Progress on diversity in business undermined by too few women pursuing STEM careers – BTYSTE forum told

Housing and shortage of venture capital main obstacles to start-up activity in Ireland

While Ireland is improving diversity in its technology companies and start-ups, insufficient numbers of women are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and going on to fill senior management roles.

That was the verdict of four entrepreneurs, previous BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition winners who went on to form internationally successful start-ups.

At an executive leadership forum to coincide with the 2023 BTYSTE in the RDS, the finger of blame was pointed at the education system – In contrast, the gender divide on entries to this year’s contest is 62 per cent woman: 38 per cent male.

Rhona Togher, who cofounded Lios with her friend Eimear O’Carroll – a start-up using technology to eradicate noise pollution and avoidable hearing damage – said the education system was not encouraging girls sufficiently to do STEM, and instead they continued to be encouraged to study home economics and to do teaching or nursing.


The businesswomen do a lot of work speaking in schools in trying to address the issue, Togher added, “but it ends in the hall”. While its participation figures were impressive, there was a need to track women going on from the BTYSTE, she believed.

“Schools should be more honest in acknowledging the problem. There is no follow up,” she added – and nobody knows whose job it is to do so. Girls recognised the opportunities but all too often say “it’s not for me”.

O’Carroll said there was between 50-60 per cent women, and a good international mix of people, in their company. Outreach and mentoring potential woman leaders a big part of that success.

Lios won first prize at the recent She Loves Tech 2022 awards. The co-founders went to secondary school together and their company was born out of a Young Scientist project. It has two core products; Sound Relief tinnitus sound therapy and Sound Bounce hearing protection.

The BTYSTE was feeding talent through the system but there was a disconnect between secondary schools and universities, according to Ciarán O’Mara, who formed Protex AI with fellow BTYSTE participant Dan Hobbs.

Their start-up uses computer vision technology to identify health and safety issues, minimise injuries and make industrial workplaces safer. By plugging into existing CCTV infrastructure, it can leverage artificial intelligence to audit customers’ workplaces. It recently raised €18 million in fresh investment to grow its commercial and engineering teams and expand on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gillian Harford, chief executive of 30% Club Ireland, said some significant progress on diversity had been made in recent years but there was still a way to go – with a stereotypical bias in education of boys and girls from their early years. This was particularly evident “in the career guidance space”.

As for the main obstacles to innovation and support for start-ups in Ireland, housing difficulties and lack of venture capital funds based in the country topped the list among panellists.

O’Mara said housing automatically comes up in conversation when recruiting from abroad. Protext AI recently recruited three people from outside Ireland and it took up to six months to get them housed.

Hobbs said the investor climate in Ireland had improved but was not where it should be. London was five years behind the US in this regard, and Ireland was five years behind London, he believed.

Broadcaster and entrepreneur Áine Kerr underlined the importance of the BTYSTE “ecosystem” in fostering innovative thinking. For many participants it was the moment when they fell in love with addressing problems, she added, and shy and bashful students suddenly became confident.

“They find their tribe, like-minded individuals, and form lifelong friendships,” she said. That combination should not be underestimated and it happened by design, including the input of teachers, parents and BTYSTE alumni. The next generation of talent had gone on to solve real-world problems, Kerr noted.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times