Innovation talk: What’s behind the lack of women in science and tech?

UCD report states that ‘the key issue appears to be motivation’

It is a constant struggle to bring more women into the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and to keep them there, and not just at secondary level. And even when women do engage with these subjects there is a higher attrition rate for women leaving careers coming via Stem than for men.

Fewer women in these subjects within academia produces the follow-on consequence of low percentages of women holding senior posts in higher education. The glass ceiling remains firmly in place and I don't see gangs of people on either side trying to break through it. Or maybe they are and the glass is just too tough, but either way it remains firmly in place.

Many suggest it is a mystery why this gross imbalance exists, why men so outnumber women when it comes to Stem, particularly maths and engineering, but it seems perfectly clear to me. It is the system. It is the way the odds of the game are stacked. It is like the Las Vegas casinos who know they are going to win no matter how many nickels you feed into the slot machines.

Women end up earning less than their partners and so their career somehow becomes less valuable than the man’s and so of lesser importance. Women typically do more of the care-giving at home anyway but the primacy of the man’s job also provides a handy justification for women doing more than their share.

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The great advocate for women in science, Prof Nancy Hopkins of MIT puts this very neatly when she describes the extra challenges faced by women in Stem. The two main barriers are “unconscious bias” which results in exclusion and undervaluation of women, and greater family obligations, being the one who ends up making sure things don’t fall apart at home.

It is not as though things can’t change in the higher education institutions. Hopkins’ role at MIT since 1995 was to ensure that if there was a glass ceiling it had plenty of Velux windows in it. Only one in 12 faculty members in the MIT science were women when she became the chair of the first committee on women faculty at MIT. Now 20 years on, her vigorous support in achieving parity for women in science is being applied in universities across the US.

After graduation

But there is something else afoot, it is not just the institutional habits formed over generations in the universities that are making things difficult for women in Stem. Many women don’t seem to remain committed to Stem after graduation.

The UCD Engineering Graduates Association sent out a report last December, Towards Gender Balance in Engineering. Its concerns about balance were based on the "loss to the Irish productive economy resulting from only 10 per cent to 20 per cent of Irish engineers" being women.

This is not a brainpower issue, women are completely capable of getting through the engineering curriculums as pointed out by the report. They found no difference in ability or opportunity. “The key issue appears to be motivation,” they said.

They also found little evidence that home responsibilities were causing more women to leave engineering compared to other professions.

“Yet there is something about the engineering profession which deters women,” they say. The only reason they could find in the literature was a reference to dissatisfaction over pay and promotion opportunities.

Perhaps it is just the nature of the subject. There are more women level 8 CAO applicants than men, yet women make up only about 20 per cent of UCD engineering students. And within Stem, physics, computing, maths and statistics are all dominated by men, the engineers’ report says.

Marvellous programme

Might this be the reason for the low application rate for a marvellous programme put together and run last year by Science Foundation Ireland? The Advance awards were designed for women in Stem areas who had left academia or industry, the goal being to tempt them back.

It provided funds to begin pursuing a research topic and let them find their feet and part of the award could be used to defray the high cost of child-minding. These awards also supported linkages with industry so the recipient could transit across to the private sector more readily if that was their intention.

This programme had it all for any woman who felt she had spent too long out of the lab and hankered to get back, but for some reason uptake was low. The Foundation was as surprised as anyone and has halted the award scheme until it can study what happened. It was a great idea but obviously its time has not yet come.