Stereotyping still underpins gender gap in STEM subjects

While Ireland is struggling with a skills gap in terms of STEM (science, technology, maths, and engineering) graduates, gender imbalance within these areas is also an issue of growing concern.

Women are in the majority when it comes to having a third-level qualification, with over half (55.1%) aged 25-34 having a third-level qualification, compared to just 42.9% of men in this age group, but the figures for the areas in which they graduate tell a much different story.

More than four out of five (82.4%) graduates in engineering, manufacturing, and construction in 2016 were male, while 79.3% of graduates in information and communication technologies were male.

It was concerns over such statistics that led three Cork women — Ruth Buckley, Gillian Keating, and Caroline O’Driscoll — to establish the I Wish initiative.

Stereotyping still underpins gender gap in STEM subjects

Their aim is to inspire, encourage, and motivate female secondary school students to pursue careers in STEM. The first I Wish event in 2015 attracted 1,000 transition year students.

Last week, it expanded to Dublin, with 5,000 students attending workshops.

Ms O’Driscoll, a tax partner with KPMG, said the success of I Wish validated their concerns.

She said the CSO statistics, along with an I Wish survey of 2,400 girls, show the gender gap in STEM subjects is not changing and underlying reasons, such as gender stereotyping, need to be acted on from an early age.

“There is an increasing amount of research now looking at whether it goes right back to childhood and the whole thing of ‘pink versus blue’,” she said.

“It is complex. We need to change the conversation, both in the classroom and in the home, in terms of how we talk about engineers and scientists.

“The media also has a role to play — you look at some of the advertising on TV and how they portray women and men, for example, the recent Aptimil ad where the girl grows up to become a ballerina and the boy becomes an astronaut. Those kind of subtle messages are all around us but they become intrinsic.”

CSO figures show women represented more than three out of four (76.4%) graduates in health and welfare and 71.4% in education. Ms O’Driscoll says the tendency of girls to work in ‘helping’ roles should not preclude them from careers in STEM and conversely, boys should be encouraged to explore careers in areas such as health and education.

“What we see from a school perspective is that over 80% of the girls tell us they want a career where they can help other people — and they can’t see how STEM facilitates that,” said Ms O’Driscoll.

“Their choices are being limited by stereotypes. We are not here to fix girls or say they need to be more like a boy — it is about giving them options or choices. If you want to be a nurse, be a nurse; if you want to be a ballerina, be a ballerina but at least it is a choice, not someone sending you in a particular direction because of the stereotype.”

Ms O’Driscoll says teachers have a huge role to play as gatekeepers.

“Our research showed 94% of the girls are hugely influenced by how a subject is taught,” she said. “They are much more influenced by that than by their peers or parents.”

One of the recommendations made arising from I Wish research was for mandatory attendance at extracurricular STEM events.

More on this topic

New Limerick secondary school to install gender-neutral toiletsNew Limerick secondary school to install gender-neutral toilets

Latest iOS update brings gender-neutral emoji to Apple devicesLatest iOS update brings gender-neutral emoji to Apple devices

Ireland records fast rise in EU gender equality indexIreland records fast rise in EU gender equality index

Older Irish women leaving workforce to care for family, new report findsOlder Irish women leaving workforce to care for family, new report finds


Aileen Lee meets Christina Kenny - co-founder and design director of Lamb Design - to talk about her work and inspirations.Christina Kenny of Lamb Design: ‘I love bringing the outside in and inside out’

Tyrone designer Sharon Wauchob on her career and the worth of luxury fastion. By Paul McLachen.From Marc Jacobs to her own label, Tyrone designer Sharon Wauchob on her life in fashion

The recent sentencing of two teenage boys for the murder of Ana Kriégel has once again brought the issue of pornography into public discourse. The details of the case, which are finally coming into public knowledge, illuminate some very worrying trends that are pervasive in the modern adolescent world and as parents and indeed as a society we can no longer languish in complacency.Learning Points: Hardcore porn can pollute our children’s minds

If children are confident in interacting with others it takes away so much stress and social anxiety for them. Not too long ago, my daughter Joan and I were out with friends at a restaurant and we wanted extra water and a few other bits and Joan volunteered to go up and ask the waiter for them. My friend was really surprised at this and said that none of her children would willingly do that.Mum’s the word: We should look for chances to strengthen our kids’ social skills

More From The Irish Examiner