, female 19%
2016 - male 79%, female 21%
Source: Absolute IT Remuneration Report, July 2016
“It’s hard getting my friends to take an interest in tech-related stuff because it’s intimidating. It’s like getting into a brand new sport. Imagine there’s an all-boys team and you are the only girl – it’s tough.”
She says the girls at the tech events she takes part in are often from all-girls schools, and her Western Springs College friends, while supportive and accepting, aren’t putting their hand up to take part.
Scientists like Michelle Dickinson are trying to lift the profile of technology, but change is slow.
“Michelle has become a huge role model for my little cousin, who’s eight. And Michelle has encouraged me to join She# and help at events like OMG Tech.’
Still, it would be great if some of her mates wanted to come along as well.
“My friends think it’s cool that I’m doing well, but tech still intimidates them. And people think you have to be really good at maths and science. But I wasn’t that good at either when I started.”
She says getting involved in technology hasn’t just given her a career goal, it’s been great for her confidence too. And she’s met a whole load of interesting people.
“When I was younger I suffered from anxiety and was scared of trying new things. Now when I join a new group, or meet someone high up in a tech company I’m saying ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’”