WHEN considering whether to attend a major conference, it’s useful to seek the opinion of someone who has already been there.
With this year’s I WISH event taking place tomorrow, February 7 and Friday, February 8, at Cork City Hall, Tara MacCarthy, a former student from St Angela’s on Patrick’s Hill, is emphatic that it could be a life-changing experience.
I WISH is an initiative to inspire, encourage and motivate young female students to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), where traditionally — and to this day — take up of these subjects by girls in secondary and third level is low.
Tara, who admits she was always rather career-minded, is now studying Quantitative Business at UCD, but recalls how I WISH was a turning point for her.
“It was really eye-opening, to be honest. In STEM, there are all these different careers and different things to think about. It can be overwhelming. Often, you don’t know what people in science do. You think of them in lab coats, testing things, whereas professions like accounting or teaching, you know about them, you’ve grown up with them, so you’re familiar with them.
“In STEM you’re not sure what they do, but at I WISH, I saw young women there and I was able to identify with them. It was so interactive; you can go up to them and ask them questions. It really opens up your ideas of what you can do with science.”
Although the Rochestown native has not chosen to take on science at university, she was canny enough to keep her options open, to enhance her future career prospects. After all, the advancement of technology is promising — or threatening — an obsolescence of many job-skills we now take for granted.
To be in a position to work in STEM, which is likely to offer the most lucrative jobs in the future, planning has to be implemented at an early stage by picking the appropriate subjects.
Even when Tara was entering secondary school, she may have had her future career firmly in mind when she shied away from female-dominated Home Economics, taking up Business and German instead.
“Most girls chose Home Economics; I did not. It was seen as a fun subject, even though there’s a lot of work involved. The idea appealed to girls.”
Later again, when the Leaving Cert was coming up, she chose Physics, Chemistry, Accounting, Economics and Geography as her subjects, in addition to the mandatory English, Irish and Maths.
All around her, however, she could see that her choices weren’t exactly the norm, with most girls opting for Biology as a Science subject. “There were four Biology classes in our year, two Chemistry and one Physics. And apparently it’s more difficult to get a H1 in Biology. It’s rote learning, whereas in physics and chemistry it’s about understanding something and applying it to other things.”
Being in the minority was also apparent when she considered the ratio of scientifically-minded students in a neighbouring boys’ school.
“In my school there were 16 girls in physics, whereas in Christians next door they had something like three classes of 20. Science is associated with male professions”, she says.
Indeed, the phrase ‘If you can see it, you can be it’ comes to mind when talking about STEM.
How can girls gravitate towards typically male-dominated careers if no-one around them is leading the way and making it seem possible? Fortunately, Tara has such role-models in her life, with her father an engineer and her mother working in the finance department of a pharmaceutical company.
“Mum worked consistently through my childhood and still does. That was a huge factor for me, to say I am going out there working, 100 per cent. I’m not wasting all those years of education. My mum always motivated me and always kept me thinking of the future. My parents are really supportive.”
Some children might resent absent, working parents, I suggest, but Tara is not buying into that idea.
“It always felt like she was there,” she says. “We always had her dinners every night, even if they had been pre-frozen. My mum working, her being my role-model, it motivated me to do well and succeed in life and in my career.”
Her mother’s reading material has also helped provide a more distant role model, when Tara borrowed her copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
“I read it in Transition Year,” she says of the Facebook Chief Operating Officer’s 2013 tome which aims to help professional women achieve their career goals.
“It is so motivating, so empowering,” says Tara.
While Sandberg talks about barriers — societal and personal — that prevent women taking leadership roles in the workplace, it is, if anything, the personal barriers that Tara has witnessed among her peers.
“It’s not barriers as such; it’s more girls closing themselves off. It’s been shown that girls out-perform boys in schools and college but sometimes they say ‘That’s not for me’, or ‘I wouldn’t want to do that’, or ‘I’ll want a three-day week’. They put up their own barriers.”
Which gets us back to I WISH.
“I WISH shows it’s possible. You see how so many women before you have done this already — and you’re another of these women,” she says.
Tara was so impressed with I WISH — which she attended in the year of its inception — she went back again the following year and found it even bigger than it had been before. She advises every girl to go along.
“Even if you don’t want to go into that area, hearing how other women are working to make changes and make a difference, it’s empowering,” she says.
Now in her second year studying Quantitative Business at UCD, Tara has numerous options for her future.
“It’s a broad course. I could go into banking, trading, corporate finance or data analytics, which is huge now — to be able to forecast and predict different business-related topics. Technically, it’s a three-year course but next year there’s the option of doing a nine-month work placement. I’ll maybe do a graduate programme, a Masters or MBA”, she continues. “People are snatched up pretty quickly afterwards and salaries are quite competitive.”
She ponders living in London in the future or spending a summer abroad, while insisting she’ll always want to return home, although perhaps to Dublin rather than Cork.
“I’d like to work on Wall Street for a year; that would be ideal,” says the young woman with the world in the palm of her hands.
Tara’s message for other girls contemplating STEM subjects and careers:
Keep your eyes open.
Don’t doubt yourself — because you are well able. Remember, boys have more confidence in their abilities than girls do.
Try something. You can always go back to square one and change your mind, but at least you’ll have no regrets later in life.
Just go for it!