‘There’s an image problem’: the drive to attract girls to Stem

In Ireland only a quarter of people working in science, technology, engineering and maths are women, and now female role models are being enlisted to buck stereotypes of Stem as a male area

Don't date the nerd, "be the nerd", was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's advice last month. He was responding to a social media post that went: "I keep telling my granddaughters to date the nerd in school. He may turn out to be a Mark Zuckerberg. "

We might not know who the next social media billionaire will be, but there is a fair chance it will not be a woman.

In Ireland, as in many other countries, only a quarter of people working in science, technology, engineering and maths are women.

In the education system, the situation is not any better. Just 17 per cent of entrants to third-level courses in IT are women, a figure that has barely budged in more than a decade. In maths, they make up just 22 per cent of students; in engineering the figure is 24 per cent.


The country is desperate for skilled graduates in these areas, with demand for talent projected to far exceed supply.

A number of factors feed into the dismal participation rate at third level. Parents and teachers play a key role and are highly influential when it comes to students' choices, according to research by Accenture. Many simply are not aware or do not understand the depth of opportunities available for women. There is also the perception that maths and science subjects at senior cycle are simply too difficult to study.

Negative stereotyping

Negative stereotyping tops the list of reasons why women are discouraged from Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

A 2015 Accenture report surveyed 1,500 girls, aged 11-18, and 2,500 young women, aged 19-23, from Ireland and Britain. Almost half of those surveyed believed Stem subjects matched “male” careers.

Just under 30 per cent felt Stem subjects better-fitted boys’ brains, personalities and hobbies.

So, why leave so much of the potential talent pool behind? That is a question educators and employers are desperately trying to answer. Some are trying a fresh approach which they hope can tackle the “boys only” stereotype: female role models.

I Wish (Inspiring Women in Stem) is a new partnership aimed at inspiring, encouraging and motivating young female secondary-school students to pursue careers in these fields.

Later this week it will host 2,000 transition-year students at talks, demonstrations and interactive hubs at a series of events in Cork.

Students will have the opportunity to meet and engage with role models working in a variety of Stem careers with companies such as Twitter, Google, Vodafone and Dell.

"There's an image problem," says Ruth Buckley, head of ICT and business services at Cork City Council, and one of the I Wish founders.

“If you’re a young girl, what’s sexy about Stem? What we are trying to do is bring girls into the arena where they can meet young women that they can relate to and ask them about their jobs. For some of them, maybe this is the first time they’ve ever seen a female specialising in physics or who works in chemistry.”

Role models are key to attracting women into the sector, says Ireland's first professor of Stem education, Sibel Erduran, who took up her position with University of Limerick last year.

She says, however, that there are no quick fixes to getting more girls interested in Stem subjects. “Because this is such a huge, complex problem, we need co- ordinated and systemic action.”

The involves everything from building links with the industry, engaging with families and making educational visits in and out of schools to shift perceptions among girls, as well as their families.

Stem relevance

Changing the way these subjects are taught in the classroom is another way to get more young women engaged. “It’s hard for girls to see the relevance of Stem in their lives, so it’s is perceived as something that is beyond them and it’s not related to them,” says Erduran.

“If we had a curriculum that had Stem in its broader context – scientific knowledge situated within a societal context – with relevance for everyday living, then I think they would be more engaged.”

Paula Neary, lead for Accenture's Stem initiatives who wrote the 2015 report, says the lack of Stem take-up among young girls is a serious problem for industry.

“This is about the talent that industry is missing out on,” says Neary. “There is a huge shortage of Stem-skilled people anyway, and definitely if you look at the diversity issue, there is so much research there that shows having a diverse range of skills, and the diverse thinking that girls would bring to a problem, is important. Industry wants diverse teams, but you can’t always find it.”

A report issued by the World Economic Forum last month showed that as technology continues to replace human activity, and Stem careers grow, it is women who will be most affected because of their low participation in Stem professions.

“Women stand to gain only one new Stem job for every 20 lost across other job families, whereas the ratio for men is one new job for every four lost elsewhere,” the report found.

However, with an increasing number of Stem initiatives happening across the country, groups such as I Wish are determined to buck that trend.


Shauna Hurley is a design engineer with Arup

Shauna Hurley (26) always had an interest in architecture and construction, but her love of maths won out on the CAO form when she chose to study structural engineering in Cork Institute of Technology.

After graduating in 2014, she landed a job with Arup, a global engineering consultancy, which involved travelling and working on interesting projects worldwide.

Structural engineering involves designing structures that are safe and capable of withstanding wind, earthquakes and other forces.

Her day-to-day workload involves designing structural elements such as floors, beams and columns, producing structural drawings. It also involves working alongside other professionals including architects, fire safety officers and project managers, in order to produce an economical and sustainable structure.

“It’s all those elements working together that produce the most fascinating projects. I find it fantastic,” she says. “Engineering lets you be part of a group of extremely talented people that make a difference in the world around us.

“For me, it’s looking at a structure or building and saying, ‘Yes, I was part of the team that designed that’ .”


Dr Keelin Murphy works at the Infant Research Centre in Cork

After completing her undergraduate in maths, then a master’s degree and doctorate in medical imaging software, Dr Keelin Murphy is leading a project that combines maths and computer science to provide automatic analysis of MRI scans.

Currently, medical professionals have to go through the three-dimensional MRI scans slice by slice.

“It takes an awful lot of time, is prone to error and you can usually miss something,” says Murphy. “My vision is that it will be an assistant to the radiologist or clinician: you still get the scan but you get highlighted areas, so it’s more obvious what the abnormalities are.

“We want to be able to quantify these abnormalities, too. At the moment we are looking at babies who have been deprived of oxygen at birth, leading to regions of the brain having cell death.

“You can see that on an MRI scan, but it’s very difficult to turn that into an outcome for parents. They don’t know if the baby will walk or talk. We would like for our computer to help them with that.

“Based on the information about how other babies have done, we want to be able to try and predict for babies in the future, so parents will have a better understanding of what their child’s quality of life will be.”


Regina Moran is chief executive of Fujitsu UK and Ireland

Having completed the Leaving Cert at a time when it was common for some girls' schools not to teach honours maths and physics, Regina Moran's college options were limited because she only had pass maths. Regardless, she made her way through a certificate in electronic engineering in Waterford and later a diploma programme at Cork Institute of Technology that focused largely on computers.

Over the next few years she worked her way up from an electronic technician to a hardware engineer working on mainframe computers. By 27 she was managing a team of the top technical engineers in Ireland.

After completing her master of business administration, she went on to become chief executive of Fujitsu Ireland in 2006, and last year became chief executive of Fujitsu UK and Ireland.

“What we provide is very technical solutions for our clients,” says Moran. “Having an engineering or science grounding, you understand the technology, and having done the MBA, you understand the business application of that technology.

“A basic degree in science or engineering is great to have, no matter what you end up doing. I can have those conversations with our customers and I understand what the tech team is telling me about the solution.”