Chair, Women In Technology and Science
Engineers and scientists are hiding in plain sight all around us. STEM jobs are the ‘new normal’ but we need to make sure everyone has the same opportunities.
How to spot a scientist
What did you want to be when you grew up? A singer? An athlete? Maybe a teacher or a doctor? I have a childhood photo where my sister and I are dressed as nurses, and my brothers as astronauts. Those were our role models: nurses for girls and astronauts for boys. In fact, we all went on to study electronics or biochemistry. My dad found this amusing – surely only geniuses studied science or engineering? Those jobs weren’t ‘normal jobs’, and he knew very few people who had them.
It is open to ‘normal women’ despite the received wisdom being that the ‘genius scientist’ is a man.
The trope of the ‘genius scientist’ is a way of saying ‘this is not for you, you’re not good enough’, making science into an elite pursuit. But science belongs to anyone who’s curious about what makes the sky blue and the rain fall – we all asked these questions as children so why stop?
Engineers are just people who like to ask ‘why?’, to fix problems and make things more efficient, from Archimedes wondering how levers worked to today’s materials scientists developing electric car batteries.
But there’s no uniform for scientists. The woman queuing next to you at the shop could be a software developer or the man behind her a lab technician. They look normal because they are normal, because STEM jobs are for ‘normal people’.
How to be a scientist
That is not to say that STEM jobs cannot be extraordinary or that those with STEM jobs aren’t, just that STEM is not exclusive. It is open to ‘normal women’ despite the received wisdom being that the ‘genius scientist’ is a man.
In fact, in 2017 in Ireland, more women than men graduated in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics. In engineering, information and communications technology, it was the reverse, even though there are more opportunities in these fields.
Engineers are just people who like to ask ‘why?’, to fix problems and make things more efficient.
In the census of 1993, nearly 28% of systems analysts and computer programmers were women. By 2016, this had dropped to 19%. I find that surprising, given that these jobs rely on the traditionally ‘feminine’ skills of teamwork and communication, and are suited to flexible working. Could it be owing to the drop in those studying physics in Ireland? In 1990, one in five Leaving Certificate candidates took physics. By 2019, it was one in seven, and just over a quarter of those students were girls.
Physics is the foundation of so many other disciplines – mechanical engineering, semiconductors, electronics, robotics – yet one-fifth of schools don’t offer it at Leaving-Certificate level.
My brothers and sisters and I were given the opportunity to study it, so, if my father were alive today, I might say: ‘It’s more about opportunity than it is genius, Dad’. That and some more up to date role models. Today’s would-be scientists deserve better.