When Ashley Holloway walked into her first computer programming course at university, the lecturer asked if she was lost.
“There were guys everywhere, staring at me like they’d never seen a girl before,’’ Ms Holloway said. “The lecturer actually asked me if I was in the right place.’’
The 23-year-old “geek girl’’ now lives in London, working as a digital project manager for the luxury fashion label Burberry. Along with astrobiologist Abigail Allwood — an Australian-born NASA scientist who is the first woman to lead a mission to Mars — she hopes more teenage girls will study maths and science.
Girls are only half as likely as boys to study advanced maths at high school, locking them out of some of the most financially lucrative and family-flexible jobs in the knowledge economy.
Men are three times more likely than women to graduate with a tertiary qualification in a STEM discipline — science, technology, engineering or maths.
Dr Allwood, who studied geoscience at the Queensland University of Technology, has always aimed for the stars. As a girl growing up in Brisbane, she was obsessed with space travel, planets and science fiction.
Now she is the only woman among seven scientists leading the next NASA Rover mission to Mars in 2020, to look for evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet.
“Who would have thought I could have a career doing something this fun?’’ Dr Allwood said yesterday. “Girls have a picture of scientists in lab coats, rote learning — not of exploring space and travelling to other countries for conferences and meeting really interesting people.’’
Dr Allwood is concerned that cuts to research funding and job losses at the CSIRO give bright young Australians little incentive to study STEM subjects.
“The country invests all this money in educating people, and a lot of them go overseas and we may never see them back,’’ she said. “It certainly can’t be good for the economy. The best source of inspiration for young Australians to pursue STEM careers would be the promise of a really cool STEM job, here in Australia.’’
At NASA, Dr Allwood will analyse the chemistry of Martian rocks gathered by the Rover robot during its 2020 space mission.
As the principal investigator for PIXL, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, she is the first woman to co-lead on a Mars mission. “At NASA, you are judged on your intellectual contribution,’’ she said.
“It doesn’t matter about your gender, your race, what you’re wearing or how weird you are.’’
Ms Holloway also attended QUT, graduating last year with a double degree in information technology and creative industries. She was one of only two women in her cohort studying IT.
“IT is so male-dominated,’’ she said yesterday. “Guys didn’t want me in their group, but I ended up beating them all and getting an academic excellence award.
“At Burberry, most of the project managers are women — they deliver, they’re headstrong, they know what they want and they’re very ambitious.’’
Ms Holloway, who visited her alma mater of Brisbane Girls Grammar School yesterday, said teenage girls were often interested in graphic design but did not realise the greater career potential of an IT degree.
“When people think of IT they think it’s a tedious desk job where people call and you say: ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ ’’ she said.
“But it can result in a wide range of career paths for app and web development, or marketing.’’
At Brisbane Girls Grammar, 14 per cent of students are studying advanced maths and 22 per cent are undertaking technology studies, double the national rate.
Year 12 student Brianna Kerr, 16, is aiming for a hi-tech career. “I started playing video games as a six-year-old with my brother and I’ve grown up with technology, so I want to get working behind the scenes,’’ she said.
Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute director Geoff Prince said the number of Australian pupils studying advanced maths at school had dropped to “a dangerously low level’’.
State and territory governments are drafting a new STEM strategy for schools, after federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne pushed for maths or science to be made compulsory in high school.
The government will also force all new primary school teachers to specialise in science, maths or a language.