STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) have the power to change the world, insists Gillian Keating. “When you think about it, everything we do now is influenced by technology,” she says. “How we manage our cities, how we engage more efficient methods of transport, how we source our food, how we tackle climate change and become more sustainable — these kinds of challenges will be solved by technology. And technology is enabled through engineering.”

“We need to explain that STEM isn't just about 'hard-core' tech roles in laboratories"

Unfortunately, says Keating, female secondary school students in Ireland are not getting the message that STEM careers could be a viable, fulfilling and exciting option for them. That's why she co-founded the IWish initiative, to inspire, encourage and motivate them to take STEM subjects seriously.

Opportunities

 

Recent statistics from IWish — which surveyed 2000 female students — are certainly sobering. For example, 53 per cent said that they didn't know enough about STEM. “Young women at school don't appreciate what STEM involves,” says Keating. “But how could they? It's only through experiencing life and looking at career opportunities that you realise why honours maths is important — and that not studying it at school closes off a lot of STEM career opportunities.”

Interestingly, 75 per cent of the female students surveyed said they wanted a career that helped improve people's lives; so Keating says that schools need to work harder to demonstrate that studying STEM can help them with that ambition. For example, she points out, someone needs to designed and built drones which now deliver aid to war-torn countries. “We need to explain that STEM isn't just about 'hard-core' tech roles in laboratories — although those kinds of jobs are also available, of course.”

 

Communication

 

And does the way we communicate with female students need to change, too? Keating remembers meeting one young woman who, while studying honours maths, was told by her teacher: 'If you think this is difficult now, drop out, because after Christmas it's going to get even harder.' “Her brothers, meanwhile, got a completely different message. They were told: 'This subject is hard — but if you knuckle down, you'll get it eventually.' I thought that was an interesting observation. So we have to manage our message.”

And that includes parents, who have to be more supportive and encouraging of their high-achieving daughters and not simply point them in the direction of 'default' high-earning, secure professions, such as medicine or law. “They have to say: 'Have you thought about studying engineering, or starting up your own STEM business?' But then I don't think parents appreciate STEM because, when they were younger, many of the STEM jobs that are available now hadn't been created.”

Iwish believes there are ways to turn the tide, however. Junior certificate science should be compulsory in all second level schools, for example; plus it should be stressed to female students that many STEM careers do support societal change and can help improve people's lives.

“Better connections need to be made at school, girls need to be shown the pathway from their subject choices to STEM courses in higher education or a STEM career.”

Giving students access to young female role models working in STEM is also important; as is strengthening collaborations between industry, colleges and universities and local government. “What's certain is that, in Ireland, we need to be competing in this area,” says Keating, “and a key part of that is ensuring we have a deep and developing talent pool. We won’t have this unless we harness the power of more young girls.”

 

For more information go to www.iwish.ie