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Stem steps up to win women over

A number of initiatives are in place to encourage girls to take up science subjects in school

This year, points for college engineering courses shot up. Science continues to attract decent numbers, but demand has stalled. Meanwhile, industry is crying out for more computer science and technology graduates.

Ireland is still not producing enough Stem graduates, and much of the problem is that these courses are simply not attracting enough women, reducing the pool of available talent. Perceptions are everything: a 2015 Accenture report of 1,500 girls between the ages of 11 and 18 and 2,500 women aged 19-23 in the UK and Ireland found 30 per cent felt Stem subjects were better fitted to boys’ brains, personalities and hobbies.

“Just one in 10 senior executives are women, and based on the current rate of change, it will take 100 years to achieve full equality in the boardroom,” says Wendy Murphy, senior director of human resources at LinkedIn and a board member and volunteer with Junior Achievement Ireland, which runs the new Futurewize programme, a five-week Stem programme for junior cycle students, which supports the curriculum. “One of the biggest challenges is encouraging women at the start of the jobs pipeline to pursue Stem careers. Unless we get the supply issue right, then it becomes very difficult to achieve gender balance from a limited school.”

Addressing gender balance isn’t just about equality for equality’s sake: bluntly, it costs companies and society money when women are under-represented in Stem. There are now a number of initiatives run by private companies, voluntary organisations and State bodies aimed at addressing the problem.


“Reports by McKinsey have shown that companies with a diverse workforce are 35 per cent more productive, while for every 10 per cent of gender balance achieved in a company, the profitability rises by 3.5 per cent,” says Murphy. “Staff in the Stem sector are attracted to companies that have a diverse and inclusive culture, so to acquire and retain the best talent, organisations need to promote these values. This begins in the recruitment process: you should ensure that interview panels consist of people from a range of backgrounds to overcome any subconscious bias that may be present as part of the hiring process.”

Gender balance

It can be done. Through a range of initiatives, LinkedIn has managed to achieve a 50/50 gender balance at its EMEA HQ in Dublin. These include employee-led resources for parents, an allowance that staff can use against childcare, supports for parents who have had a career break to mind children or care for a relative (this is open to men and women, but most of those who had career breaks are women), and an initiative to encourage diversity in senior leadership roles.

Pharmaceutical company AbbVie, which was named by DiversityInc as one of the top 50 companies for diversity and was featured in the Working Mother 100 Best Companies List, is also stepping up. Caroline McClafferty, HR director, says they are committed to fostering an inclusive and diverse working environment.

“We work closely with schools, colleges and industry partners to promote science education programmes for children and students of all ages through to PhD and postdoctoral level. These are focused on encouraging greater student awareness of the rewarding career and industry opportunities that can be unlocked by studying Stem subjects. Positive role models can play a critical role in getting young people, especially females, interested in science and Stem-related careers, and the company supports a number of internal and external initiatives, including its own Women Leaders in Action (WLA) programme, Back to School for Stem, and Science Foundation Ireland’s Smart Futures.”

In 2014, AbbVie launched Seek, a global education programme delivered by company volunteers, which takes place in primary schools in Dublin, Cork and Sligo. In 2016, it launched Seek Engineering, a module developed for sixth-class primary students. It is also partnered with Young Social Innovators to run school-based workshops around Ireland. More recently, it linked up with the Irish Times to develop Stem paths which explores how educators, industry, professional bodies and other stakeholders can work together to engage students.

Dr Norah Patten, Ireland’s only astronaut in training, is involved with AbbVie’s Back to School for Stem initiative, which engages with schools, teachers and students to promote Stem disciplines. Employees from AbbVie’s sites visit schools to talk about their jobs and impact. “Role models are vital if young people are to inspired and encouraged to consider committing to Stem educational pathways and potential careers,” says Patten. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

- The Insight Centre for Data Analytics runs Girls Hack, country-wide Stem workshops aimed at girls aged 13-17, while SmartFutures.ie is managed by SFI to provide Stem career resources to students, teachers, guidance counsellors and parents.