In Aotearoa, women make up 28 per cent of the current science, technology, engineering and math workforce - a statistic some motivated teenagers are working to change.
Up to 100 teenagers from secondary schools around Auckland yesterday attended a special event at the Māngere Arts Centre aimed at encouraging young Pasifika and Māori women looking at a career in one of those fields.
The event, Malu, was named in honour of the rights and ritual associated with the malu - the traditional Samoan tatau reserved only for women.
Malu, the event, was created with support from the Middlemore Foundation and FOU – The Future is Open to Us, an initiative under Te Whatu Ora (Health New Zealand).
Year 12 students from FOU health science academies and Pūhoro STEM academies were in attendance to talanoa (share ideas and discussion) with Māori and Pasifika women making waves in the industry.
The initiative extends STEM to include medicine and mātauranga Māori; traditional Māori knowledge.
Talila Leavai, 16, was there with her classmates from Tangaroa Colleges Health Science Academy, enjoying a morning of inspiring kōrero in island style, with prayer, laughter, and dancing sprinkled throughout.
She aspires to become a nurse and is proud to be at Malu representing her whānau.
“Today I learned that if you fail, you should get back up and try again. On the way to your future, you may face challenges but you can overcome them if you reach out for help from the ones who came before you.”
Host To’a Fereti, former chair of the Nursing Council of NZ, is one of those wave makers.
She woke up the crowd with the question: “Who runs the world?” The crowd yelled back:“Girls do!”
Guest speakers included Esther Ulu (Samoan), associate manager in the Quality Control Lab at Aroa Biosurgery, science and biology teacher Sina Leilua (Māori, Samoan, English), chartered engineer Veronica Lui (Tongan), and climate-change activist and creative Jody Jackson-Becerra, who is of Samoan heritage.
The panel discussion saw a running theme between the speakers.
They were encouraged into the science, technology, engineering or math fields by their fathers or family.
They talked about being unique in their chosen pathways; being the only or one of few Pacific or Māori women in their field.
Balancing school, aiga and church life
A common struggle among Pacific and Māori students is the balance of study and family, cultural or religious commitments.
Ōtāhuhu-bred Tongan Veronica Lui is a McAuley High School alumnus and an Electrical Engineering graduate of the University of Auckland, with over 15 years of experience. She is currently working on the City Rail Link project taking over the Auckland CBD.
Like the rest of the panel, Lui encouraged students to utilise their time wisely.
“It’s hard. It was a long time ago for me, but I remember staying up late, sacrificing sleep to get the work done and still trying to meet cultural requirements for church,” she said.
“And making sure that I still do what my mum wants me to do for my younger siblings. I had a Palagi teacher who didn’t understand I had youth group, so I didn’t have as much study time outside of school.
‘It’s a sacrifice’
“It’s a sacrifice. You sacrifice what’s comfortable in your life like giving up your phone, giving up TikTok. Maybe don’t get your eyelashes done and spend that hour to do some work.”
Jody Jackson-Becerra spoke from the viewpoint of a parent and working in universities.
“We have a responsibility as learners to manage up, and educate our parents. We have to talk to them about what’s coming up at school and get them engaged in our learning.
Tell them this is really important to me. I need these assignments to be done and I need my time.”
Reminiscing on her experiences, Ulu wants to bridge the gap between study and the workforce.
“Representation is really important. Now that I’m in the workforce I don’t see many of my [people] in the lab even though they studied STEM subjects. It’s important to start at this high school level to guide their way through the industry.”
Sponsor and Māngere-based company Aroa Biosurgery employs over 230 staff locally and supports young people in STEM through Health Science scholarships.
The company was founded in 2008 by veterinarian surgeon Dr Brian Ward, who discovered that a tissue scaffold called the extracellular matrix (ECM) found in the forestomach of sheep has a similar structure to human tissue and contains over 150 proteins known to aid wound healing.
Event organiser Sarah Tora, of Aroa Biosurgery, says it’s important to light the way for the growth and development of young women like Ulu and even her own daughter, who is of Fijian descent.
Tuliana Guthrie, Health Workforce Manager at Counties Manukau Health has a background in nursing.
“I registered as a nurse back in the days of Noah’s Ark,” she joked.
“To be at this stage of my career, where it’s about the next generation of health workers, it’s a real privilege.
“I just love young people. The vibrancy and the energy and seeing them start to commit to a health career as young as year 11 and 12 is incredibly rewarding.”