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Women in STEM 2019

Game-changer: women recognising tech-based degrees as broad, fit-for-future and a place they will be comfortable

Professor Lisa Looney

Chartered Engineer, PhD in Materials Engineering

Executive Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Computing, DCU

Tireless work, over decades, has been invested in increasing the number of women in technology disciplines. While things have improved, the statistics for areas like engineering and computing remain stubbornly and frustratingly poor.

Great organisations, such as WITS, iWish and Engineers Ireland, have focused on explaining how exciting and interesting STEM careers are, demystifying them and showcasing role models. That has had an impact, and it is so important that this work continues (with industry support).

As a country, we have also taken on the issue of competency in mathematics: doubling the proportion of school-leavers who have successfully taken the higher-level maths curriculum. 

I’m convinced a step change in female participation will only come about if we acknowledge that many school leavers, at 18 years of age, very sensibly do not know what they want to do in life. Despite all of the hype about particular courses, most young adults leaving school pick what they understand to be broad-based degrees, such as those in business, arts or humanities. What differs between young men and women, is how they consider a technology degree in the context of their very reasonable uncertainty.

It is time to re-position technology-based degrees

Computer science and engineering are multi-opportunity degrees, upon which you could build any kind of career. Young men seem to understand this better than young women. The changing world of work demands that we place more emphasis on the opportunities these types of degrees offer.

Choosing such degrees does not mean you must be an engineer or computer scientists later; the technology degree is a platform from which any career could be launched, and which will bring career-long advantages. Most professional careers of the future will be technology infused, technology enabled or enhanced. Unless more women study tech, we will get a very damaging gender divide emerging, as the nature of work evolves over the coming decades.

Tech degrees are amazing programmes to have done whether you eventually work in media, open a business, teach, get involved in law, policy development; the list goes on. Emerging careers in all sectors will require an ability to think analytically, often alongside a sophisticated ability to work with data and/or systems of one type or another.

Helping young women to see where real opportunity lies

Our current approach of trying to get young women excited about being an engineer/computer scientist is working, but I think will only ever deliver about 25% participation. It has been my experience (in engineering) that the numbers of female students mirrors the numbers of males in the class who are very focused on becoming an engineer. What we often don’t have are female equivalents for male students, who are not focused on a specific career yet, but investing in the course to see where it might take them.

Why don’t young women view technology degrees as a good, flexible option for them in the way young men do? I think the answer lies in a poorly informed perception of risk. Risk associated with likelihood of success and career risk.

Our young women have equivalent backgrounds to be successful in technology programmes, but there is undoubtedly a gender-based confidence gap around mathematics and there is probably also a discomfort with a discipline where learning includes less-than-perfect solutions and uncertainty as to ‘right answers’.

Perfectionism and catastrophising come into play, and a programme can seem intimidating. Somehow, we need to find a way to bridge the confidence and comfort gaps.

Knowing that all students  taking our courses have the academic ability to be successful, DCU Engineering and  Computing is championing teaching approaches and a learning culture where all students have equal opportunity to thrive, and I hope that message will be heard by young women.

More and more future careers will be tech-based

DCU published a brochure called ‘A World of Opportunities’ last year, to draw attention to and explain some of the careers of tomorrow and the importance of technology to these. Real career risk comes with not having an adequate technology background, but it is only slowly filtering through to parents, teachers and to young women, where the richest opportunity lies in the future.

We should be optimistic. Momentum has been built up through a coalition of industry, higher education, dedicated interest groups and government. But most importantly, I think there is a key which will open the door to tech for more women.

We must re-frame degrees such as ours as flexible, multi opportunity degrees, fit for the future of work, calling out unsubstantiated reasons why girls might shy away, and developing a learning culture at third level which empowers students of all types to be successful in their study.

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