Heading in right direction: I Wish encouraging more girls to opt for careers in STEM

Serious efforts are afoot to encourage more girls to opt for a career in science, technology, engineering and maths, says Ailin Quinlan.
Heading in right direction: I Wish encouraging more girls to opt for careers in STEM

The low numbers of girls taking up careers in the tech sector is a growing concern for educators and the tech industry — but a series of sell-out female-only science events and the launch of an inspirational video about young female entrepreneurs this month may signal the beginnings of change.

On Thursday and Friday, February 9 and 10, the first tranche of some 4,000 female students pour into Cork City Hall to attend the hugely successful I Wish Conferences, which inspire them to consider science, technology, engineering and maths as subjects at both second and third level.

The free events and activities which offer students hands-on practical information and access to talks and demonstrations by successful women working in the areas of science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) will be repeated in the RDS in Dublin on Monday and Tuesday, February 13 and 14.

Young attendees will get to listen to, meet and greet the likes of Aisling Keegan, vice president and general manager of Dell EMC Ireland who plans to tell them about the superb opportunities for women in the tech sector: “I will be talking about how wonderful it is to work for an IT company — Dell EMC is one of the top employers in Ireland and is a fantastic company to join.

“We really want to inspire and motivate young female students — we have a lot of senior female role models right across our sales, HR, talent acquisition and technical sectors,” Keegan explains.

“Our company philosophy has values around promoting a culture of diversity and inclusion and we as a company have been very supportive in promoting and finding alternative ways to influence young females and encourage them to pursue careers in the technology industry,” she says, quipping that the tech sector is not exactly afloat with large numbers of women.

The figures bear out her comment. In 2005 nearly 50% of new entrants into science, maths and computing courses at university level were women. By 2013 that had fallen to 40%. That same year female students made up just 16% of overall student numbers in third-level computer science programmes.

Figures for the faculties of engineering, manufacturing and construction courses show male entrants outnumbering females by four to one in 2013.

And, out of around 120,000 people working in the STEM sector in Ireland, only about a quarter are women.

Keegan says Dell EMC is supporting I Wish in a bid to encourage second-level female students to consider studying STEM subjects for the Leaving Cert and beyond: “About 60% of all third-level graduates in Ireland are women but that percentage drops when you restrict the comparison to the STEM sector.”

The reasons why are complex, she says, but she believes there’s a need to educate student role models and key-influencers who may not be “in” the tech sector themselves, but who are highly influential in terms of the choices female students make about their career.

I Wish originally began in Cork in 2014. The event, supported by Science Foundation Ireland, among others, has gone nationwide this year with events both in Cork and in Dublin.

Students will meet and engage directly with inspiring women working in a variety of STEM role — the speaker line-up includes award-winning game designer Brenda Romero; Nuritas Founder and CSO, Dr Nora Khaldi; scientist and entrepreneur Ciara Judge; Assistant Professor in Physics at Trinity College Dublin, Arlene O’Neill; film producer and chairman of Atticus Education, David Puttnam; director of strategy and communications of Science Foundation Ireland, Dr Ruth Freeman, and Keegan of Dell EMC.

It’s extremely important for young girls to see female role models and get to understand first-hand that many women are successfully carving out careers in the STEM sector, says Margie McCarthy, head of education and public engagement with Science Foundation Ireland, who will also be attending the conferences.

Research carried out by SFI, she says, shows that the main reason students choose a third-level course is because they feel it ‘fits’ their perception of themselves.

“The environment you grow up in is very important — I grew up in an environment where there were a lot of engineers, and I became one,” explains McCarthy who adds that research shows that a driving factor in career choice for many teenage girls is that they want to make a difference — but don’t see that STEM careers as offering that opportunity.

Meeting successful women in STEM careers that are clearly influential can change girls’ perceptions and help them to see that such careers may offer a ‘fit’ for what they themselves want to do in life, she explains.

“Being involved in I Wish shows girls that they can do it and that girls are good at it and that it can be beneficial to society,” she explains.

Currently, she points out: “In engineering there are four boys to every girl, and in computers it is three boys to every girl. If you cannot see that there are women who succeed in terms of tech and computers for example, it’s unlikely you will identify yourself with that career.

“This is what I Wish does — it provides female role models that girls can identify with — quite often what girls see are the sea of men, but I Wish shows that women are there and are making a difference.

“It’s about breaking down stereotypes, breaking down that glass wall where girls simply don’t see STEM subjects as something that could be in their future — due more to stereotyping than to reality.”

Just a day before the I Wish conference kicks off in Cork comes the launch of an inspirational video which documents a fascinating initiative run by Irish entrepreneur Mary Carty and Anne Marie Imafidon. In 2015 the duo established a ‘summer house,’ Outbox Incubator, for teenage girls, giving them the chance to carry out science projects and cut their entrepreneurial teeth.

Now a video of that incredible six weeks in London, during which 115 girls from nine countries — including 30 from Ireland — dived into a range of projects involving STEM, is to be launched in Dublin as part of a new campaign to encourage girls to set up similar ‘cells’ in their schools and communities.

Carty, now executive director of the prestigious Blackstone Launchpad entrepreneur incubation centre at NUI Galway, set up Outbox Incubator in 2015 with her co-founder Anne Marie Imasidon because, she recalls simply, “there was a need for an incubator for young women interested in STEM.”

Initially based in London Outbox Incubator is due to move to Dublin next summer for the first time.

“We set up Outbox to give young women aged 11 to 22 the opportunity to advance their ideas and grow their businesses and in the summer of 2015 we brought 115 girls together in a house in London from nine different countries — 30 were from Ireland.

“They learned about STEM and business, participated in field trips to companies in the STEM sector and attended talks by senior women in STEM,” says Carty who recalls how the girls met role models such as investor Mary McKenna, IT scientist Sue Black, and Melissa Donato, VP of Salesforce, whose company funded the initiative.

The entire process was videoed.

“The girls learned about marketing, finance networking and other issues,” she says, adding that participants stayed in the house for periods ranging from one to six weeks coming up with a variety of ideas for apps, as well as in the marketing, tech, genetics engineering and music sectors.

Participants included Dublin teenager Martha Kinch who came up with a device to make the use of inhalers easier for asthmas sufferers, Aoife Kearins from Sligo, founder of the music app Mixtape, and Edel Browne from Galway who invented a wearable device to help Parkinson’s sufferers shuffle less.

The 30-minute documentary covers the entire six weeks of the Outbox experience, from July 2015 to early September 2015.

Entitled Eat, Sleep STEM, Repeat, the documentary is to be launched on February 8, in Dublin and London in a bid to inspire two million girls in Ireland and worldwide to get involved with STEM and set up similar projects by 2020.

“The idea is that people can apply to hold a screening of the documentary in their school or club.

“The documentary will empower and inspire girls to start clubs and get more involved in STEM,” notes Carty, who says that they had discovered that many of the girls who had participated in Outbox were setting up their own clubs.

“It was a life-changing experience for all of us. The thing that came out strongest was the improvement in self-confidence,” she says adding that the girls built up a formidable network of contacts with industry leaders and luminaries as well as their peers.

  • To register for a screening of Eat, Sleep STEM, Repeat or to get updates on next summer’s Dublin-based Outbox Incubator visit outboxjourney.com.
  • For information on the IWish conferences, visit www.iwish.ie.
  • For more information on girls in STEM careers, visit www.smartfutures.ie

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