AN idea hatched by three Cork women in 2015 aimed at encouraging teenage girls to take STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) subjects at Leaving Cert level and pursue STEM careers is going global this year with its first ever virtual event.
The annual iWish conference started with an event of 1,000 students in that inaugural year and has now amassed the attention of more than 10,000 students ahead of the 2021 conference taking place tomorrow.
“Back then we had hardly organised a birthday party between us and we decided we would host a pilot of 1,000 teenage girls coming into the City Hall,” Gillian Keating, one of the founders of iWish said, casting her mind back to that first year.
Ms Keating, a partner at Ronan Daly Jermyn (RDJ), is one of the founders of iWish along with Caroline O’Driscoll, a partner with Deloitte, and Ruth Buckley, Chief Information Officer at Cork City Council.
“Caroline and I separately were both struck by various issues pertaining to women’s equality and advancement and limitations that are placed on women generally.
“We were both very focused on talent development and ensuring that initially in Cork we were well placed to compete internationally for some of the best companies that we have.
“We were both thinking about how we could continue to attract the best global companies.
“Of course, one of the most significant ways we can do that is by ensuring we have a really strong talent pool here in Cork.
“It was clear that a lot of the multinational companies that were operating here and also, to a lesser degree, indigenous ones, were finding it difficult to get people for particular roles and when we looked into that we saw that a big factor was women weren’t engaging in the technology roles in particular.
“We were both looking at that and thinking about how we could improve the situation,” Ms Keating said, speaking about the inspiration behind setting up iWish.
“We connected straight away when we met and agreed we would try and do something about it.
“We met with Ruth Buckley from Cork City Council and the three of us hatched a plan to run a pilot event whereby we would invite women operating in the STEM arena to talk to the young girls about their careers and also companies to come into the City Hall and showcase what exactly they do,” she continued.
Speakers at this year’s virtual event include Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone, Marion Buchet, a French fighter pilot, Brenda Romero, an American Bafta-winning video game designer and developer, along with a host of other inspirational women working in STEM across some of the biggest businesses in Ireland and the world.
Since 2015, iWish has sought to address the barriers facing female secondary school students when it comes to considering a career in STEM.
The impact of these barriers is evident in today’s female representation in STEM, with just 25% of this workforce in Ireland being female.
“We’re right to be impatient for change because it is in everybody’s interest that the dial turns quickly on this.
“We know that diversity pays in terms of the thinking around solutions to world problems but also in terms of the bottom line for companies. We know that companies with diverse boards perform better.
“We have to have a whole of society approach to reaching a solution to the problem.
“iWish isn’t going to fix that problem but we focus on one or two areas that are really important and have been shown to deliver change,” Ms Keating said.
Chief among these barriers is a lack of awareness about the types of jobs within the STEM arena, which iWish seeks to tackle.
iWish also aims to bridge a confidence gap that exists among girls.
“Without realising it we are limiting the girls because we’re not always giving them sufficient information at the right time about the opportunities that are out there.
“It’s not about telling the girls what to do, it’s about opening their eyes to different aspects of life that maybe they wouldn’t see or different opportunities that they may not see.
“A huge amount of what we do is introducing girls to women who are either forging careers or who are real trailblazers and at the top of their career path in STEM.”
Female participation in STEM has never been more important, with the Covid-19 pandemic exposing inequities, Ms Keating said.
“For years we have been saying if young girls don’t engage in STEM then they are at risk of being left behind in the economies of the future which are so focused around technology and science. We’ve seen that now during the pandemic.
“Because women cluster in certain careers like hospitality and areas like retail, they have been more impacted by the pandemic and the economic downturn than those who have technology skills and are able to continue working throughout the pandemic.
“That’s just a snapshot of what can happen if we don’t address the shortcomings that we’re seeing now.
“That, for me, is a real worry,” Ms Keating said.
Determined not to let this year’s cohort of students miss out, iWish organisers have moved the event online, which has enabled them to internationalise the event.
“We’ve really been able to reap the benefits of technology and we’ve really been able to do that in terms of extending the reach of iWish to over 10,000 so far and some of them are registered from the UK, the US and Kenya,” Ms Keating said.
Every effort has been made to create an engaging and fun event for the seventh annual conference.
“We were determined not to make it a Zoom event because we know from working with the girls for the last six years we would just lose them after 10 minutes.
“We’ll have a range of fantastic speakers who will be dialling in or we’ll be dialling out to them.
“We have designed it like a TV studio - we really wanted to make it as dynamic as possible.
“I won’t say too much, but I think even Graham Norton might be jealous of our fantastic setup!”