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Social issues

Robogals: Getting Ladies Into Labs

– by Sarah Cole

It’s gotten tiresome, all the blokey jokes about the scarcity of girls in engineering faculties at university. Marita Cheng (Young Australian of the Year 2012, founder of several brilliant companies, all-round badass) and the volunteers of Robogals would no doubt agree with me. First established in 2008, Robogals is a not-for-profit, student-run organisation with the initiative to get more girls interested and informed about careers in science, engineering and technology, fields which are currently dominated by males. As they’ve jokingly put it themselves, the goal is “No more sausagefest”!

3965422090_d8677e7190_zI wanted to chat with someone from Perth Robogals and rung up the lovely Bec Vincent. She got involved after listening to the then-president talk about the organisation at a Women in Engineering event at the University of Western Australia. “I thought, ‘That’s a really cool thing to do,’ and went up to talk to her afterwards,” she says, and she was easily convinced to join. She’s since been elected to the executive committee as Training Manager, teaching Robogals volunteers how to run workshops.

Robogals tries to instil an interest in sciences early, with school visits and independent workshops for young people. “It’s great, we cover a lot of demographics and a lot of areas,” Bec says. “We play with Lego robots and introduce them to some simple programming software.”

A lot of it is design workshops. “Getting them to build a bridge out of dry spaghetti, that sort of thing.” The aim of these workshops is to make the girls realise engineering and design is all around them, and “letting them know it’s about teamwork, problem solving, and collaborating, and it can be really fun.”

She changed faculties and is now doing a Masters in Chemical Engineering – but she says it was frustrating to find out her interests so late. “It was during my Honours for a completely different bachelor that I realised what really fascinated me was actually engineering.”

She explained to me why she thinks the program is particularly worthwhile. Bec has loved science since she was little, but at her all-girls school it was never explained what engineering was. “I wish I’d known about it earlier,” she says.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about what I’m doing [with Robogals].”

Why is it important for girls to be interested in science? The discrepancy of women’s’ careers, for one. Less than thirty percent of those studying sciences at a tertiary level are women, and female employment in scientific areas in even lower. “There’s something special and really worth recognising about those women who have worked their way up in the science world,” Bec says, emphasising the benefits of more ladies getting in the labs. “Often girls are overlooked and under-represented, but I think they have so much to offer.” When she’s working at university she often can bring a fresh perspective to problems that a different gender might not have. “I like to focus on how, in some ways, I am different – and I can offer different things as a woman.”

There’s the kind of feminism where you call out your brother’s sandwich joke, and then there are these kind of organisations which make amazing, real changes to women’s prospects in the future. Robogals is an amazing mixture of proactive feminism, entrepreneurship and good humour. Since its foundation in Melbourne the organisation has exploded in popularity and now reaches girls all over the globe, with branches at universities throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. Sausages are great and all, but who doesn’t like a little variety?

Both guys and girls are welcome to volunteer for Robogals and spread the love. If you’re interested in volunteering, visit the Perth Robogals website to join or find a charter in your city!

Photo credits: Featured image by Steve Remington; photograph of robot dancer by Paul Fenwick

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