Reaching for a female future in science and technology

Something needs to be done to increase female representation in the science, technology, engineering, and maths sectors, and McAfee is to the forefront, writes Claire O’Sullivan.

Reaching for a female future in science and technology

AS YOU step into the open plan engineering section at McAfee’s European headquarters in Cork, the realisation hits you.

Rows of desks run from one wall to another, and at every desk sits a man. I try to discreetly scan the outer reaches of the office to see if I can spot any women. I don’t think I can. I work in a male-dominated newsroom but still, this gender imbalance is startling.

In a room off the engineering department, I sit down opposite two McAfee employees, Sonya Walsh and Irene Gueden. Ms Gueden is the plant’s software quality assurance manager. Ms Walsh is senior manager of Europe, Middle East, and Africa operations.

Ms Walsh assures me the gender breakdown is not as bad as it looks.

There are 339 people employed at McAfee’s European headquarters at Cork. “There are 146 females in Cork or 43% females which is an excellent balance for an IT company, particularly given our largest departments are engineering and sales,” she says. I am not told the percentage of female engineers, as such data is “commercially sensitive”.

“I would add that we have a strong base of female senior managers across the company — including to director level,” says Ms Walsh.

The need to increase the number of women working in science, technology, engineering, and maths (Stem) is the reason that I’m visiting McAfee. Its global headquarters in Santa Clara, has a Women in Security (Wise) chapter, designed to “engage and support the growth, empowerment and success of women within the company”. McAfee will officially launch a Wise chapter in Cork in the coming weeks.

“This is about empowering women, networking, and also it forms part of corporate responsibility role,” says Ms Guedan. “Our mission statement is the growth, employment, and success of women.”

Senior management at McAfee in Cork are strongly supporting the initiative with Kevin O’Dwyer, their vice-president of inside sales, agreeing to be executive sponsor. In fact, Ms Walsh and Ms Guedan underline how Wise Cork is “non-exclusionary”, with men welcome to sign up, as they believe men also benefit from understanding why female empowerment is necessary.

Not just at McAfee, but up and down this country and around the world, there is a growing awareness that something needs to be done to increase female representation in the Stem sector. In Ireland, only a quarter of people working in science and technology are women, while an Engineers Ireland study published last year showed that men outnumber women in the profession by nearly nine to one. These trends are mirrored internationally. In OECD countries, just 5% of teenage girls expect to have careers in engineering and computing, compared to 18% of teenage boys.

Much of the research shows the sector is dogged by the misguided notion that maths-based subjects such as engineering are the domain of men. This stereotyping has meant that, across Europe, women are more dominant in health and education whereas men make up most of the construction, technology, and manufacturing sector.

The campaign to rebalance however certainly wasn’t helped by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s off-script comments at a teachers’ conference this year that linked the need for better primary school maths standards with the “highly feminised” or high number of women in the profession.

It was an unfortunate blunder by a man who should have known better on a day that he was announcing plans to make honours maths compulsory for primary school teacher training.

Is the abolition of these workplace stereotypes just another natural phase in the ongoing development of the role of women in the workplace?

Don’t forget how far we have come — and how far we have to go. In many of our mother’s times, women weren’t allowed work in the civil service, local authorities or health service once they got married — the archaic ‘marriage bar’ was only lifted in Ireland in 1973. Now, about 56% of Irish women are in employment and more than half have children. Women are also more likely than men to continue to third-level education.

Technology consultants Accenture recently surveyed 400 female secondary pupils, as well as more than 200 guidance counsellors and 200 parents of girls in second-level education.

Almost half of the students believed Stem subjects were more suited to males than females and 71% of students saying they have never attended a talk or information session on Stem.

Parents also blamed the science and technology gender gap on a lack of female role models in the sector and on the lack of Stem information that they, as primary influencers on their children, are provided with.

WITH these preconceptions in mind, the community value of the McAfee Wise project soon becomes clear. The Cork chapter, chaired by Sarra Chandler, plans to bring female leaders to the office to give talks to staff and are already participating in the Maths Circles initiative in Cork primary schools. Maths circles are all about making maths fun. Recently, McAfee volunteers, including Ms Guedan, produced hula hoops in the classroom to help explain the concept of sets. The children loved it.

“They didn’t want the class to end,” says Ms Guedan. “They were complaining that they had three more questions to do. It was great. We want them to start enjoying maths without writing it off as difficult or not for them. The hope is that, in time, the pupils, and especially the girls, will aspire to work with maths.”

Earlier this year, the Government launched a three-year strategy to increase the numbers of students studying Stem by 10% by 2016.

As part of its Smart Initiatives project, it is creating a database of 450 volunteers, who already work in the sector, who are willing to be trained to talk to parents, students, and guidance counsellors about the advantages of careers in this sector. The ESB is also rallying behind the cause and as part of Engineers Week, deployed a hot squad of 135 ESB engineers to schools to talk about the opportunities that a career in engineering brings.

Later this month, Rails Girls Galway, a weekend-long workshop providing women with the tools and support to build web apps and software services, will take place. The organisers are mainly young female IT researchers involved in local third-level colleges, businesses, schools, and volunteer digital makers’ clubs and are part of a worldwide movement to bridge the gender divide in technology and to facilitate women in learning computer programming.

According to Myriam Leggieri, insight researcher and one of the chief organisers, “events such as Rails Girls directly addresses women’s lack of exposure to technology and empowers girls to take the first step in learning these in-demand skills”.

McAfee recently partnered with the Cork French Film Festival to show the documentary, Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine girls around the world who, in the face of child slavery, forced marriage, and grinding poverty, battle for an education and a chance to change their lives.

“Look at Afghanistan, where girls are not allowed an education and are clamouring for it, evangelising for it, and then in this country, we have girls writing off a Stem education, who aren’t taking it seriously. It is two opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Ms Guedan.

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