10,000 have registered for I Wish - helping girls find their path in STEM

I Wish, aimed at raising awareness among teen girls of careers in STEM, had just 1,000 attendees when it started back in 2015. This year 10,000 will take part, writes EMMA CONNOLLY
10,000 have registered for I Wish - helping girls find their path in STEM

he 2021 I Wish event will see over 10,000 female second-level students, industry leaders and stakeholders tuning in live to an online event.

IT doesn’t matter if a girl wants to be a ballerina, a computer programmer, a nurse or an engineer, it’s about making sure she’s not limited by stereotypes in society and has equal opportunities when it comes to making her career choice.

That’s according to Caroline O’Driscoll, one of the founders of I Wish, which is designed to raise awareness amongst teenage girls of the opportunities that exist in STEM.

Speaking ahead of the seventh annual I Wish conference taking place virtually on March 4, Caroline, a partner with Deloitte Ireland LLP, says Covid has shown how it’s more important than ever that girls aren’t left behind from the economies of tomorrow.

She points to a McKinsey report which estimates that 800 million jobs will be lost by 2030 through automation and technology.

Caroline O'Driscoll.
Caroline O'Driscoll.

Already, some 54% of the jobs lost during Covid belonged to women.

Caroline said: “The post-Covid environment has accelerated the pace of technology and scientific discovery and we have all experienced the rate at which science and technology can change all our lives for the better.

“But we have also seen how whole sections of our communities have been more exposed to the worst of what the pandemic threw at us.

“We must learn from the inequities the pandemic has exposed and work harder than ever to ensure that the next generation of girls are fully enabled to engage with STEM. 

"If we do nothing, there is a significant risk that girls will be left behind in the economy of the future.”

Growing up in Ovens, Caroline is a great believer in the power of education, something her dad Patrick instilled in her.

“He left school as a young teenager and always believed that education was something that set you free, and gave you power. I was the first person in my family to go to college and I feel passionately about education being a leveller. It means you can be at the table and participate fully. It was a game changer for me.”

Caroline says there has been an improvement in attitudes and trends since they held their first I Wish in 2015, attended by 1,000 girls. There are 10,300 registered for this year and teachers have reported back that 40% of students have changed their subjects after attending.

“Things are slowly improving but levels are still low,” she said.

Some of the barriers, she says, include girls simply not knowing enough about STEM. But with STEM now permeating every single industry, it’s no longer possible to ignore it when considering job prospects.

“Girls also like linking a job to a purpose such as bettering society so it’s important to make that clear to them; and it’s also about giving them role models so they can understand their pathways.

“But there’s also a lack of confidence among girls which is quite worrying. Some 85% of teachers said that confidence in ability when choosing Leaving Cert STEM subjects was important so it’s about changing the ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’.”

The vibe for this year’s virtual event is one of storytelling and Caroline says it’s about giving the girls knowledge, showing them role models, and telling them not to be afraid to fail.

“That’s all part of the story,” she says.

1,000 girls took part in the first I Wish event, set up by three Cork women. Now more than 10,000 will take part in 2021.
1,000 girls took part in the first I Wish event, set up by three Cork women. Now more than 10,000 will take part in 2021.

Speakers at this year’s event include Mary Robinson, one of Caroline’s own role models who inspired her decision to study Law at UCC.

The event will combine a Main Stage with Ted Talk style keynotes, including some international speakers, plus special ‘day in the life’ videos, interactive showcases from industry partners including Arup, Dell, Johnson & Johnson, and a Social Media Hub where students and industry partners can engage directly with the event, plus interviews with some of the women shaping the world through STEM.

“2021 will mark the first I Wish online experience, ensuring that we are continuing to positively engage with the girls and their teachers so that girls are excited about the future and see STEM as a way to secure their place in that future,” said Caroline. “It’s all about inspiring the next generation.”

See iwish.ie to register

SURVEY FINDINGS

An I Wish 2020 survey of 2,500 girls found that:

83% of girls agreed that role models were very important in STEM

86% of girls agreed that STEM is a growing area of opportunity

85% of girls agreed that they would like to know more about STEM

85% of girls said I Wish is an important source of information in STEM

68% of girls disagreed that STEM is more suited to boys than girls

66% of girls agreed that Arts and Creativity are an important part of STEM

65% of teachers said they do not know where to go for information on industry/school initiatives

85% of teachers said that confidence in ability when choosing Leaving Cert subjects was important

Julia Sheehan. Picture: Clare Keogh
Julia Sheehan. Picture: Clare Keogh

A BRIGHT FUTURE

There’s never been a better time to be a girl in STEM. So says Julia Sheehan, and as a third year student of financial mathematics and actuarial science in UCC, as well as being chair of the college’s WiStem (Women in Stem) society, she should know.

Julia, from Douglas and a past pupil of Regina Mundi, attended I Wish for the first time when she was in Transition Year.

Growing up with both parents working as engineers, she says she was never aware of a gender imbalance in the sector before this. “It was only when I attended the I Wish campus week in CIT and had to write an essay on the topic, that I realised for the first time how lucky I was, because you tend to model yourself on your parents,” said the 21-year-old.

On the basis of her essay, Julia was selected to speak on a panel at her first I Wish. She remembers it as ‘petrifying’ but it sparked her interest in the concept of women in STEM.

In her first year in college she gravitated towards the WiStem Society, going on to be its vice chair, and is now its chair. She’s clearly passionate about the work they do, which includes advocacy work in schools.

“I think it’s important for students to see someone who is just a few years ahead of them as it gives them a realistic perspective of what STEM is like and something they can relate to,” she said.

In her own course, that means a male to female ratio of around 7:1, but she says that it’s moving away from a ‘lads culture’ and more of an inclusive space.

“Girls are getting more confident all the time. They just need to know they’re well able for it,” she said.

Ultimately, she feels, there’s never been a better time to be female and in the STEM space, with companies offering scholarships and employers keen to diversify and neutralise the gender balance.

She’s part of this year’s conference and her message to girls attending is to have confidence in themselves: “You don’t have to be a maths genius to be part of STEM, the job opportunities are endless.

“Of course, you do have to have some interest in the area, but there’s huge support available. You just have to find out what you’re interested in.”

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