The hard Stem sell: trying to get girls to buy into science

We know the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) have trouble attracting women, but why, with all of the efforts and role models now, are things getting worse?

Tara McCarthy of St Angela’s College, Cork; Maedbh Heaney, Scoil Mhuire, Cork; Gillian Keating of Cork Chamber; and Saoirse Terry of Coachford College, Cork, at the launch of the I Wish events in Cork on February 12th, promoting Stem careers to girls and women. Photograph: Darragh Kane

Tara McCarthy of St Angela’s College, Cork; Maedbh Heaney, Scoil Mhuire, Cork; Gillian Keating of Cork Chamber; and Saoirse Terry of Coachford College, Cork, at the launch of the I Wish events in Cork on February 12th, promoting Stem careers to girls and women. Photograph: Darragh Kane


Science, technology, engineering and maths (collectively known as Stem) has a women problem. These areas have always attracted and retained more boys and men than girls and women. What’s surprising is that the situation is not really improving and in many cases is getting worse.

Take the Higher Education Authority’s new entrant figures. Ten years ago 47 per cent of new entrants into science, maths and computing courses at university level were women. By 2013 that proportion had fallen to 40 per cent. In the same year there were just 436 female entrants into computer science at university level out of a total of 2,613, or 16 per cent.

Engineering, manufacturing and construction courses fare no better, with male entrants outnumbering females by four to one in 2013. Out of almost 118,000 people working in Stem in Ireland, just a quarter are women.

The phenomenon is not just an Irish one. Less than 7 per cent of tech positions in Europe are filled by women. In the US the number of female entrants to computer science is still going down.

As more females had the opportunity to go to college in the US, female entrants to law, medicine, the physical sciences and computer sciences rose exponentially in the 1970s. Then, in the mid-1980s, entrants to computer science courses plateaued briefly before plummeting. The other areas continued to attract females but computer science entry never recovered.

What’s the problem? Female role models may be few and far between, but they are more visible than ever before. Surely girls have more options and exposure to Stem than ever before?


Gender gap

A 2014 Accenture survey commissioned by the Women Invent Tomorrow campaign – it highlights the importance of closing the gender gap in science and technology-based industries – found the problem to be a societal one.

Stem subjects are seen by teenage girls as being for boys. There is a misconception that some subjects are easier than others, and often girls appear to make subject choices with the points race rather than careers in mind. Physics has a much higher A rate than history, for example, but that is not the perception.

It appears that parents of girls often do not consider Stem careers when advising their daughters. The survey found parents, while very influential in their daughters’ decisions about courses, were ill-informed about Stem career paths.

Ann O’Dea, chief executive of and founder of the Women Invent Tomorrow campaign, sees another problem.

“Above all there is still an issue with visibility of female role models. We can’t keep rolling out the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers. There are countless remarkable female role models out there, but the media tends to use the same names as if there were only a handful. If we wish to make these careers appealing to young girls and women, they need to be made aware of the exciting career possibilities, and the remarkable women who have gone before them.”

O’Dea’s latest initiative – Inspire2015 – will take place in June. It brings a plethora of international female role models and male advocates in Stem to Dublin.

“The team here has travelled the world attending sci-tech events, and we’re tired of stages full of middle-class white men telling us about the future of technology. Inspire will turn the tables on traditional events with a gender split of 70:30 women to men, both on stage and among our delegates.”

Inspire is just one of many attempts to encourage women into Stem, but the question remains: why are the numbers of women entering science going down rather than up?

The societal issues run deep. The gendering of certain careers was confirmed in the Accenture survey, which found girls are not displaying as much interest in Stem careers, according to career guidance teachers. Even new careers such as app development were seen by girls as being for boys.

This all feeds into a theory held by Prof Christine Loscher, director of Dublin City University’s Health Technologies Research and Enterprise Hub.

“I do think that teens today are living in a world where image is more important than it has ever been. With social media, Instagram, Twitter and so on, there is so much emphasis on how they look and what they’re doing – image is such a part of who they are – Stem subjects just aren’t seen as very glamorous.”

Loscher, who is involved in Girls Hack Ireland, believes that, while entry to Stem subjects is suffering now, clubs such as CoderDojo and other initiatives that attract younger people will have a significant impact later when those children are making choices. “If you can catch girls before they start thinking about whether certain subjects are cool or not, I think you’ll begin to see a difference.”


Teaching techniques

The issues for women in Stem are complex, and persist right up the ladder. Because Stem courses have traditionally catered for male students, teaching techniques that have developed may not be best suited to females.

Dr Shannon Chance is a Marie Curie Research Fellow based in DIT. Her research explores how to make engineering education more effective for women and minority students.

