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Women at the Forefront of STEM

  • 30 October 2018

Burke Sessions Trinity College Dublin - College Historical Society and TCD Women in STEM

WITS was invited to be part of a panel speaking about Women in the Forefront of STEM.

Julie Hogan, WITS Chair, spoke at the event and here is her speech.


My name is Julie Hogan, and I’m the Chair of WITS, Women in Technology and Science, a voluntary national organisation that advocates for, acts on behalf of and connects with women in STEM (that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We advocate for policy change at national level, act with organisations like CD Women in STEM, and connect with networking events, our newsletter and social media. In my day job, I’m the vice president of research and development in Ireland for a multinational company, and I’ve been working for 30 years as an electronic engineer, designing chips and managing projects in Ireland and abroad.

So, let me start with the good news: there are no challenges for women working in STEM. Let’s examine it logically. Why should STEM jobs be considered more suitable for men? There’s no need for physical strength or size generally in STEM jobs, which may also come as good news to some men who wish to work in these positions. Moreover in STEM workplaces, skills that are traditionally viewed as ‘female’ like the ability to work in a team and to collaborate are actually just as desirable as tech skills. Projects typically fail not because of the technical difficulty but because of team conflict, poor communication or poor decision making.

So it seems STEM is made for women, why aren’t there more women working in it?

You may be surprised to hear that women are intrinsically just as capable as men. The problem is that the messages we as a society propagate about gender roles affect how girls and women view their abilities. As girls and boys grow up, differences start to emerge in the opportunities they have, what they choose to study and the results they achieve. The 2015 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (you may be more familiar with it as PISA) surveyed the skills of 15 year-old pupils across the EU and found that 10 countries had no gender difference in sciences, 8 had girls doing better than boys, and 10 (including Ireland) had boys do better than girls. The difference is not innate, not in-born, not universal, it’s due to the differences in expectations and opportunities in different countries.

If you ask a scientist what led them to choose science, they will talk about a curiosity about the world from early childhood. And women will often add, "and I was lucky enough to have a parent or teacher who encouraged me" or “I was lucky enough to go to a school which offered honours maths and physics”. Parents may not understand tech jobs or opportunities for their kids, or may not know any female role models in STEM so it’s harder for them to visualise a future for their kids in these roles. I don’t mean the Nobel prize winners like Donna Strickland or Frances Arnold, but the ordinary, everyday software engineers or data analysts or lab technicians since we can’t be easily identified, we don’t walk around in the street in white lab coats.

In the absence of information, negative stereotypes about antisocial geeks and nerds locked in darkened server rooms day and night are hard to overcome.

And sure what would a ‘lady scientist’ want with that? And that is the attitude we are trying to overcome: lady doctors, lady scientists, lady mathematicians. I once heard a child at an NCT test centre call a mechanic a “lady car doctor”. Role model programmes like FutureWize, Smart Futures by Science Foundation Ireland and Steps by Engineers Ireland do a great job to break down these stereotypes but they rely on the goodwill of volunteers and teachers so can be hit and miss.

Gender segregation of skills and jobs was highlighted by the EU as one of the main reasons for our gender pay gap of 13.9%, which is the difference in average gross hourly pay between men and women in Ireland.

Let me just repeat that statistic – 13.9%. It can be hard to visualise what that means, but it may help that on Friday, 10th November, Equal Pay Day will take place; the day when women in Ireland effectively start to work for free for the last 13.9% of the year. STEM jobs, especially the tech and engineering jobs, tend to be better paid so having more women working in them could make a real difference to closing this gap. We may have moved on from the 1930s Inter Cert syllabus which offered “Arithmetic – Girls Only” and later “Elementary Mathematics – for Girls Only” but gender segregation even in the sciences themselves starts to happen in the senior cycle here as women move towards biology, life sciences and healthcare. In 2016, 10 times as many girls took higher level biology as physics. For boys the ratio was only 2 to 1. In fact, 3 girls study higher level biology for every 2 boys.

Back in the day when I was studying, it would never have occurred to me to come to an event like this. I believed I lived in a meritocracy, that hard work and talent were all you needed to get ahead. But over the years, I’ve seen hard-working, talented women drop out of the workforce or out of engineering for family reasons or because they become disillusioned by difficulties encountered in making progress in their careers or in just making a living. Now this is true generally for all women at work, but it’s a particular problem in STEM where:

  • you’re already doing an “unsuitable job for a woman”,
  • the numbers of women are small to begin with,
  • isolation becomes even more of a problem as you climb the ladder,
  • and technical advances move so quickly it can be hard to get back into the workforce if you take a career break.

