‘I cannot be what I cannot see’ – how girls learn from successful women
Reversing low levels of women at the top in science and business starts in school
Sarah O’Connor and Isolde Johnson, founders of the Cool Bean Company. In Ireland, there are just over two men that are either nascent entrepreneurs or business owners for every female early-stage entrepreneur.
One of the hallmarks of a successful society is the extent to which women have opportunities to realise their full potential. Countries with high levels of gender equality tend to be more stable and prosperous and they do more to ensure merit rather than gender defines how people progress. A strong indicator of gender equality is the presence of women in business and entrepreneurship. While much has improved in Ireland in this area, change can be frustratingly slow. We need to do more to understand why this is so and what can be done to speed up progress.
Ireland’s ability to nurture and encourage female talent in technology and entrepreneurship has never been more important. It matters because it affects not just the future of work and the nature of opportunity, but also how our children maximise their potential and how equal a society we can become. Fifty percent of Ireland’s talent pool is female and yet women remain under-represented in almost every sector of our economy. One important factor is that secondary-school subject choices made by girls go on to define the pipeline of graduates emerging from third-level colleges. It is inevitable that choices made in the past do not always reflect the talent and ambition of that same student today.
Promoting female role models at the age when girls are making career-defining choices prior to secondary school can help change this situation. Programmes such as the iWish initiative highlight female role models in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) to female students. They provide ample evidence that younger students, when exposed to real-life female achievement in technology and related areas, change their perceptions about what is possible.
Not only do these programmes influence the ambition of female students, they also challenge parents and the education system to help students achieve that same ambition via curriculum development and training.
In the context of the future of work and female opportunity it is worth noting what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman refers to as “Stempathy” – combining science, technology, engineering and maths with empathy. In the near future, whatever jobs emerge will require more knowledge. However it isn’t about what we know, but rather what we can do with what we know that will make a difference. Ensuring female students get equal access to Stem opportunities will play an important part in helping women participate in emerging economic opportunities.
Women in business
Promoting businesswomen as role models for female students also has a role in ensuring more women in business. Ireland has lower levels of female entrepreneurship than many similarly small, open economies. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report for Ireland reaffirms that more men than women start new businesses. There are just over two men that are either nascent entrepreneurs or business owners for every female early-stage entrepreneur. Such research suggests women continue to be less confident in their perception of having the skills and knowledge to start a business while men also have higher growth aspirations for their business
On the premise that “I cannot be what I cannot see”, programmes that bring successful female entrepreneurs to schools to discuss issues such as starting a business, innovation and product development can make a difference to the aspirations of female students. They bring entrepreneurship to life in a practical, compelling fashion and there are other benefits including a measurable growth in confidence, the dissolving of gender stereotypes and an ambition to explore a broader set of career paths.
Inevitably such a focus on technology can raise concerns that our education system is being encouraged solely to facilitate the needs of business. Of course commerce needs talent and business leaders make no secret of that fact. However just because we may have studied science in school doesn’t mean we all ended up as scientists, no more than studying coding means that kids, male or female, will all inevitably become coders.
Highlighting the real possibilities of a broader set of career options for our female schoolchildren is essential. Inevitably it means that that technology oriented subjects need to be as widely available as possible and female role models need to be visible and accessible. This means investment at a time when the public finances remain fragile. However the cost of failure is immeasurable. In the case of our female students in particular, it means unrealised potential both for individuals and wider society. We can do better.