At Paula Neary’s all-girls school, Honours Maths and Physics weren’t available because, well, why would girls be interested in those subjects?
Schools may have modernised their syllabuses but research shows that parents and teachers are still holding on to stereotypical ideas of gender based subjects and roles.
Now a Managing Director at Accenture Ireland and a member of 30% Club Ireland’s Women in STEM steering committee, Paula is on a mission to change that view.
Tackling Gender Stereotyping as Parents
Research commissioned by Accenture and iWish last year found that more than half of parents (52pc) admit to having personally made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys when it comes to STEM subjects, and more than half of teachers (53pc) have witnessed girls drop STEM subjects in school due to pressure from a parent.
It is challenging for parents and teachers to up-skill themselves on the rapidly changing jobs market. The top 10 skills in demand today did not exist 20 years ago so we need to help educate both teachers and parents on the new jobs and skills currently in the workplace, and those that need to be developed. With rapidly changing economies, markets and technologies, and with longer lifespans, the idea of a job for life as an accountant, lawyer or civil servant will be much rarer.
It is important that students and the teachers are exposed to all the exciting and interesting new jobs which STEM subjects can lead to if we are to inspire students.
We need to help teachers and parents to be aware of this new environment and of new jobs and opportunities so they do not close doors on their students and in particular on young girls. In practice, in considering options for continuing education and career, a student and therefore their guidance source, needs to be aware of the current and emerging skills and aptitudes that will contribute to continuing development and career contribution and success.
It is important that students, and their teachers, are exposed to all the exciting and interesting new jobs which STEM subjects can lead to if we are to inspire students. Vital to this, particularly for girls and young women, is to illustrate the significant contribution that STEM can make to society and to create a sense of purpose. In this way, we can hope to increase the numbers taking these subjects, both at second level and beyond.
This goes also for subjects like maths where there is still a tendency to funnel students who display an aptitude for maths towards accounting and actuarial type jobs even though there are now much broader job types and opportunities available. Connecting maths skills to broader purposes can help students to connect from the subject to the real world.
We strongly believe that the issues affecting the pipeline for female talent start very early in a girls career, and this is particularly true for the area of STEM
In the future, 75% of jobs will be underpinned by STEM
The Steering Committee of the 30% Club is made up of a diverse group of senior business leaders across industry sectors who volunteer their time to lead and support the work of the 30% Club Ireland.
We strongly believe that the issues affecting the pipeline for female talent start very early in a girls career, and this is particularly true for the area of STEM. We do not have enough young girls considering STEM subject choices in school, STEM courses in college, and hence too few going on to have STEM careers.
In the future 75% of jobs will be underpinned by STEM and it is imperative that we have a pipeline of diverse and high-quality STEM graduates to ensure success across all sectors and also that young women do not miss out on these huge opportunities.
Our work in the STEM area includes building awareness and influencing policy through research, collaborating with organisations such as iWish and CWIT (Connecting Women in Technology), and by pioneering programs such as the STEM Teacher Internship.
The all-girls secondary school I attended did not have honours Maths or honours Physics for the Leaving Certificate – I had to move to the local boys school
Rather than ask girls what they want to be when they grow up, ask them what problem do they want to solve?
I was very fortunate that my mother took such an interest in my education. She could see that I was both interested and good at Science and Maths, however the all-girls secondary school I attended did not have honours Maths or honours Physics for the Leaving Certificate. A local boys school had opened up admission to girls and they had these honours subjects available, so I moved schools for my Leaving Certificate to study these subjects.
When it came to third level choices, the career guidance teacher encouraged me towards primary school teaching as Physics and Maths continued to be two areas I really liked. I wasn’t convinced teaching was for me, so my mother researched alternative courses that might be a match given my interests and strengths. We landed on Engineering.
My advice to parents is to keep an open mind and to educate themselves on the skills required in the future workplace
I went on to study Electronic Engineering in DCU which I really enjoyed and I now love working in the business world with Accenture using the logical, problem solving and creative skills I gained from an engineering background. I am so lucky my mother took such an activate role in understanding what was out there and what would suit me and didn’t let any stereotypes or biases get in her way. Needless to say I was in the minority in my Engineering class.
My advice to parents is to keep an open mind and to educate themselves on the skills required in the future workplace and check themselves to ensure no biases or stereotypes are influencing their advice to their daughters. STEM is about curiosity, creativity and problem solving. So rather than ask your girls what do they want to be when they grow up, ask them what problem do they want to solve?
Providing Industry Experience in STEM for Teachers
Accenture runs a programme called Girls in STEM, which has commissioned 3 research reports since 2013 around what are the key barriers and influencers to increasing diversity in the STEM talent pipeline.
A key finding of our research showed how influential teachers are in relation to young girls choosing STEM subject choices, going on to study STEM courses and in turn having STEM careers. In our research a significant number of teachers said they did not feel informed enough around the STEM career options to be able to impart this knowledge to their students.
Through this internship, teachers gain first hand experience of industry and the vast application of STEM across the world of business
In 2016 Accenture, in collaboration with DCU and the 30% Club, piloted a program to give STEM secondary school student teachers an opportunity to do a 3 month paid internship before their final year of study. Through this internship they would gain first hand experience of industry and the vast application of STEM across the world of business e.g. in solving health care issues, environmental issues, social issues. These are areas of huge interest to young girls given their social impact but sometimes the link to STEM is not always made.
The teachers also got to see first hand the broader set of skills required in the world of work – collaboration, communication, team-working. Our pilot was hugely successful, the 5 teachers who participated in it felt they now understood the diversity challenge in STEM and they were equipped with experience, confidence and skills to bring it to life in the classroom and also had a broader appreciation of the skills required in the world of work that they could encourage in the classroom.
After the success of the initial pilot we collaborated with Connecting Women in Technology to get more companies involved, as well as 30% Club supporters, and this summer we have 13 primary and secondary teacher students completing STEM teacher internships across 8 companies. The 30% Club now hope to continue this collaboration and work with DCU and CWIT to bring it to further teacher training colleges and also bring it to teachers already qualified.