A 2012 report by the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the “leaky pipeline” (this issue of women leaving the STEM workforce) found that women in Scotland were 50% more likely to drop out of STEM jobs or research than men were, and there’s no reason to believe that the situation is better here. The Higher Education Authority reports on gender equality in higher education show the same “leaky pipeline” or “scissors” effect, where the percentages for each gender cross over each other at different seniority levels. Women are more likely to have a 3rd level degree than men, but in the university sector across all disciplines only 1 professor in 5 is a woman. Since only 1 in 6 engineering graduates is a woman, the numbers of female engineering professors are even worse.

There are many reasons contributing to the low numbers of women at the top –

It’s hard to feel that you belong when you look around your project team or department and you don’t see anyone who looks like you, especially in a leadership role.

Sometimes you can feel pressured into trying to be “one of the lads” to fit in, to pretend to enjoy the jokes. And this is universal for women in all areas, those behind Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign were unsure how the American public would react to a female president, so they ran her campaign as if she were a man – trouser suits, a short haircut, and a lowering of the voice. Apparently, however, she was not sufficiently orange to be president.

Even if the legal discriminations on pay and opportunity have been abolished, unconscious or indeed conscious biases about women and maths or women and physics or women and engineering or women and leadership are still out there, just better disguised than before.

Parental leave being unequally shared tends to hold back women more than men. There’s even an effect called the “motherhood penalty”. Men’s hourly earnings are barely affected by the number of children they have, while women’s hourly earnings decrease by about 20 percentage points when they have 2 or more young children. And if they cut back on their hours as well, the effect is even starker.

So that’s the bad news, the struggles and challenges facing women in STEM, the doom and the gloom.

But let’s flip that around and think about the opportunities.

If culture is the problem, not nature, then let’s change the culture. Today's women are less accepting of sexism or misogyny in any form than ever before. When I was a graduate, we assumed a certain amount of it was just the price you had to pay - the interview questions about whether you had a boyfriend or what your father thought of your job. But why should you have to pay a price to do your job, something you're good at? As we’ve seen with the Metoo movement, women are much more capable of dealing with such situations and men are much more aware of what is acceptable and what is not. So the culture is already changing.

Our world requires innovation and STEM powers it; innovation relies on creativity, diversity of thought, people from different backgrounds with different ideas questioning things. That allows us, men and women, to be ourselves, whoever that may be, it doesn’t force us into moulds as units of engineering or science. As one of the less notorious former White House directors of communications, Jennifer Palmieri said, “If you don’t look like everybody else in the room, your perspective matters more, not less.”

To encourage women to engage in STEM, stereotypes need to be broken. We should no longer have a Venn diagram with two non-intersecting circles. Both men and women can be emotional and sensitive; and both women and men can be logical and rational. That’s got to help not only women but with suicide rates and mental health problems which disproportionately affect young men.

A STEM qualification trains you in critical thinking, in constructing a hypothesis and testing its validity. It’s a chance to be part of the global culture of knowledge, to see the world, to experience other ways of living.

To feed your curiosity and make a difference to the world. The Government’s National Skills Strategy for 2025 forecasts 10s of 1,000s of additional jobs in research, agri-food, information and communications technology, biopharma and data analytics. It is committed to training or retraining more people in Ireland to fill them, but 1,000s more work permits for workers from outside the EU will still be needed to meet the demand.

Since there are skills shortages in these areas, companies are not only actively looking to recruit women, but they also want to retain them once they’ve invested in finding and training them by implementing family-friendly policies, supporting flexible working for men and for women. And let’s face it, everyone, men are people too. Some men even have children, and like them enough to want to spend time with them. In Finland, it’s considered a child’s right to spend time with both parents, and it is the first country in the world where fathers spend marginally more time with school-age children than mothers.

If you’re a women working in STEM, like it or not, you will stand out, you will be noticed. You may as well use it to your advantage. And as a friend of mine, a senior director with a major multinational, used to say “profile = promotion”.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review identified 6 things successful women in STEM have in common:

  • They telegraph confidence
  • They claim the credit for their ideas
  • They invest in peer networks
  • They build up protégés
  • They are authentic
  • And they hone their brand by speaking on panels, sitting on boards, going beyond their job title

So, I’d like to confidently say that this was all my idea, hi to all my network and friends and protégés out there and thank you for the opportunity to speak authentically on this panel.

And that’s it, to all you women in STEM out there, I’d encourage you to have a look at the WITS website (https://witsireland.com/) where we have just started a series of posts on “Starting Your Stem Career” and to join networks like WITS, which offers free student membership.

Find a mentor who will talk with you, find a sponsor who will talk about you, and sponsor other women. Don't accept that the gender pay gap or motherhood penalty is inevitable. Things will not change on their own, they will not change with women talking to women about their problems. Men have to be part of the conversation; they will benefit too. We will all benefit.

And help to make organisations like WITS completely unnecessary in future.