Professor Molecular Materials, Sylvia Draper
Dean of the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, Trinity College Dublin
If the world is to solve the challenges it faces, universities must look at different ways to train the graduates of the future — and ensure a diverse body of students are attracted to STEM subjects, particularly women.Professor Sylvia Draper Dean of the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Trinity College Dublin.
Professor Sylvia Draper says “when it comes to inclusivity and gender balance in STEM subjects things are changing.”
“But we cannot be complacent. Men and women are equally capable in all STEM subjects, and always have been, but today we need women to come to the fore and to continue to challenge research perceptions. We need to see a tipping point being reached in all subjects.”
There is an insidious view that to succeed in a STEM career you can’t have a personal life. This surprises Professor Draper “many of my colleagues, at the height of their careers, have important roles at home as well as at work.” STEM, she argues, is for everyone. “We have to dispel this idea that as a woman in STEM you have to choose between family and your job. This is simply not true.”
Many of my colleagues, at the height of their careers, have important roles at home as well as at work. STEM is for everyone.
Why universities need to champion women in STEM
It is true that the ratio of men to women in STEM is still very discipline specific. Across the university as a whole, around 60% of STEM students are male and 40% are women. This is an encouraging statistics, yet engineering and computer science continue to attract far more male than female students.
For one thing and for good reason, the corny image of a man is slowly fading. “When people think of ‘engineering’ they think of civil engineers,” says Professor Draper. “But it’s much wider than that. For example, it includes electrical engineering and bio-engineering. The engineering field is attracting some diverse participants from all walks of life, and that’s exciting.”
Her optimism about the future of women in STEM comes in part from being surrounded by Trinity’s 18,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students.
“One of the great things about working in a university is that you meet the next generation, they are so smart, inspiring, dynamic and diverse,” she says. “They care about the systemic and complex challenges the world is facing, such as climate change, carbon neutrality or global health. As universities we must respond to this and in Trinity, we understand that we must train our students differently and champion women in STEM to tackle these global challenges.”
The engineering field is attracting some diverse participants from all walks of life, and that’s exciting.
Finding new ways to train the graduates of the future
For instance, Trinity is offering a new undergraduate course in Environmental Science and Engineering. It’s also running a co-education initiative called E3 (Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies), a collaboration between its Schools of Computer Science and Statistics, Engineering and Natural Science. “The idea is that by raising new undergraduates together they will be shaped and informed by each other,” she says. “So engineers will be exposed to Natural Science thinking, while natural scientists will be exposed to the possibilities of Artifical Intelligence.” This broader, more diverse experience also offers jumping off points into multiple STEM careers.
“Attracting women into STEM should start early,” says Professor Draper. “Greater attention must be paid in teaching STEM at primary school and in the home for instance. In later life, more initiatives are needed to help women with their work/life balance. Take women in academia,” she says. “Could career breaks be introduced, or reintegration grants? Plus we need to ensure we have the right kind of supervisors and mentors in place who are supportive of different viewpoints. My hope is that one day we will have moved on from our binary view of the world.”
Ultimately, though, Professor Draper is upbeat about the direction of travel. “If you’re a woman interested in STEM, just do it,” she says. “Be bold. Be optimistic and make your time on this planet count.”