Aidan Priestley reports from the inaugural Women in Stem Summit
“Writing a love letter addressed ‘to whom it may concern’.” That’s what it means to provide a solution without understanding the problem said Sonya Lennon, Chair of the first annual Women in STEM Summit held in Croke Park.
What followed was a series of spirited and unflinching discussions to lay bare the problem of gender parity in STEM. To ignore the issue would be a costly mistake, made clear by IBM Ireland Country General Manager Deborah Threadgold who in her keynote address said: “The heart of technology is innovation.”
Threadgold relates the story of Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician instrumental in the first ever manned spaceflights to orbit earth in 1962. She wasn’t publicly recognised for her contribution until a 2016 film Hidden Figures was released, three years later NASA bestowed her with its highest civilian honours.
Poignantly, reveals Threadgold, Katherine Johnson passed away in 2020, “the same year the World Economic Forum released a gender gap report in which they estimate we are 100 years away from gender parity globally. “That just can’t be good enough.”
As a teenager, Dublin City University Chancellor Brid Horan saw the gender question as a question of “fairness”. She says now, however, that it is apparent the lack of gender parity is an issue of “wasted talent”.
For Horan the consequences of a lack of women in STEM is simple – less women in STEM restricts diverse thinking and fundamentally this is an issue for all society. Looking to the future, the rising stars panel featured three young women – students in various STEM fields who spoke about their experiences and expectations.
Ruth Madden, Biological & Chemical Sciences student at University College Cork (UCC) explained how she researched gender parity in STEM subjects. In 2018, she said, Biology and Chemistry enjoyed high participation from women, while Physics and Engineering saw ratios of one to 14, girls to boys.
To cheers from attendees, however, Madden revealed that “in all fields, other than Math, girls always outperformed the boys.” You can’t be what you can’t see UCC Physics student, Sarah Kate Sweeney highlighted the importance of diverse representation in senior staff.
She related how even when “about a third” of her classmates are women, there was only one female lecturer. “You can’t be what you can’t see”, she said explaining it is more than just a phrase.
Sweeney also shared a salient piece of advice, learned in lockdown. “If you struggle on your own, it’s easy to think you’re the only one struggling. Reach out to others and you will learn that you’re not alone.”
As should be expected in a summit on STEM a conversation with Shay Walsh, Managing Director of BT Ireland, explored pragmatic options in attempting to boost female participation in the workforce. Ideas ranged from greater engagement with educators and employers in the field, creating internships that actively entice women into the business, to ensuring there are female applicants in the potential hiring pool for a role before moving to interview stages.
Later, on a panel discussion for creating a gender-balanced workforce, Learning technologist and inclusion advocate Dr Claudia Igbrude discussed the intersectionality of life’s challenges. Throughout the pandemic, she said, she heard the phrase “all in the same boat”. Seeing a corollary with a discussion on diversity in the workforce, Dr Igbrude challenged the notion instead countering: “We might all be in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.”
“Real equality is when the average woman goes as far as the average man,” said Linda Doyle, Provost and President of Trinity College Dublin. At this year’s Women in STEM Summit there were no illusions as to the enormity of the work ahead. Without pretending to have solved all the issues facing women who want to enter the STEM fields there was no shortage of passion in the room for facing the issues head on.
As Chair Sonya Lennon made clear: “This is the first Women in Stem Summit and it’s only going to get bigger from here.” If the Summit was courting by love letter, it has just introduced its name.
The first annual Women in STEM Summit was held in Croke Park on March 30. To participate in Women in STEM Summit 2023 – Trailblazers leading the way across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics go to womeninstem.ie