WOMEN AND BLUE SKY THINKING
Gratuitous pictures of women flying drones sparked a new movement to interest girls in science. VHAIRI MACKINTOSH finds out how ‘She Flies’ got off the ground.
VHAIRI MACKINTOSH reveals how a Google search led to a drone school for girls.
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I didn’t know much about drones. Then, suddenly, they were everywhere.
At my university, seminar after seminar focused on the cutting-edge research being carried out using them. In the news, there was a story about a man who was fined $9000 for flying his drone to pick up a sausage from Bunnings. There were also inspiring reports about drones being used for humanitarian aid, and to monitor sharks at popular Australian beaches.
Now, I am one of the 21 She Flies instructors around Australia who are using drones to increase female participation and confidence in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We teach school students how to safely fly the machines, code them for automated flights and solve real-life geospatial-science problems.
The program is not gender-exclusive and is open to all students – or “pilots” as we like to call them. However, She Flies not only trains the next generation how to use this significant, emerging technology, but also promotes gender equality in STEM. We aim to break down the stereotypes and unconscious biases that still, unfortunately, exist.
But how did drone education and gender equality come together in the first place?
The story of She Flies began in 2016 when co- founders Karen Joyce and Catherine Ball started chatting at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Remote Sensing Applications Conference in Brisbane.
Later that year, as part of National Science Week, Joyce visited several schools in Queensland to discuss her work using drones to map and monitor the Great Barrier Reef.
“While I was visiting primary schools, they were heaps of fun. The girls and boys would ask me all sorts of questions about the drones – what their names were, how expensive they are, how you could crash them,” Joyce says. “And then when I ran the same event at high schools, I only had boys turn up.”
This marked decline in girls’ attendance at the high school talks puzzled her, so she started speaking to her colleagues at James Cook University in Townsville about it. She found a wealth of evidence suggesting that young girls often lose confidence during late primary to early high school – the time when advanced technologies, such as drones, are introduced.
“You have this issue where you have boys who are really keen, which is fabulous, but the girls are holding back and losing confidence and then they’re going to miss the boat,” Joyce explains.
At around the same time, Joyce received a phone call from Ball, asking her to google ‘drones for girls’ and
look at the images. “We sat in silence for a moment or two while we looked at all the bikini models,” remembers Joyce. Conversely, when the pair googled ‘drones for boys’, the narrative illustrated all the amazing applications of machines – the kinds of uses that, as it happens, both Joyce and Ball were very familiar with in their own work as drone pilots.
With the original mission of changing the Google Images narrative for girls, Joyce and Ball started contacting all the female pilots they knew, asking for photos of them at work. It was this search that led them to discover that less than 1% of drone operators in Australia are female.
For Joyce and Ball, what started as a mission to collect photographic evidence of women working in the field soon turned into a mission to change the shocking reality of female underrepresentation in the drone industry – and, by extension, STEM as a whole. If Joyce and Ball wanted more photos of women working with drones, they needed to encourage more women to work with drones and in STEM in the first place.
So they took Ball’s business innovation experience, Joyce’s lifetime of teaching and coaching, their shared passion for science, technology and drones, and created She Flies with the help of some government funding.
Since its launch in 2017, the organisation has conducted over 100 events, recruited 21 instructors from around Australia, engaged 2,235 students – 80% of whom are girls – and trained 355 teachers. The program has already expanded internationally into the US.
Given that she is a great example of someone who has successfully combined all her passions into what she does for a living, I asked Joyce what advice she has for young people.
“Find the thing that you love and that you’re good at,” she says. “The fact that you love it is going to make you even better at it, which is going to lead to success.”
Although she was interested in science and “most things” at school, Joyce explains that she didn’t know then what she wanted to be when she left.
“I didn’t know that what I am now was a thing,” she says. “The reality is I actually still don’t know what I want to be. You don’t know what will be there in 10 years. It could be even cooler than what I do now.”
I was so inspired by Joyce and Ball’s story and their mission to empower the next female generation that when they advertised for a second team of instructors earlier this year, I was desperate to become part of their movement. To quote the title of a TEDX talk on She Flies that Ball did recently: “Who runs the drones? Girls.”
02 | Young women gather to take part in a She Flies workshop.02 Dr Daniela Vavrova