Women in STEM: Patching up the ‘leaky pipeline’

Some call it the Digital Age or the Age of Information, while others have labelled it the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

While these expressions can be disputed and critiqued, one thing is certain: Our world is changing, and it is changing quickly. Artificial intelligence is replacing humans, recent mRNA vaccine developments have vastly opened up the medical field, and the reality of climate change has compounded the need for renewable resources to lead an energy revolution.

Despite these advancements laying the foundations for our future and reflecting a progressive society, the industry underpinning these ingenious developments is one dominated by gender disparity.

Known as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), disciplines in this field have traditionally been male-dominated, with women comprising just 25 per cent of STEM-related roles in Ireland, according to the Central Statistics Office.

But what is it about STEM that leaves women vastly underrepresented? Research from STEM Women points to an unconscious bias and gender stereotypes that can often obstruct young women from choosing STEM subjects in school, such as physics, construction or computer science.

This translates to 40 per cent of boys in secondary schools listing a STEM subject on their CAO form versus just 19 per cent of girls, according to a UCD study. This is despite researchers at the University of New South Wales pointing to the academic grades of a pool of mixed students and discovering that male and female students scored similar grades in STEM subjects.

Another factor often cited is the lack of female role models. Research from PwC shows that almost 80 per cent of university students in the UK can’t name a notable female figure currently working in the tech industry.

Findings from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media add to this, showing that for every 15 male characters shown in STEM professions in children’s media, there was just one female character portrayed.

“When girls in their formative years don’t see female characters on screen as biochemists, software developers, engineers, or statisticians, they are less likely to imagine or pursue those career paths for themselves,” the study states.

This absence of pioneering female figures visible to young women is a sentiment echoed by Lauren Kenny, Computing Representative of DCU-native society GalSTEM.

“It is important to see more women in STEM fields as this will help remove the unconscious bias some women may feel towards entering into these professions,” Kenny told The College View.

Kenny added that having “good teachers” who encourage a stronger uptake of STEM subjects is essential and this is reflected in a 2019 study by Accenture, which identified teachers as being one of the biggest influences on female students’ lives.

This influential capacity associated with teachers could also work to dispel the knowledge deficit that exists around STEM, with research from Connecting Women in Technology stating that almost 60 per cent of secondary school girls don’t know enough about STEM.

Further down the line this often translates to a poor retention of women in STEM, a term that has been coined the ‘leaky pipeline’, which are points that girls and women leave STEM, such as childhood, secondary school, STEM professions and leadership positions.

There has been considerable effort in recent years to level the playing field, with a 40 per cent increase in STEM uptake by female students predicted by 2026 under the STEM Education policy. This policy also anticipates that Ireland will be a European leader in STEM education by the same year.

With demand in the STEM sector expected to grow by roughly eight per cent by 2025 – much higher than the average three per cent growth forecast for all occupations according to the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training – the importance of STEM disciplines in shaping our future lies in these details, the most important one being that for the industry to be successful, it must first be inclusive.

Trudy Feenane

Image credit: This is engineering on Unsplash