In the lead up to International Women's Day, NZ Herald Job Market speaks to women about getting and keeping girls in STEM and business.

CECILIA ROBINSON

For top entrepreneur, Cecilia Robinson motherhood has gone hand-in-hand with being a board member, boss, and serial entrepreneur.

In 2012, at just 27, Robinson won a Businesswoman of the Year Award for her successful start-up Au Pair Link.

Cecilia Robinson said women will only find true equality at work when parental leave is shared. Photo / Supplied
Cecilia Robinson said women will only find true equality at work when parental leave is shared. Photo / Supplied

Later that month she was in labour with her first baby and put the finishing touches on the business plan on My Food Bag on the way to the hospital.

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Since then she has won countless awards, has had other career successes and, along with husband James Robinson, is there at drop-off and pick-up for young children Tom and Leila.

But she's also acutely aware this is not the case for other families.

Robinson said two of the biggest success roadblocks for women gaining equality at work are maternity leave and inflexible work hours.

Driving change

With the phenomenal success of My Food Bag Robinson has driven change for women in both areas.

"I have really strong views on parental leave and what needs to change in New Zealand," Robinson said.

'It is something that has a huge impact and change is needed at the industry and governmental level."

Robinson Duo James and Cecilia Robinson share the care of children Thomas and Leila. Photo / Supplied.
Robinson Duo James and Cecilia Robinson share the care of children Thomas and Leila. Photo / Supplied.

Robinson said in her home country of Sweden both women and men are expected to take parental leave.

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She said the same needs to happen in New Zealand if women are ever going to truly be on the same workplace playing field as men.

"What happens here for women is we have a child which is a life-changing event and then we are expected to, at some stage over the year, return to work.

"A lot of that time is unpaid and you lose that year in your career."

In Sweden however the parental leave scheme has closed the inequality gap by having the same parental leave options available for men.

"If you are an employer and you are looking at a 30-year-old woman or a 30-year-old man both of them are likely to have parental leave at some point so you are not just targeting the woman," she said.

"There is underlying bias in business and corporates for employing women - and we need to say that because it is true," she stresses.

"Some don't want to employ them because of the likelihood they will have a child."

At My Food Bag Robinson gave all new parents and primary caregivers - including dads - an extra 18 weeks of paid leave, on top of the then 18 weeks paid by the Government.

Very few companies do this however and Robinson has seen highly qualified friends move back to Sweden when they have children because the New Zealand system doesn't offer the same benefit.

"We need to make some brave decisions soon or we will fall away and it will no longer be attractive to live in New Zealand."

No women on the board?

Robinson also challenged any companies without women in leadership to look at why.

"Companies need to take a look in the mirror and if they have no women on their board they need to question that. It is a leadership problem, not a competency issue," she said.

"There is a large number of competent women out there and not having their input means the customer and business are missing the opportunity.

"We are spending too much time patting ourselves on the back when there is still a lot we need to do."

MICHELLE 'NANOGIRL' DICKINSON

Michelle 'Nanogirl' Dickinson offers roles with flexible hours - and female toilets. Photo / Supplied
Michelle 'Nanogirl' Dickinson offers roles with flexible hours - and female toilets. Photo / Supplied

Through her alter-ego Nanogirl Michelle Dickinson has been encouraging young girls into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) since way back - now her focus is on keeping them there.

Dickinson said the lower number of females in science wasn't because they were not interested or from lack of skills.

"Look at the entrepreneurs selling slime on Instagram and at the markets," she said.

The craze of kids making stretchy concoctions out of glue, water, borax and anything from shaving foam to eye drops is still alive and well.

"They make all different types of slime, fluffy slime, clear slime, all different consistencies and that is science.

"We just have to encourage them to keep doing it, keep experimenting and then make the workplace a better on to be in."

Last year a study revealed women were leaving engineering because they were lonely and felt they didn't belong.

Despite having all the skills, 29 per cent of female engineers left the industry within five to 10 years of graduating – compared with 18 per cent of male engineers.

Dickinson wants to change that.

"I was at a large business a while ago and I asked where the women's bathroom was - it was only then they realised they didn't have one," Dickinson said.

"I had to walk half a km back to the reception area to use the one there."

"It's an example of how some workplaces are really isolating for women and those in charge don't even realise."

As well as her continued work with Nanogirl Labs and encouraging young girls into Stem, Dickinson also consults to businesses on diversity.

