Are parents to blame for the lack of women in Stem?
New report says Irish mothers and fathers are directing their daughters away from the field
Irene Sheridan, a professor of electronic engineering, and her daughter Alison O’Shea, who is working in the same field. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/ Provision
Blame the parents. They may want the best for their children, but many end up directing them away from certain areas of study based on outdated notions of “acceptable” careers.
A major Government-commissioned report into the shortage of female graduates in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) found that parents are heavily influencing their daughters’ career choices in particular.
Despite this, mothers and fathers generally lack information about career options and are a key barrier to their daughters entering the field.
This is despite the fact that more than half of 1,500 girls and young women surveyed in the same report said their parents were the biggest influence on the subjects they chose at school.
Prof Brian MacCraith, president of DCU and chair of the Stem education review group, says there is “a job of work” to be done in informing parents of the career options.
“Right now, data scientists are probably the most in demand people in the world and I would suggest that there are not many parents who would know what that is or what one does,” he says.
“Therefore, they might have difficulty recommending their child to take on a degree that would essentially lead to them being one of the most sought after employees in Ireland, Europe and the US.”
Dr Nora Khaldi, a mathematician and founder of Dublin based start-up Nuritas – which combines artificial intelligence and DNA analysis to discover new, disease-beating ingredients in food – has experienced first-hand the importance of having parents who opened her mind to science.
“Parents influence everything from an early age: the type of toys we play with, the programmes we watch on TV, how things are explained to us,” she says.
“And explaining to girls that Stem is more a way of thinking rather than a defined job, for parents to tell their daughters that it’s cool to fix stuff and to be good in maths and science, that’s important.”
With a mother and father who encouraged her to try out everything from playing with dolls to figuring out “hard core” puzzles, it was the science documentaries they exposed her to, where she learned about people who changed the world, that really sparked her Stem interest.
As a woman however, Khaldi is a minority in the industry. The Central Statistics Office estimates less than 25 per cent of the approximately 120,000 people working in Stem related jobs are female.
One of the measures the Stem working group is now focusing on is producing an information pack to guide parents on Stem and its career options.
While being informed on subject choice and third-level courses is important, using clear and accessible language when describing the contribution of Stem to the wider world can also help attract more women to it, says MacCraith.
“There is evidence that young women are more influenced by the impacts a career will have on society rather than the details of it,” he says.
“You will find more females in bio-medical and environmental engineering than in civil engineering, mainly due to the nature of the work and the impact in the world that it leads to.”
Kahldi is also keen that the possibilities of Stem are understood beyond just having a third level degree.
“Studying it [Stem] doesn’t mean that you will end up at a desk coding or crunching numbers. It’s basically a new way of thinking, of understanding how to break a problem up into smaller problems and solving those separately.
“The reality is that there are a lot of jobs in this area, and it’s an exciting field to be in.
“To be able to create the next mobile version of something, the next medical device that is going to help someone, the next drug that is going to cure disease, for that you need to go through some sort of Stem throughout your career and it’s a pity to see so few women coming through.”
Stem is not for everyone. Some children just won’t be suited to it – but just encouraging children to consider it is important, says Ruth Buckley, a founding partner of iWish which aims to inspire and motivate young female secondary-school students to pursue careers in these fields.
“You do have to look at your child’s strengths and know what they are comfortable with,” she says.
“However there are jobs out there now that didn’t exist 10 years ago and we hear that the next generation will be more fluid. They won’t have the job for life, it’ll be more about life-long learning.
“They are so young going into university and it’ll be their first qualification but not their last. If they have even one of the core science subjects at Leaving Cert it allows them to build on that more easily in the future.”
Buckley, who is the head of ICT and business services with Cork City Council, says efforts to encourage more girls into Stem is important for future prosperity.
“If we are going to maintain success we are going to have to maintain a very steady pipeline of graduates,” she says.
While women make up just 25 per cent of the Stem workforce, things are slowly changing.
“The average gamer right now is a 43-year-old mother playing things like Candy Crush,” she says.
“People didn’t take games as a career option seriously for a long time but this is a growing, high paying field where the primary consumer is women. The industry is actively seeking to diversify itself. Now is the time.”
Alison O’Shea and her mother Irene Sheridan
“I was really conscious that I didn’t want to direct Alison into a career in engineering just because I thought it opened great doors, I thought I’d be doing her a disservice,” says Irene Sheridan, an electronic engineer, now working as a professor in the Cork Institute of Technology.
While she encouraged her daughter Alison (25) to look into all courses she was interested in pursuing at their level, as it came closer to CAO time it was clear that Alison was following her footsteps.
“I was never very good at learning things off by heart, so for me science was quite enjoyable in that if you can understand something to a certain degree then you already know it and you don’t need to study for it,” says Alison, now undertaking PhD research at Infant, Ireland’s first dedicated perinatal research centre at Cork University Hospital.
“We avoided saying directly to her to do electrical engineering in UCC because we know it’s good,” Irene says, “but we did talk to her about people who had done that course who went on to work in banks, hospitals, start-ups, etc.”
Irene’s connections played a big part in Alison choosing electrical and electronic engineering.
“The brilliant thing about her was that when I did think about doing engineering, she wouldn’t be inclined to talk to me herself about it but she’d put me in contact with someone who had knowledge in the area, like a graduate in the working world,” says Alison.
“The connections she gave me were really cool and I got to meet young women who had gone through UCC’s electronic engineering programme while I was still in school, meet them for coffee and ask them questions.
“They were fantastic role models for me and how many other people get the chance to do that?”
Panel: Tips for parents in encouraging your child into Stem
1) Patience: Stem subjects require patience – if your child doesn’t get the subject initially, it doesn’t mean they aren’t good at it. Encourage them to keep trying and doing exercises in what they find difficult.
2) Role models: they can be hugely influential in encouraging more women to Stem. Organisations such as iWish run events that allow teenage girls to meet with women working in a variety of Stem fields. The organisation has conferences in Cork and Dublin in February. (See www.iwish.ie for more )
3) Contacts: If you know someone in a Stem-related field, see if they would be willing to offer some work experience or meet with your child to talk to them about what their job entails.