I AM sitting down with over 50 students from a girls’ second level school that actively promotes the science subjects; so great is the emphasis that this school places on science and maths that their guidance counsellor is a former maths and science teacher. Science is also mandatory for first-year and Transition Year students.
I’ve been chatting to first year and TY students about science, technology and maths (STEM): what do they think of it? Are they considering it as a future career as it has great opportunities and earning potential?
The answers are not what you would expect in 2016: ranging from ‘we don’t think of doing it as as you don’t see women engineers’, ‘we mightn’t be able for it’ and they ‘could be judged for doing a man’s job’.
Yet these responses are far from unusual nationally or internationally as global report after report shows young girls still think men are better suited to STEM subjects.
My research at the West Cork school stemmed from helping my son, a Leaving Certificate student who wants to study engineering , to complete his CAO application.
I inquired whether engineering was a popular choice with the other students in his almost all-male class.
Oh, virtually all the lads were considering it, was the response.
What answer would I receive, I wondered, if I asked the same question in an all-girls’ school as statistics show that in 2014 females accounted for just 24% of entrants to engineering programmes, up a measly one per cent since 2004.
Meanwhile, girls constituted just 17% of third level entrants to IT programmes in 2014 and the situation is even more alarming in maths, where just 22% of entrants were female in 2014 compared to 35% in 2004.
A quick headcount of one TY class at Coláiste na Toirbhirte in Bandon showed that out of 22 students, just seven were considering taking ‘hard’ science subjects like physics and chemistry for the Leaving Certificate programme.
Despite the school’s best efforts, it seems that many senior students swerve away from these subjects.
“We did offer technology for Junior Cycle but we stopped because uptake was so low,” says career guidance counsellor Eileen O’Brien.
When it comes to choosing science subjects at Leaving Certificate, she reports, 75% - 80% of pupils take biology, 40% - 60% chemistry and only 10% - 15% do physics.
“I think there’s a perception that biology is easier to learn; parents say it’s easier, and of course there’s pressure on students to do well, ” she says adding that the school has a 60% to 70% uptake of honours maths at Leaving Certificate level.
The lack of visible female role models in STEM is an issue, believes TY student Sophia Jumaa:
“Girls can do anything boys can, but sometimes we might not think of doing it because you don’t see a lot of women engineers or women in tech.”
Classmate Isobel Ronan believes a subtle gender discrimination exists and that girls are “encouraged” towards careers like nursing: “It’s been suggested to me that I should go for medicine — but engineering has never been suggested to me. It’s trendy for boys to do tech or engineering, but for girls it’s kind of unusual.”
It’s widely acknowledged that in their careers, men are more likely than women to apply for jobs where they don’t have all the skills or experience requested in the job description. Men have a greater self confidence. It seems this same lack of self confidence exists in the classroom.
“Girls are more scared than boys that they might not be capable of doing something, but the lads will say ‘I don’t care, I’ll give it a try.’ ” observes student Amy Gallagher.
The problem may also be due to a lack of familiarity with careers in the tech sector, says Grace Crowley, who adds that girls have more of a sense of what’s involved in nursing or teaching: “Girls like to know more about something before they risk doing it.”
Asked why less girls tend to opt for STEM courses at third level, first-year students Ada Wargal, Amy O’Connor and Saoirse Hayes believe gender stereotyping is influential.
“Girls think they will be judged for going for what is seen as a man’s job,” commented Amy.
“Most girls would choose biology over physics or technology because people say engineering is for the lads and people would think it was weird if a girl was doing it” added Ada.
Saoirse Hayes agrees: “If a girl chooses physics or engineering it is seen as a strange choice”.
“It’s like if a boy wants to do nursing.. that’s what our parents think. Boys do more manly stuff.”
The STEM sector has realised they need to work with not only young girls but also with parents. According to research almost 60% of students see their parents as key influencers in subject choices, yet nearly 70% of parents feel badly informed about STEM opportunities.
Coláiste na Toirbhirte actively encourages girls towards the sciences, but its guidance counsellor says that the majority of college-going pupils still opt for care-based courses.
“As regards technology or engineering I can talk about it ‘til I’m blue in the face because girls want to ‘work with people.’ “They think if they do science or engineering it will not be as people-centred. They have a perception that healthcare is more people-centred.” This mindset has clear implications for the tech sector.
Marie Moynihan, Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of Global Talent at Dell, the giant multinational computer technology firm says finding suitably qualified female tech workers is a constant challenge.
Among other things, Moynihan, who heads up a 500-strong global team, is responsible for filling 30,000 positions a year across the company.
“Girls reluctance to engage in the tech sector is affecting the talent pool — about seven in 10 employees in the sector are male. We’re losing out on women who are equally talented and qualified, “ she says.
She says we need to expose the myth that IT “is more suited to men,” pointing out that research confirms young girls believe tech is “more suited to a boy’s brain.”
As a result, she observes, girls are losing out on excellent salaries, flexible working conditions and great travel opportunities.
A recent study by Forbes Magazine showed that careers in science and engineering are among some of the best-paying jobs for women.
“Every company is looking for tech skills because technology impacts on every aspect of our lives, not just in tech companies,” says Moynihan.
Dell is one of the primary sponsors of the I Wish conference in Cork later this month. Caroline O’Driscoll, an accountant and tax partner at KPMG, organised the first such conference last year with Ruth Buckley, head of IT at Cork City Council and prominent Cork solicitor and former Cork Chamber of Commerce president, Gillian Keating.
Up to 1,000 female students from schools across Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Waterford attended talks and demonstrations and got to have much-needed chats with women working in STEM.
What spurred O’Driscoll, Buckley and Keating on? O’Driscoll points to a watershed warning by FORFAS in 2012 of uncertainty about whether Ireland can match the demand for 44,500 vacancies expected to materialise in tech’ by 2018.
TY students — among them some 90 pupils from Coláiste na Toirbhirte — will hear from female leaders in Dell, PepsiCo, Google, Vodafone, Twitter and meet young female entrepreneurs.
After last year’s conference, the organisers carried out a teacher feedback survey — and received startling results. Not only did the conference get an enthusiastic thumbs-up, but 60% of teachers reported that students had changed their subject choices as a direct result of attending the conference.
This year iWish has been increased from one to two days meaning it can take twice as many students as last year.