How do we attract the next generation of women into STEM careers and stem the mid-career outflow?

Elaine Kennedy 29.05.2015

Out of almost 118,000 people working in STEM disciplines in Ireland, just a quarter are women. In Europe less than 7% of tech positions are filled by women and in the US 56% of women in technology leave their employers mid-career (double the turnover rate of men). Stark stats.Julie Donnelly

So what can be done to stem the outflow and attract the next generation of women into careers in science and technology? Morgan McKinley speaks to  Julie Donnelly, ASCENT Programme Manager at Tyndall National Institute with a 30-year career in science and technology research.

What do you think are the main obstacles to women in STEM?

For me, it starts right back at National School. STEM subjects are often seen as difficult and if children are not introduced to them early, it becomes much more difficult later on. Girls in particular are very idealistic – we all want to change the world, but young girls don’t recognise the role that maths, science or technology can play in that. 

Parents and teachers are instrumental in this regard. We must teach our children to be curious and explain how everyday things work – if you strip it back, STEM underpins everything so we must find more ways to make it interesting for kids and show how it impacts their everyday lives.

What change would you make to encourage more women to consider a role in science and technology or other STEM disciplines?

Start early, keep it simple and establish increased connections between schools and industry. For the most part we tend to teach theory and then move to applications which can be quite daunting. We need to start with the application, for example a mobile phone, and trace it back to the underpinning physics. Industry and those of us in established careers also have to play our part, to share our experiences and encourage the next generation.

What is the most important lesson you have learned to date in your career?

In research it is all about teamwork. Being able to build consensus on how to approach the problem; resolve it and interpret the results is as important as technical ability. On a personal level, the main lesson has been if you love what you do, stick with it. I graduated with a degree in Maths and Physics, started out at Tyndall as a process engineer and had plans to leave in two years and work on all five continents…30 years later I’m still here with no regrets.

The role has developed over the years from process engineer to project manager to my current position leading the ASCENT programme which is opening Tyndall’s facilities to academia and industry across Europe. I have travelled extensively for work and every day I have the greatest opportunity to work with the best people in the world.

Why research? 

In research you often get to set your own direction and you are only limited by your own drive and enthusiasm. Industry is more product focused and you have to work within stricter parameters, although admittedly the financial rewards are often higher. For me, it’s more about the quality of life, loving what you’re doing, seizing every opportunity to work in physics and having the flexibility to work on projects that really challenge you – be they in or outside the lab.

Ireland is now 8th in the Innovation Union Scoreboard, up one from 2014. How can it improve on this further?

Ireland needs to think big to keep up. Government needs to invest in large scale initiatives to remain competitive and in a more dynamic educational system that is responsive to what is happening in research – we must lead from the front. It also needs to invest more in making research a career. Research has become an increasingly contract-based sector and that needs to change. You simply cannot build up a long term knowledge bank if you don’t invest in long term careers.

What next for women in science & technology/STEM in Ireland?

Until recently I had never really thought about women in science, we were all scientists or engineers and I didn’t really think about gender as such. The statistics do increasingly show, however, that although women are still studying STEM subjects, they are not progressing to careers in the field or management positions. That needs to be addressed through a cohesive approach from national school on.

The BT Young Scientist competition that engages children on a national level is a step in the right direction – we need to continue to think big and scale all activity to encourage mass participation to mobilise as many future scientists, technologist, engineers or mathematicians out there. 

The Inspire conference (June 18-19 2015) is also a good example of the type of outreach programmes required to engage more females, as the leading women scientists in the world come to Dublin to speak about their careers. Thinking big requires money but it is imperative that Ireland continues to invest in research and encouraging women and men into STEM roles, as innovation is vital to our survival as a small country and to maintaining our competitiveness in Europe.

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