'We are making gains': Cork organisation says STEM branching out to enlist more women

Female representation in STEM is ‘making gains’, but there is still work to do in our homes, schools, workplaces, government and society, Darragh Bermingham hears
'We are making gains': Cork organisation says STEM branching out to enlist more women

I Wish co-founder Caroline O’Driscoll said that young women are more interested in STEM courses and careers, but that work still needs to be done to ensure they get equal access and support in pursuing these careers. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM PHOTO

THE level of female representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers and courses is “making gains”, but there is still work to do in society to ensure women get a fair shot at entering the field, according to I Wish.

I Wish, founded in Cork in 2015, is a community committed to showcasing the power of STEM to teenage girls.

The organisation runs outreach activities, mentorship programmes, laptop donations, twinning programmes, further education programmes, and showcase events reaching a global audience.

Speaking to The Echo, I Wish co-founder Caroline O’Driscoll said that young women are more interested in STEM courses and careers, but that work still needs to be done to ensure they get equal access and support in pursuing these careers.

The latest I Wish survey, undertaken on an annual basis since 2016, revealed that 84 per cent of teenage girls want to know more about STEM careers, compared to 53 percent in 2016.

“Since the first I Wish survey in 2016, I Wish has seen marked change in the perspectives of teenage girls around STEM and increased engagement in STEM subjects,” said Ms O’Driscoll.

This positive sentiment is also feeding into third level participation, she added.

“We are seeing a positive trend in female STEM undergraduate enrolments, with a steady increase in the number of female new entrants into STEM undergraduate programmes from 29 per cent in 2014 to 36 per cent in 2021, according to Higher Education Authority data in 2022,” she said.

“Across almost all disciplines, female enrolments in engineering almost doubled during that time, albeit from a low base.

“However, there remains a challenge in physics and the physical sciences, where female participation has gradually declined since 2014.

“We are still seeing that teenage girls are heavily impacted by gender stereotypes, lack of confidence in their own potential to succeed in STEM, and have a lack of information about STEM careers, courses and subjects,” Ms O’Driscoll explained further.

“Therefore, we need to continue with targeted interventions, such as I Wish, so that we can steer the world towards gender parity in STEM and support these young women to pursue their STEM dreams.”

As well as increased interest and participation in STEM courses and subjects, female representation in STEM occupations is also making strides, but there is still work to do, according to I Wish.

“I think we are making gains in female representation in STEM occupations, but women are still underrepresented,” explained Ms O’Driscoll.

“When we look at the figures, currently only one in four people in STEM are women.

“This is not just an Irish issue but an EU wide one, and one for all growth sectors from healthcare to cyber security and data analytics,” she added.

“The 2030 digital compass sets the EU target that by 2030 at least 80 percent of all adults should have basic digital skills, and there should be 20 million employed ICT specialists in the EU, while more women should be encouraged to take up such jobs.

“We can no longer tolerate a world where girls are prevented from participating in the economies of tomorrow just because of their gender.

“This is a whole of society issue from our homes, our schools, our workplaces - we all have a part to play in empowering the next generation of young women to succeed.”

Ms O’Driscoll believes that it is in everyone’s best interest, not just women, to ensure female have a seat at the table of STEM courses, studies and occupations.

“The world is evolving at an astonishing rate through STEM,” she said. “Where women get their place at the table, where women have an opportunity to lend their voice, innovation will prosper.

“Female leaders in the STEM world will break down the barriers to entry to women and serve to encourage other women into the workplace.

“As more women gain prominence, the benefits of women in STEM, and society at large, cannot be ignored,” she added.

“Talent, skills, and innovation in STEM can be radically enhanced by women if they are given the chance to do it for themselves.”

For I Wish, the issue of gender balance in STEM is a complex societal one requiring a multi-faceted holistic approach in our homes, schools and workplaces.

“This view was reiterated by the Department of Education’s Gender Balance STEM advisory group,” Ms O’Driscoll said.

“The I Wish initiative is important to continue to promote careers in these STEM industries and help to connect the girls with STEM to inspire them to become the next generation of thought leaders, innovators, problem solvers and game-changers.

“Through our community of I Wish partners, our I Wish Alumni network and mentors supported by a network of teachers, strategic partners and policy makers, we can work towards a model of sustainable interventions year on year.

“We all have a responsibility in government, third level institutes and schools to work together to better showcase the power of STEM and work to support and mentor the girls, and empower the women entering STEM to ensure they stay and excel.”

When asked what advice she would give to any young girls out there keen to make STEM their careers, Ms O’Driscoll said: “Don’t be afraid to colour outside the lines.

“I have always been different, not your typical accountant, and I often struggled with the notion of fitting in.

“Dare to be different and you will colour outside the lines always.

“Men and women are equally capable in all STEM subjects, and always have been, but today we need women to come to the fore and to continue to challenge their perceptions,” she added.

The ninth annual I Wish STEM hybrid event takes place in the RDS Dublin on February 28.

Around 3,000 teenage girls from across Ireland are expected to attend in-person while a virtual TV style live broadcast will aim to reach more than 10,000 globally.

Places are limited but there is still time for people to register through the I Wish website www.iwish.ie or by contacting the organisers at info@iwish.ie.

I Wish recently agreed a partnership with Iarnród Éireann that will see free transport for female students travelling from Munster.

As part of the partnership, Iarnród Éireann will put on dedicated I Wish STEM return trains to Dublin for students departing from Cork, Mallow, Killarney, Tralee, Limerick and Thurles.

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