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Bridging the STEM Gap: Advancing Gender Equality in Ireland

Ireland’s Fast-Growing STEM Sector – Progress on Gender Equality, But Work Remains

Ireland has seen a positive explosion in terms of its reputation as one of the world’s leading technology hubs in recent years.

What’s more, with Ireland seeking to become Europe’s STEM leader as soon as 2026, it is greatly reassuring that women represent more than 40 per cent of doctoral graduates in Physical Sciences (She Figures, 2021).

Women such as Abigail Ruth Freeman, Director of the Science Foundation Ireland, who has contributed to advancing scientific research and innovation in the country, as well as Fionola Cliffe, the Chief Operations Officer of Hooke Bio, are visible role models for young women with aspirations of a successful career in STEM.

This is certainly representative of the positive trend of increasing female participation in STEM subjects and careers in Ireland, which is fantastic to see and empowering as HR leaders can play a key role in helping to encourage more women into STEM and also leadership positions within STEM roles.


Celebrating Progress – Ireland’s Gender Pay Gap Amongst the Lowest in the EU

Added to the positive statistic above, is the fact that Ireland’s gender pay gap is actually amongst the lowest in the EU, and has been falling since 2018. Hot off the heels of International Women’s Day, which took place on 8 March, this is an extremely positive step in the right direction. Whilst there is certainly still a long way to go here to achieve full gender equality in the workplace, this should be viewed as a very positive indication for the future.

Woman working in tech

The rise of women and girls studying STEM subjects and stepping into STEM careers is something which must be both celebrated and even further encouraged. Progress is certainly clear to see, with I Wish reporting in their recent 2023 Survey of Female Students’ Attitudes to STEM that the percentage of females studying an undergraduate programme across all STEM disciplines had risen from 29% in 2014 up to 36% in 2022.

The percentage of those studying Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction had risen from 15% in 2014 to 24% in 2022 which is a positive progression, particularly when one considers these statistics include the Covid-19 pandemic when other industries slowed and saw less uptake.

Yet another standout statistic is that an impressive 64% of Food Processing at an Undergraduate level were females, with 68% also studying Biology. Yet another 65% of undergraduates studying Biochemistry in Ireland were female. Meanwhile, Environmental Sciences also performed strongly, with an impressive 53% of participants in the course being female, whilst 51% of ICT programmes were also made up of women undergraduates.

Within the I Wish 2023 Survey, the I Wish team notes that over the past 10 years since its inception, they have experienced significant positive change in terms of more women and girls participating in STEM careers and subjects, including increased uptake year-on-year in STEM courses, which is reflected in some of the impressive statistics highlighted above. In addition to this, I Wish also mentions the more advanced gender equality in STEM over the past decade.

Positive role models such as Sonya Geelon, the Chief Commercial Officer at Conferma Pay, once said she is a firm believer in the motto, ‘if you see it, you can be it’ and is a passionate advocate for nurturing young up-and-coming talent to ensure progress continues to be made and instilled in young girls and women:

“For those who are choosing a STEM career, we need to be better at exposing them to the world of possibilities, providing them with practical insights and shining a light on the breadth of roles available,” she once said.

This is reflected in the innovative programs and initiatives which encourage women and girls into STEM such as the inspiring ‘180 days to make a difference’ mentorship program, (Deloitte & I Wish) which underscores the commitment to empowering the next generation of female leaders.

Other examples include the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, dream Space at Microsoft Ireland and ESB Science Blast.


Great Improvement, But More Can Be Done! How can HR Leaders Help to Bridge the STEM Gap?

I Wish reports that 84% of the girls they surveyed in 2023 said they wish to know more about STEM. This is encouraging in that the demand for knowledge is there, but it also indicates we need to do more in schools to both educate and encourage girls into careers in STEM as well as emphasise the strong career opportunities within such a positively flourishing industry.

Indeed, a staggering 66% of girls told I Wish they saw a lack of information about STEM careers as a barrier to pursuing a career in STEM. This is understandable and represents a potential opportunity for HR leaders within SMEs in Ireland to help their businesses reach out to schools in their area to help educate and inspire young girls about pursuing a career in STEM and the correct pathways to take to achieve this.

