I Wish: Continuing to inspire young women

The I WISH showcase is back next week. EMMA CONNOLLY talks to the Cork founders of the organisation, aimed at inspiring teen girls towards STEM careers
I Wish: Continuing to inspire young women

St. Angela's College, Cork students Clodagh Hegarty, Lucy O'Callaghan and Ruth Fitzgibbon with Sharon Lombard (I Wish) and Ecologist Jayne Ryan along with Iarnród Éireann's Rosemary Kurian, Emma Love, Heidi Hopper Duffy, Jessica Hutton, Memol Anni Abraham, Jeeva Sivadasan and Shubbangi Singh pictured at the announcement that Iarnród Éireann is to schedule dedicated I Wish STEM trains free for teenage girls attending the I Wish STEM showcase 2023. Picture: Brian Lougheed

I Wish, the organisation inspiring teenage girls towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers, is encouraging female students across the city and county to sign up for their showcase hybrid event on February 28 in the RDS Dublin.

The event will also broadcast live to teenage girls in Ireland and around the world, with special free trains running from Cork and Mallow to the capital on the day.

The first confirmed headline speaker for what is the ninth annual event is former president Mary Robinson, who will address the audience on promoting gender equality, human rights and social justice globally.

Gillian Keating, founder of I WISH
Gillian Keating, founder of I WISH

Cork woman Gillian Keating, co-founder of I Wish, explained how their mission, to increase female participation in STEM by breaking down the barriers that persist, “is founded in the vision of a future where girls are enabled to shape a better world through STEM”. And encouragingly, change is happening.

“We are very proud of the progress made to date, evident in our 2022 report (see panel on page 7). It is fantastic to see that perception of gender stereotypes has changed so significantly. But at the same time, we see the need for continued and focused effort.

“I

n 2016, only 5% of those taking engineering at Leaving Cert level were girls; now, in 2022, it’s 9% which is almost doubled,” said Gillian.

However, she did point out that’s just 200-odd girls.

“But that is not because they’re rejecting it, but in many cases it’s not in their school as a subject choice. You’d have a similar situation with applied maths, so indirectly we’re limiting choices available to young girls. And when we do make them available, we find they respond very positively,” she said.

“Factors that persist for female students in considering STEM careers are poor gender equality and a lack of confidence in their ability and potential to succeed in STEM. Teenage girls need a vision for a future in STEM as scientists, technologists, and engineers. This is what we work to bring through I Wish,” she said.

Caroline O'Driscoll, founder of I WISH
Caroline O'Driscoll, founder of I WISH

CarolineO’Driscoll, co-founder, pointed out that a recent survey they conducted showed 84% of teenage girls want to know more about STEM careers compared with 53% in 2016.

“This positive sentiment is also feeding into third level participation. 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% in 2014 to 36% in 2021, according to HEA data (2022).

“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. Therefore, we need to continue with targeted interventions, such as I Wish, so that we can steer the world towards gender parity in STEM.”

Interestingly, Gillian pointed to an increase in ‘parent power’ since the pandemic as young girls are spending more time with their parents.

“Teachers were the strongest influencers pre-Covid when it came to subject choice, but now parents are key influencers. So the more we enable girls that we spend a lot of time with in terms of our language, the opportunities we put before them, the subject choices we make available to them, the better it is for all of us.”

The I Wish showcase event is constantly evolving and this year it features a programme in collaboration with Stripe to encourage female founders.

Gillian and the team reached out to schools at the start of the year, seeking business ideas.

“We had an amazing response with over 40 business proposals and 135 students. As part of the Stripe Programme, they’ve been working together over the last few months to refine their ideas, which they’ll pitch on the day, when the winners will be announced. The winning team get a cash prize and so will the school.”

Running the annual showcase, and all the associated events, takes huge time and commitment and it’s all on a voluntary basis.

But Gillian says it’s all worthwhile.

“Playing a part in enabling the creators and leaders of tomorrow, who will improve the world we live in, that is magical, and it’s one of the most impactful things I do, and I know Caroline would say the same,” she said.

Schools and students may sign up via iwish.ie/register

Daisy Garde.
Daisy Garde.

ONE YOUNG WOMAN’S EXPERIENCE

I Wish really opened my eyes to the wide range of jobs and areas I could go into.

So said Daisy Garde, who took part in the conference in 2017 during fourth year, and who is now in her final year studying Biotechnology in UCC.

“I was always really interested in Science, from the age of five I wanted to work in a lab with my white lab coat and I always loved biology and physics,” said Daisy, from Bandon.

“In fourth year, I still didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do when I was older, but I remember going around to all the stands and just thinking, ‘Wow, these people have the best jobs ever.’

“I think when I was younger there was this idea of working as a mad scientist but I didn’t know what a job in science was really about until I Wish.” The positive reinforcement and encouragement she got at the conference, boosted her confidence and made working in science seem more approachable.

“Getting to talk to people in career paths you may one day want to go down takes them off a pedestal and lets you see that they’re all human, and as cheesy as it sounds, that you can do it too.

“I think the most impactful moment for me, however, was the speeches at the beginning of the day, these were powerful women speaking about their experiences and their hopes and predictions for the future in STEM.

“I think it would be hard for anyone to walk away without feeling inspired.”

Her college class has over 50% girls, which she says ‘is amazing’.

“However, when I was on placement I was working on a team where I was the only girl and my lecturers in college are still predominantly male. It’s getting better, I think in most areas there is at least some female representation but there is still a long way to go.”

And her advice to teen females unsure about pursuing a career in STEM?

“Don’t let any subject in school define you. Just because you might not like maths or physics or biology doesn’t mean you won’t love another STEM subject.

“I saw so many of my classmates beating themselves down for low marks in different subjects and it stopped them from pursuing subjects they were interested in. If they weren’t good at maths, they wrote off chemistry for example, and in reality you don’t need a H1 in maths to be an amazing chemist.”

KEY FINDINGS OF I WISH REPORT

THE annual I Wish Report 22 on female TY students’ perspectives on STEM, has revealed significant change, with 93% of girls surveyed rejecting the stereotype that STEM careers are more suited to boys, in contrast with 78% in 2016.

However, 46% cited existing stereotypes in STEM as a reason for the fact that only one in four people working in STEM are women.

Some 84% of female students want to know more about STEM compared with 53% in 2016 revealing further positive change. 76% plan to study Leaving Cert Maths at higher level (66% in 2016).

I Wish, asked students about perceived barriers to a career in STEM.

Two thirds of female students cited insufficient information about STEM careers. A similar number (64%) highlighted persistent poor gender equality in STEM as a barrier and 61% lacked access to STEM work experience.

2,583 teenage girls took part in the I Wish 2022 survey. The survey captures students as they make subject choices and consider their careers. 55% of those surveyed were from single-sex schools, 45% from mixed schools.

Nationally, some of the more positive trends are reflected in increased engagement by female students in STEM subjects at Leaving Cert higher level, with female students representing 51% taking higher level maths, 29% taking applied maths, 23% taking computer science and 9% taking engineering.

Although female participation in engineering has almost doubled since 2016, the figure of 9% represents just 219 girls.

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