Reach for the Stars by Jean O'Donnell, WITS Chair - May 23rd

"Good evening, everyone and thank you for joining us this evening in these amazing surroundings for what promises to be a great event. My name is Jean O’Donnell (Jean Mitchell in these parts) and I am the Chair of Women in Technology and Science Ireland.

WITS will celebrate it’s 35th birthday next year, we’re the longest running gender advocacy group for Women in STEM in Ireland. We were founded by scientist and journalist Mary Mulvihill who thought it would be helpful to get a few people together to try to bring greater gender balance into STEM. For anyone who’s interested, there’s a short video on our website where you can hear Mary herself discuss why she founded the organisation, it’s worth watching, because, the more things change, the more they stay the same. When Mary founded WITS she believed that it would be a 10 year gig. 10 years, sort it all out and then move on to other things…..35 years later we’re still having the same conversations. How do we attract, retain and develop more women in STEM careers? And as importantly, why does it matter? So this evening I’d like to take a minute to tell you why these 3 pillars are so important to us.

This year I was delighted to be a mentor on the fantastic STEM Passport for Inclusion programme, a programme run by the inspirational Katriona O’Sullivan of Maynooth University, with the purpose of educating girls from schools in the DEIS programme about the opportunities that a career in STEM can provide. I was keen to talk to the group of girls that I was partnered with about the fact that really in 2024 everything is a career in STEM. I was in the hairdresser recently and they were talking about the new customer success software they have implemented, the data entry and change management challenges they were facing – I realised there’s no escape at all now!

We live in a world where technology and science are all pervasive. Everything we touch involves some aspect of tech now, from the mobile phones that sometimes seem like they’re surgically attached to our hands, to the Netflix algorithms that choose what movies and shows we’e going to watch next (currently loving Bridgerton!) to the decisions that get made about our medical care in hospital settings, everything now is based on some element of STEM. It’s hard to build products that meet the needs of society, if our teams don’t represent the world around us. 

As we venture into the world of AI, this is becoming ever more important and organisations like Women in Technology & Science Ireland exist to try to shift the dial and drive diversity.

When we think about the 3 pillars of WITS purpose, it starts with Attract – how do we bring more women into the STEM pipeline. It’s a difficult question because depending on who you ask, the numbers of women choosing to take STEM courses at 3 rd level is about 25% of the student cohort, and I’m probably being generous there – it’s more like 22% and falling. 

We don’t really have a lot of answers on why that is but I’d like to talk to you a little bit about concept called the Dream Gap. The dream gap refers to a phenomenon where young girls start to believe that they are less capable and less valuable than boys and this dream gap starts to happen when girls are as young as 5. And that’s just really sad. By age 7, girls are more likely to believe that boys are smarter, and boys are 3 times more likely to be given a science related toy than girls.

Mattel, on the back of the hugely successful Barbie movie are now running a campaign to highlight this and to try to close the Dream Gap – and their antidote to this problem? Role Models – our girls have to see it to be it! Celebrating the incredible women who have achieved so much will inspire the next generation, something we see in The Scully Effect – girls who grew up watching the x-files were 50% more likely to have a career in STEM!

The second pillar of WITS purpose is RETAIN. I mentioned attracting more girls into the STEM pipeline, and I used that word intentionally, because the STEM pipeline is leaking. Women working in STEM fields are far more likely to leave their jobs than women working in other professional fields. After about 12 years, 50% of women who originally worked in STEM have left their profession and this compares to only 20% of professional women in other sectors. The majority of moves out of STEM occurred in the first five years.

So you can start to see the challenge when you put these 2 things side by side, we have too few girls choosing STEM Careers and of those that do, we’re losing 50% of them within a number of years. There are lots of reasons this happens, and a lot of interventions organisations can make to try to retain the women in their teams. A key one of these is mentoring. Providing women with a mentor helps them feel supported, acknowledged, and included in the STEM community.

Mentors builds confidence, as they share their knowledge and experience it provides a trusted sounding board to sense check experiences and it shows young women that they can thrive in their chosen career.

As I look around this room, I see so many amazing women. My challenge to all of you is this, if you’re not already mentoring someone who is earlier in their career than you, how can you change that? How can we reach back down the ladder and bring people with us on our STEM journey?

Our final pillar is Develop. We want to give the amazing women in our organisation the confidence and skills required to push themselves forward for promotion opportunities. Research shows that women are often less likely to speak up in meetings, especially when they are in the minority, they are less likely to apply for new roles or promotion unless they meet all the criteria, in general men will apply when they meet about 50% because they are more confident taking a chance on it! WE want to ensure that we are supporting the development of future CEO’s and leaders, and we do this through regular coaching workshops, seminars and by partnering with other organisations who have the same goals.

And in case building good tech isn’t your motivator, the value of gender-balanced leadership teams extends beyond social equity—it has tangible economic benefits. 1. Publicly traded companies with more than one woman on their boards have seen stock market returns of a compound 3.7% per year higher than those with no female representation since 2005. 2. Gender-balanced leadership teams perform better, with companies averaging annualised returns of nearly 23%. 3. Funds with gender-balanced senior investment teams generated as much as 20% higher returns than those with predominantly male or female teams.

Before I finish, I’d like to give you an example of how all of this can come together to drive tangible change, and you’ll forgive me if it’s a little personal. When I was 7 we moved house and with it came a new school. In my class there was a girl called Olivia Sheehan. After a couple of years, while still in primary school, I moved house again and lost touch with those primary school friends. When secondary came around I went to Saint Angeles and lo and behold the same girl showed up. We weren’t particularly friendly, we were in the same English class, she now says that I was one of the cool kids. For the record, I definitely wasn’t but it’s nice that someone thought that!

We both loved English and we both love to read and over the years the advent of Facebook made it really easy to share a little book recommendation every now and then. Last summer we arranged to meet up for the first time in about 25 years, our first date as I like to call it !That night in the course of reintroducing ourselves to each other I told Liv about WITS and asked her if she was interested in getting involved.

With a shared passion for driving change and the idealism of creating a better future for all of us, we decided to test ourselves and see what would happen if we put our minds to growing the presence of Women in Technology & Science in Cork. The result is this evening, this full room, and amazing speakers. And Liv has been the driving force behind it.

Liv has been both a role model and mentor to me, and more than that, she has been the exemplar of what a champion truly is – she is 100% on my team. Great things happen when people work together with focus and determination. If you or your organisation are not involved now, I’d encourage you to sign up and be part of the change we need to see. This is only the beginning. As role models, mentors and a community, we can close the dream gap, together we can reach for the stars!

Thank you."

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