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Big strides for women in Stem

Science, technology, engineering and maths are still male-dominated industries, but American firms in Ireland are making big strides in addressing the gender imbalance

The VGo robot at St Catherine’s girls school in Cabra, Dublin.

The VGo robot at St Catherine’s girls school in Cabra, Dublin.

 

Caroline O’Driscoll is a partner at Deloitte and co-founder of I Wish, an initiative to inspire, encourage and motivate young female students to pursue a career in Stem. “Five years ago, myself and two other business women set up this social enterprise, I Wish, to improve diversity in the Stem pipeline,” she says. “Our ethos is based on ‘choices, chances [and] changes’, and it’s to give every girl a real chance when it comes to Stem.”

O’Driscoll says the main reason companies locate in Ireland is talent, and that we are in a war to get the best talent. “Given the low participation rates of women in Stem, it became very obvious to us that we were leaving half of the talent pool behind. We thought that if we could do something to improve the pipeline, we could ensure that companies who invest here have the broadest pool of talent available. Deloitte has also recently launched a Stem recruitment campaign as we recognise the value of Stem graduates and how technology, in particular, will intersect with the traditional finance industry.”

Dr Margaret McCaul is a team leader and research fellow with the Adaptive Sensors Group, part of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, one of the largest data research groups in the world. Her interest in science began during her time at secondary school in Limerick, and she went on to do a degree in analytical science at the Limerick Institute of Technology. She spent some time working in industry as an analytical chemist before moving to Dublin to pursue a PhD at Dublin City University.

McCaul is one of many academics in Irish third-levels who are working closely with American firms on Stem research and development. “Dr Azar Alizadeh of GE Global Research and Dr Melanie Tomczak from UES Inc are involved, with me, on a collaboration funded under the US-based Nano-Bio Manufacturing Consortium,” she says. “The consortium worked together for the development of a wearable sensor for dynamic assessment of hydration status under extreme conditions. As the only non-US partner, our team at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at Dublin City University played a very significant role in the progress of this important project. This highly successful collaboration formed the basis of further collaborative research activities between the DCU and UES Inc in the area of environmental monitoring, which involved a joint deployment of the environmental sensor developed in DCU in Dayton Ohio.”

What does she love most about her job – and what would she change? “I love the interdisciplinary nature of the work: every day I get to work with talented people from varying scientific disciplines. But due to the amount of projects, I would like more hours in the day.”

Role models

In McCaul’s and O’Driscoll’s experience, role models are vital to encourage young women to enter into Stem careers.

“I have been lucky in that I have had a few role models throughout my career that helped me at varying stages,” says McCaul. “I would have never [done] a PhD without the help and support of my fourth-year project supervisor Dr David Sutton, who taught me to believe in my own ability. Prof Dermot Diamond continually pushed me out of my comfort zone, giving me the confidence to forge my own ideas and pathway to an academic career. And I have been extremely lucky throughout my career in both industry and academia to work with mentors that encourage and promote women in Stem.”

This year, 6,000 girls and 400 teachers across 19 countries registered to attend I Wish, a conference and exhibition supported by many US and Irish companies. “We present role models to these girls at the crucial point when they are making their [higher-education] choices,” O’Driscoll explains. “Over 80 per cent of girls want a career where they can help other people, but they don’t see how Stem can facilitate that. Therefore,s we need to change the language around Stem and show these girls that having a career in Stem is full of purpose – from dealing with cyber-crime to climate change, to food poverty to curing cancer; Stem will be the answer to these world issues and provide an incredibly rewarding career.”

Cynthia O’Reilly is principal of St Catherine’s senior girls’ school in Cabra, Dublin 7. “We consciously promote the teaching of Stem subjects throughout the school,” she says.

“For girls still forming career choices, positive female role models can encourage and promote an interest in Stem, and connect their learning to everyday life and their future careers.”

St Catherine’s is a pilot school for the Discover Primary Science and Maths awards while, this year, third and fourth years participated in the Young Engineer Awards. During Engineers Week, the students watched inspiring videos of “Girls in Stem”, and had the opportunity to interact with an innovative company who brought a VGo robot to the school, giving the girls hands-on experience driving and instructing VGo.

“The instructor provided excellent explanations as to how VGo operates and also described her work as an engineer. The girls reported that ‘it was fun when we used the robot and we could see everyone’s faces on VGo’,” says O’Reilly.