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Role models vital in attracting women into Stem careers

‘I was the first woman to win that award and all of a sudden I had a huge influx of women applying to work here’

‘If girls don’t have Stem subjects available at second level, it makes it harder to transition into Stem areas as undergraduates.’

‘If girls don’t have Stem subjects available at second level, it makes it harder to transition into Stem areas as undergraduates.’


When scientist and founder of Complete Laboratory Solutions Evelyn O’Toole won the Industry Category at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards in 2017, an interesting thing happened.

“I was the first woman to win that award and all of a sudden I had a huge influx of women applying to work here, from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of schools and colleges, more than I ever had before,” she says.

Given that she had been in business since 1994 it was proof of the importance role models can play in attracting women in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers. “There has to be visibility,” she says.

Complete Laboratory Solutions is the largest privately owned contract laboratory in Ireland. It provides sampling, analysis and fully trained micro and analytical analysts on contract to clients in the food, environmental, medical device and pharmaceutical industries.

Since winning the EY award, O’Toole has gone on to win numerous accolades and nominations. She is also actively involved in Enterprise Ireland’s Level Up initiative, which provides businesses with a tool kit with which to assess its gender balance.

Her own business has 240 employees, of which 59 per cent are female. When she started, the first two directors she appointed were female, and today 70 per cent of its management team is female.

If there is any upside to the pandemic, it may be that it has put science centre stage for a new generation.

“The pandemic has brought science, the technology and the maths modelling, into our homes. What was previously in the laboratory has become a household experience,” she says.

It has also shown the impact science has on all our lives. Familiarity with scientists such as Luke O’Neill and Nphet’s Philip Nolan means “people now have a closer relationship with their scientific community. I think we will have a groundswell of applications for science and engineering subjects as a result,” she says.

Ensuring females are making those applications matters. “When girls don’t have Stem opportunities and role models it’s bound to affect their career decisions and options, which is such a waste of talent and potential. As more opportunities arise and more women pursue Stem options, everyone benefits – the women themselves, their families, business and the economy and ultimately wider society,” says Emer McGrath, head of markets: corporates, government and enterprise at KPMG Ireland.

The choice of subjects available at school level has an important role to play in this. “Clearly if girls don’t have Stem subjects available at second level, it makes it harder to transition into Stem areas as undergraduates and ultimately into jobs and careers. Boys are still much more likely to study multiple Stem subjects and we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that girls have the opportunity and motivation to do the same,” she adds.

Having more, and higher profile female role models, like Evelyn O’Toole, matters too. “I can’t be what I can’t see” remains a cliche but probably because it’s true. Whether it’s women in sport, as entrepreneurs, in Stem careers or in any walk of life, the importance of role models is vital. They give girls something to aim for and demonstrate that what are often seen as typical gender determined career paths don’t have to be the norm,” says McGrath.

That benefits business as well as society. “Apart from it being the right, smart thing to do, diverse teams have been shown to be better at problem solving and developing innovative solutions to challenging problems. Employers are also finding that their employees and potential recruits want to be part of inclusive and diverse teams,” says her colleague Karina Howley, head of corporate citizenship & diversity at KPMG.

Advocacy alone usually isn’t enough to drive change, she warns, so formal structures to help level up the world of business and employment are needed to help promote women in Stem. “For example the work of the 30 per cent Club in promoting better gender balance at leadership level also helps highlight role models. Programmes such as Going for Growth which gives peer support for female entrepreneurs including in Stem sectors are also vital,” adds Howley.

Information storage

Skillnets Ireland, the state agency for enterprise led workforce development, has a number of initiatives too, including the new Digital Skillnet 2022 Women TechSTART programme. It will provide instructor led training for technical support engineer roles, via a 12-week paid work placement with training in such areas as Linux and information storage management.

May 2022 will see the return of the Digital Skillnet Women Reboot programme, a national tech sector initiative for experienced and qualified ICT women who have taken a career break and want to upskills to return to a tech career. In the four years since its inception more than 200+ have come back into the Stem sector as a result of it.

“Talent is a huge issue at the moment and employers are putting an awful lot of effort into how they attract and retain women within the Stem sector,” says Dave Flynn, executive director of Skillnet Ireland.

One of the ways in which employers in everything from med tech to pharma and life sciences are doing that is through better communication of the impact that these companies can have on people’s lives. This helps to overcome the misperception that tech jobs are all about coding. They’re not.

“In sectors such as med tech and pharma they are not just saying come work for us, but saying look at the impact we are making on people’s lives. That’s something others in this space could use too, such as in relation to the climate crisis and sustainability. The Stem sector needs to be telling these stories.”