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.

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