“We know from student development theory that women learn differently. They learn in interconnected ways and in interpersonal ways, so they like to know how what they are learning relates to other information, and they like learning with other people.” Chance has found interactive techniques, such as problem-based learning, are more supportive of female students than lecture-type situations.

Research also shows creativity is important to women. In parts of the world, such as Denmark, where there is some gender balance in engineering, the fields that are proving attractive to women are those seen as having potential for creativity.

“Hybrid fields such as biomedical engineering are showing improvement, for example,” says Chance. “But fields like electrical engineering are still proving unpopular among women even in places where the gender balance is quite good.”

Within a Stem career there are difficulties that are not always external, according to Loscher. “I think it’s in our nature as women to put huge pressure on ourselves to be perfect. If a woman sees a job being advertised and she meets eight out of 10 requirements, she is likely to go away and work at meeting the other two requirements rather than applying there and then. A man may only have four of the 10 requirements, but he is much more likely to put himself forward. It’s a different mindset. I think that women who realise this can actually be quite strategic about when they put themselves forward and actually end up progressing quite quickly.”

Attempts to address the lack of information about Stem careers and introducing girls to women who have found success in Stem are gaining traction. One such initiative, I Wish, is in Cork next week.

“We want to do something proactive about the Stem skills shortage rather than being reactive all the time,” says Gillian Keating, pPresident of theCork Chamber of Commerce. “We have to catch girls at a young age. We have to show them what being an engineer, for example, means. I think a key problem is that girls simply do not know what the job options are.”

There will be talks, demonstrations and interactive hubs in locations in Cork to inform young women, their parents and teachers about the possibilities in Stem.

Keating comes from a law background, and the name of the initiative, I Wish, resonates with her. “I wish I had known when I was 16 all that I do now about Stem. The opportunities are just so exciting.”

I Wish is on February 12th in various locations in Cork, Girls Hack Ireland is in DCU on March 21st. Inspire Fest 2015 is in Dublin on June 18th-19th.





ARLENE O’NEILL has a BSc in applied physics and a PhD in physics from Trinity College Dublin. She is a nanomaterials scientist and assistant professor in the school of physics in TCD.

  • What are the main obstacles between girls and science? “Still in 2015, females across the spectrum believe science is more suited to males. I was never encouraged as a young female to get involved in science, it was something I was lucky enough to stumble upon. I think people still believe studying science means they will one day work in a lab and wear a white coat. I work with many great female scientists across a range of interesting and creative roles.” 
  • What change would you make? “We cannot do enough to challenge the stereotypes. We need to showcase the variety of amazing people in science and portray the impacts their pursuit of science is having on the world.”


AOIBHEANN BIRD has a PhD in biomedical sensor applications from DCU and a BSc in applied physics from DCU. She is education and outreach manager for Insight Centre for Data Analytics. She is also a scuba-diving instructor who links science to diving to enthuse young people about the subject.


  • What are the main obstacles between girls and science? “The points race has played a role, as students begin to choose subjects based on maximising points and not on broadening their skills base. There is a perception that science is boring or hard or only for geeks. We need people to understand it is absolutely fascinating. There is a lack of visible female role models for young girls to look up to, especially in computer science.” 
  • What change would you make? “We need to increase the exposure of students to Stem at primary level so there isn’t such a large gap in knowledge when it comes to second level. We also need to get parents to understand the value of science so they encourage their children to continue with Stem subjects and not influencing them to ‘take the easy route’ for CAO points.”




If you’re a girl who has never considered a career in computing, Girls Hack Ireland could change your mind. The idea is to bring 100 girls with little or no experience of computer coding together and see how much trouble they can cause in a day.

Organised by Insight Centre for Data Analytics, the hackathon is based on a UK event run by the Stemettes, a group dedicated to changing female perceptions about science. Insight is calling on Irish teenagers to join them for a day of games and coding, celebrity and expert mentoring and the chance to meet inspirational female scientists. KC Peaches will bring the food.

“This event is all about smashing stereotypes and showing girls how creative, rewarding and exciting the field of tech can be,” says Ruth Blaney of Insight.

All 100 hackers will be provided with a laptop for the event at DCU’s Hub. After food, games and ice breakers, mentors take them through the basics of coding, enough to get started on a creative project of their own.

A crack team of Stemette godmothers ( will fly in from the UK to help, along with some top researchers from the Insight Centre.

Girls from 15 to 17 from anywhere in the country are welcome, and the event is free (places limited to 100). Registration is at and if you’re 16 or younger you’ll need to bring a parent, guardian or teacher along. Buses will run from Galway and Cork with no charge (booking essential). Contact



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