"Businesses don't realise what their workplaces might be like for women coming in. A lot of systems have been in place for a long time and don't need to be like that.

What would your daughter think?

Dickinson said one self-assessment was for male leaders to ask themselves how their own daughter would progress at work.

"If they look around and think their daughter would be uncomfortable, not welcome and wouldn't succeed something needs to change."

Dickinson said shift work was often an issue so she asked if it was necessary, was there the possibility of job share or if shifts could be split.

Michelle Dickinson is passionate about getting girls into science and keeping them there. Photo / Supplied
Michelle Dickinson is passionate about getting girls into science and keeping them there. Photo / Supplied

Dickinson saw the power of flexible work hours for women first hand recently when she advertised a role and had 160 highly qualified applicants - 90 per cent of them were women.

"It showed me that there were these amazing women out there looking for roles but couldn't pursue them."

"As an industry engineering companies want to hire the best people but they are not doing that because they are eliminating so many people because of the old way of doing things.

"I now don't have that many men because I offer flexi roles and so many women apply who are so qualified."

Getting back to work

Dickinson also wanted to see the introduction of a programme to get women back into work after time off to have a family.

"There are so many women who return to work part-time and in a job outside the field they are qualified in.

"I don't see programmes helping women get back into their previous job and that is something that needs to happen."

"People invest in graduate training and there should be something similar for women returning to work."

ALIESHA STAPLES

Aliesha Staples said games such as Minecraft and Fortnite have introduced females to creative tech as a career. Photo / Supplied
Aliesha Staples said games such as Minecraft and Fortnite have introduced females to creative tech as a career. Photo / Supplied

The founder of highly successful virtual reality company Staples VR said the future is bright for women in creative technology - they just have to realise it.

Staples' company Staples VR helped develop a fire-resistant 360-degree camera for the Escape My House campaign for New Zealand Fire and Emergency, has produced VR for Warner Brothers, Paramount and Disney and has created software to train doctors.

Staples was named "young achiever of the year" at the High Tech awards in 2017 and 2018.

Staples said creative technology was an industry of change - with a slow but steady increase of females studying the craft each year.

But it takes 10-20 years to completely change a mindset, Staples said, and the film, gaming and high-tech industries were still intimidating places for women right now.

"Even when women finish their studies and find work the networking aspect can be difficult," Staples said.

"Networking is really important and if you are at an event and you are one of a few women it's hard to go up to a group of guys talking about drift cars to say hello."

In some workplaces, men outnumber women by 40 to one. But not at Staples VR.

Despite film, gaming and high-tech industries being male-dominated Staples VR employs more women than men.

But Staples stresses it's not for any other reason other than employing the best person for the job at the time.

One of those who made the grade is Krystal Thompson who has worked at Staples VR since graduating from creative technology three years ago.

Thompson is passionate about getting the message out to others that apart from often being "the only women in the room" there were no other serious roadblocks for women in creative tech.

Krystal Thompson has always been outnumbered by men at work - until now. Photo / Supplied
Krystal Thompson has always been outnumbered by men at work - until now. Photo / Supplied

Until she started at Staples VP Thompson had worked at other companies where she really was the minority. At one company employing around 200 staff members, there were three women.

"The guys are great to work with but it's the being different that is hard. But what we don't want is for women to be afraid to go into our industry.

"Things are changing and with our internships, we can see there are more girls taking the creative tech courses each year."

The industry also has good support networks designed to break down barriers.

Groups such as Women in Film and Television (WIFT) have awards that put women on the global stage.

Another called Girlcode runs a training programme to encourage intermediate aged girls into coding and Women in Games is a support group that arranges breakfast clubs before big networking events so women don't go it alone.

The future is female

Staples said one of the biggest indicators that the future was looking up for women in the industry was the increase in the number of girls involved in gaming.

"There are more girls than ever playing games like Fortnight, Minecraft and Sims because they are not gendered," Staples said.

"Years ago it was all Crash Bandicoot and driving games that were marketed toward boys and now they appeal to both genders.

Staples said it was now up to parents to change their thinking and educate their daughters so they know gaming - or software engineering - is a viable career path.

"Creative technology - that is film and games and tech - are not seen as worth getting into so we need to change that message."

"The technology behind gaming and VR is huge and there is a lot of money in it for economic value."