Image: Royal Irish Academy

How can we fix the leaky pipeline and keep women in STEM?

15 Dec 2017

A new report from the Royal Irish Academy has made recommendations to improve the retention of women in engineering and computing in Ireland. Dr Claire O’Connell reports.

How can we make engineering and computer science better fields for women to have a career? A new report published by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) has a few suggestions for academia, industry and government.

It calls for more research on the extent and benefits of gender equality; improved work-life balance and paternity leave; more training for research supervisors; and a networking approach for small and medium enterprises.  


The report, entitled Fixing the leaky pipeline and retaining our talent, arose from a workshop in September organised by the Engineering and Computer Sciences Committee of the RIA in conjunction with Engineers Ireland. On the day, representatives from industry, academia and government agencies came together to talk about retaining and promoting women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and the report provides a summary of the event and recommendations.  

“The figures are stark and disturbing,” states the report, published earlier this month. “While 50pc of the academic staff at lecturer level are female, women comprise only 19pc of full professorships. The figures for industry are very similar, with women comprising 40pc of junior management positions and only 17pc of CEOs.”

It’s a subject that’s very much on the radar of Prof Jane Grimson, a professor emeritus and former vice-provost of Trinity College Dublin, one of the report’s authors, and a member of the RIA Engineering and Computer Sciences Committee.

“I am an engineer. I was the first woman to graduate in engineering in Trinity in 1970 and I have long had an interest in trying to increase the number of women in engineering,” she told Siliconrepublic.com. “There seems to be a problem; women don’t progress at the same rate as men.”

Focus on retention 

One of the driving forces for convening the workshop was a report called Tapping all Our Talents published in 2012 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and chaired by Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

“Our focus here in Ireland has been on encouraging more young women doing STEM courses in school and university, and [when I] read the Edinburgh report, I became a bit uncomfortable,” said Grimson. “We are encouraging women to go into these careers, but if they can’t reach their full potential, if they [are] not being supported, then there is a moral question: should we be doing this?”

Data, data, data 

At the workshop on 26 September, attendees heard keynote speeches as well as a discussion moderated by broadcaster Margaret E Ward, with speakers including Marion Palmer from Women in Technology and Science, Oonagh Reid of Arup, Kara McGann of Ibec, Ann-Marie Holmes of Intel and PJ Rudden from the RPS Group.

Data, or the lack of it, was a hot topic, and Grimson would like to see more data made available about gender diversity in STEM in Ireland, particularly in the form of disaggregated data from companies, so that the picture is more out in the open.

While initiatives such as Athena SWAN stipulate that academic schools and institutions gather that data, Grimson argues that academia needs to take a leaf out of the business world’s book and gather evidence about the bottom-line benefits of a more diverse workforce.

“There is a conviction [in business] that diversity improves the bottom line; that you get better decision-making and that we have good data; that companies that have a greater diversity on senior management on boards are more profitable,” said Grimson, who recently chaired the Gender Equality Taskforce in NUI Galway.

“So, industry and business has recognised the essential nature of improving diversity and gender equality but, in my view, the higher-education system has not reached that point. Gender equality is still seen from the point of view of social justice.”

Coordination and consensus 

One of the issues raised at the workshop was that smaller companies may not have the resources to develop or implement initiatives to tackle gender equality, and networking could offer a solution here, noted Grimson. “Companies could come together to offer training,” she said.

She would also like to see more cohesion around the numerous gender equality initiatives in Ireland. “Some sort of coordination would be a good plan, though it is tricky,” she said. “A little leadership from the Government would be good.” 

Prof Alan Smeaton, who is also a member of the RIA committee and an author of the report, was struck by the consensus in the room at the workshop. “We had a range of people there with very similar views,” said Smeaton, who is professor of computing at Dublin City University and a founding director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. “There were academics like myself and industry people; we had representatives from agencies and government, and there was almost a chorus of agreement among them.”   

And, like Grimson, Smeaton sees the need for coordinating initiatives. “The individual initiatives are independent; they clash in diaries,” he said. “We need this to be overarched, to be stitched together in a more coordinated way.”

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Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

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