Girls can do anything boys can do, right? Not according to the 29% of parents and teachers who still perceive STEM subjects as fitting more closely with boys’ brains, personalities and hobbies. That’s according to a report published earlier this month by Accenture and iWish, which also found that one third of teachers surveyed said they did not know enough about STEM, and STEM courses and careers. So how do we get more women and girls into STEM, and why does it matter?
Someone who feels very passionately about this is Caroline O’Driscoll, co-founder of iWish, a social enterprise concerned with encouraging young female students to pursue careers in STEM. She says that through the survey, iWish was able to pinpoint a particular challenge facing girls.
“What came through strongly was the influence of teachers in the classroom and what the girls themselves want. 82 per cent of girls want a career where they can help other people but have no idea how STEM can facilitate that. So it’s that link between STEM in the classroom and the career you can have out of it – that’s what seems to be missing.”
In fact, as she explains, STEM careers will be more prevalent than ever in the future.
“We have so any global challenges; we’re going to have 2.5 billion more people on the planet by 2050 - how are we going to feed them with the same food and water resources? How are we going to deal with increasing urbanisation – meaning from an engineering perspective all buildings will have to be smarter and more efficient - all those answers will be in STEM and it’s those STEM skills that are going to carry girls and boys through to the careers of the future. So we’re trying to support teachers, parents and girls to make those linkages.”
One might ask, why does it matter – why do we want to encourage girls into STEM? “It’s about diversity of thought,” says Caroline.
“Solving big global challenges will require lots of different people to influence the debate. One concern I’d have is about Artificial Intelligence – it’s booming, and depending on what you read, it’s going to massively influence our lives into the future. If all the people working in Artificial Intelligence are men, will we have male bias in machines? Women make up half the population, and that voice needs to be included in these new technologies of the future.”
Louise Buckley, a director in Dell EMC’s Solutions Centre in Cork agrees.
“I’ve been working in the technology sector for 18 years and I’ve seen first-hand the benefit of diversity and inclusion in the workforce. Women think differently to men - they offer alternative solutions and different approaches to solving problems. If we don’t have balance, we’re missing an opportunity to solve problems in the world in general.”
For Caroline, the path to co-founding iWish was very personal.
“Having my own daughter was the driver. There are three of us who do this on a volunteer basis and when I first started talking to Gillian [Keating] and Ruth [Buckley] about it, my daughter was one. Becoming a mother made me wonder ‘What will she be?’ When I started to see the stats that were coming through about women in STEM, it really bothered me that society could limit her. That’s the sentiment I tapped into – I’m not sure if I would have tapped into it if I hadn’t become a mum. How do I ensure she has a choice to be whatever she wants to be? It doesn’t have to be in STEM as long as she has a choice.”
Louise has two children, Mia (8) and Conor (6) and already she can see gender stereotyping creeping in.
“I’m aware that this is a critical age for my daughter – I can see she’s already subjected to gendered messages and I need to make sure she has the confidence and knowledge to rise above those. It’s alarming to see how many people still believe STEM is more suitable to boys’ interests and abilities. With gender gaps appearing at primary school, particularly for girls, we have an obligation as parents and teachers to actively work to change this, and as a mum, I’m even more acutely aware than ever.”
So what can parents and teachers do?
“It’s about changing the conversation in terms of what we talk to girls about in the classroom,” says Caroline. “It’s about supporting teachers to give them the knowledge to describe to girls what the opportunities in STEM are and making that link between girls telling us they want to help other people and showing how they can do that through STEM.”
This is where iWish comes in, with its annual events held in Cork and Dublin. Girls, usually but not exclusively at second-level, come to hear role models speak on stage and to view and engage with exhibits. “What we’re hearing from girls is ‘we can’t be what we cannot see’,” says Caroline.
“They’re crying out to see female role models so we get them and we put them on stage to tell their stories and it’s very powerful. We’ve discovered that in an all-girls school, if students attend three or more extra curricular STEM events, they are 30 per cent more likely to choose a STEM subject to Leaving Cert.”
The iWish events are funded by public and private enterprise so that tickets to pupils are free.
“There are enough barriers to girls,” explains Caroline, “We don’t want cost to be another one.” It’s not just about the classroom however - the Accenture/ iWish research found that almost two thirds of girls say their parents are most likely to influence subject choices at school, and half said their parents influence their career aspirations. The challenge arises if parents are steering clear of areas with which they’re not familiar, says Louise. “If you don’t work in it, STEM can feel scientific and complex. We in industry need to help educate, and as parents we need to open our minds – knowledge is power. So rather than steering kids away, reach out. The information is available at our fingertips. Rather than saying ‘I don’t think so’, the answer should be ‘Let’s find out’.”
She also feels we shouldn’t wait until secondary school.
“There isn’t a huge focus on primary school level and that’s where I think we need to start. We need to ensure that STEM is part of the curriculum.”
And it all goes back to you cannot be what you cannot see.
“When you talk to 15 year-old girls, huge numbers of them want to be teachers, and I think sometimes they make choices based on what they see every day and what they see other women doing – something tangible,” says Louise.
“And sometimes the computer programmer or data scientist or lab manager is not visible. So we need to bring industry into the classroom and demystify it.”
That’s something iWish does through its events, and Louise has been a panellist on a number of occasions.
“The girls love iWish, it’s an exciting event and it has made a huge difference; such a large percentage of kids change subject choices after it, which shows that it’s actually working. I never saw myself as a role model but now I feel a responsibility - even more so because I have a daughter - to shine the light on women in STEM, and to tell kids their stories.”