Women teaching science and technology subjects

By liaising and engaging directly with schools in Ireland, HR professionals may be able to facilitate women in leadership roles within STEM by speaking with school children about their careers in STEM. Not only would this serve to educate young girls on how to pursue a career in this area, but it would also serve a major purpose in providing a source of inspiration for young women and girls to look up to as women in leadership.

This would help overcome one of the barriers teenage girls see in STEM, with more than half (52%) citing a lack of female role models.

Further ways HR leaders in SMEs can further drive impactful change in terms of helping to highlight and encourage a career in STEM for young girls and women is to drive positive recruitment practices, ensure supportive networks are firmly in place to attract and retain female staff, and also, vitally, provide flexible work policies. This includes flexible working patterns as well as hybrid or complete home-working options, which can help women continue to progress in their careers when returning from maternity leave, for example.

HR leaders can arguably also make an invaluable contribution to the gender balance of more women in STEM by signing up their businesses for important networking opportunities and skills workshops and ensuring female staff members have time to attend such events if they take place during the working day.

This is something Dr Katrina O’Sullivan agrees with. Speaking ahead of last year’s annual Women in STEM Summit, she said: “This summit is so important because it allows that diverse voice to be heard, but it is also inspiring for women to hear about successes that other women have but also the challenges that remain in the system. The Women in STEM summit allows us to come together to problem solve and also think about exciting solutions for the future.”


Grassroots and the Power of Role Models

One just needs to look at the impact and influence of the England Women’s team’s success at the World Cup in 2023 to appreciate how powerful it is for young girls and women to have strong role models who reflect the reality that they can truly achieve anything if they put the work in.

England Women Senior Team Soccer

Not only did the success and positive worldwide coverage inspire more young girls to get involved in sports, but it also had the knock-on positive effect of seeing real-life female role models they could relate to and aspire to be. Young girls saw women who had overcome obstacles to achieve mighty things, which squarely added to their ambitions and hopefully, leadership goals.

Globally, the work NASA is doing to empower its female staff as well as encourage more women into careers with NASA and STEM in general is inspiring. One NASA employee, Ledlyne Vazquez, KSC, had these inspiring words for young girls and women as part of a drive to recruit more female staff:

“Working in a male-dominated field, you don’t have to fit in, find your voice and find your flair. I have learnt to use my feminine touch positively. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and don’t be afraid to learn. Don’t limit your potential because of features that you can’t control!”
This brings us back to why it is so important for young women and girls to have positive female role models in STEM.

I Wish co-founders Gillian Keating and Caroline O’Driscoll discussed the importance of attracting more women into STEM roles to shape a better world in The Journal last year. Quite clearly, the subject is of great interest – with the web article indicating it has been read an impressive 10.3K times online. In it, the duo write that as part of the ‘upskilling’ agenda they wish to help and support our ‘next generation of young women to become thought leaders, innovators and game changers’ by showing them the ‘many great women in STEM in Ireland that want to help and support these young women to follow in their footsteps.”


Gender Equality in STEM and the Positive Impacts at Play

It is perhaps a point well documented that embracing diversity is not just the right thing to do, but it is also good for business. In March 2023, the advisory firm Linstock revealed its findings which confirmed that boards with better gender diversity offer more effective oversight.

This confirmed the findings of McKinsey’s well-known ‘Why Diversity Matters’ report, which showed a 15% increase in financial returns for organisations with high levels of diversity.

With this in mind, we must continue to drive positive change and proactive commitment to supporting gender equality in STEM. After all, the positive impact of having more women in STEM and leadership roles on the industry, society, families and economy is well documented.

As Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut to land on the moon once said: “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”

For even more information, advice and personal anecdotes, listen to our podcast with iWish co-founder Caroline O’Driscoll here.

Bridging the STEM Gap: Advancing Gender Equality in Ireland was last modified: March 29th, 2024 by Beatriz Araujo

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