Alexia Hilbertidou has just returned from the edge of space and is determined to break down boundaries for young women in male-dominated scientific industries.
The 18-year-old with Samoan and Greek heritage founded GirlBoss - a network for women interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and maths - two years ago while at Albany Senior High School in Auckland. The social enterprise has quickly grown to about 8000 members.
The Wireless caught up with Hilbertidou shortly after she returned from a Nasa mission to the largest flying observatory in the world. She was the youngest person to ever take part in the SOFIA project, which studies the Southern Hemisphere’s skies.
Hey Alexia, how did you become a part of the mission?
I was invited by the US Ambassador Scott Brown. The embassy was aware of my work at GirlBoss and is really supportive of the need and urgency to encourage women into male-dominated industries such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
What did you see?
We travelled from Christchurch to an aircraft-based observatory at about 45,000ft (13,700m), which puts it above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking water vapour in our atmosphere. Being that high allows the crew to conduct observations of almost anywhere in the world. That includes celestial objects that are best observed from southern latitudes, like the southern lights.
Wow, what was that like?
They weren’t actually that great this year, they’ve been stronger in previous years. You’re essentially looking at a television screen that is connected to the observatory’s telescope, it’s not like you’re looking out of the window. It was still an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Tell me about GirlBoss?
I’ve worked full-time on GirlBoss since high school. It’s a young women’s network and we empower and encourage young women into leadership and entrepreneurial roles in STEM. We do that by hosting workshops, conferences and through social media advocacy. We’ve just launched the GirlBoss LEAD programme, which is a full-day intensive workshop we hold in high schools around New Zealand.
What made you do this?
I started GirlBoss when I was 16, really as a result of my own experiences in high school where I was the only female studying digital technology in Year 12, and then advanced physics in Year 13. I thought there was a need to create a community for ambitious young women who are passionate about these fields.
The power of representation is so important to encouraging women into these fields. We highlight current role models to serve as inspiration. If a young woman is considering their career path and they’ve never met a female scientist - and when they imagine a scientist they only see someone like Einstein - it’s going to be far more difficult.
Why do you think there is an imbalance?
I think there are three main reasons why there’s such an imbalance in these fields - misconceptions of difficulty, lack of community and lack of representation - young women can’t be what they can’t see.
Are you confident about the future?
I’m passionate about looking at how the rise of automation and automated jobs will impact on the workplace, and in particular, women. Women will be the most impacted because the jobs that are highly likely to become automated, such as administration and retail, are currently heavily underrepresented in STEM. I think it should be an urgent priority to get more women into these fields. There is a World Economic Forum report that says if we don’t, we can expect growing social and gender inequity and mass unemployment.
I think a diverse STEM workforce would ensure that whatever innovations we produce, better represent our society. We need to recruit the most talented people, and by doing that, not exclude half of the population. A quote I like to use is: “The pursuit of scientific knowledge is one of the greatest and noble human pursuits with the power to solve our global problems, yet for most of history, half our species have been barred from this great adventure”.
Who said that?
I think I saw it on Twitter.
Is that why GirlBoss has grown so much just in three years?
People have been extremely receptive to the idea and we’ve grown at an incredible rate. We started off with a two-day conference that was attended by 380 young women in Auckland. Within that day we heard from scientist Michelle Dickinson, the Labour Party’s Jacinda Ardern, Xero’s Anna Curzon and the former chief executive of Telecom, Theresa Gattung. I like to think a lot of people came away from that day with transformed opinions about feminism and STEM. Everyone left feeling empowered. We just built from there.
So what’s next?
My goal is to continue working on GirlBoss and our programmes, but also look abroad - we’ve just launched our first chapter in Australia and I think there’s a lot of demand all over the globe. I’ll know my vision has been reached when we close the gender gap. We were the first country to give women the vote, why can’t we be the first to close that gap? When we have 50 percent of female chief executives in the NZX Top 50, rather than just two percent, I’ll know women’s voices are being heard at the table.
We’re going to launch the GirlBoss Awards early next year - we want to keep doing work highlighting and recognising young New Zealand doers who promote these values of empowerment and can serve as inspiration for others. Some of our categories are Emerging Leader, Giving Back, Enterprise and Arts and Culture.