DCU’s Dr Eilish McLoughlin and Dr Anne Parle-McDermott unpack the various factors affecting the number of women studying and teaching life sciences at higher level.
The future of life sciences is looking bright. The technology in this area has taken a major evolutionary jump in recent years, ranging from advances in DNA sequencing and genome editing to the latest in stem cell technology, data analytics, imaging and medical point-of-care devices.
Having such technology at our fingertips makes it a very exciting time to work in life sciences. Future innovations and developments are towards a more tailored approach to human health. While it was always acknowledged that one size does not fit all, we now have the toolkit to have a more personalised approach to the diagnosis and treatment of disease, ie precision medicine. Ireland has an exceptional track record in life sciences and this is set to continue for the foreseeable future.
So, how are women doing in this space? Irish universities show a high level of females enrolling in full-time honours bachelor degree courses, with a higher number for natural science courses with a focus on biology (58pc, according to International Standard Classification of Education figures for Irish universities in 2015). This reflects trends in the numbers of girls taking Leaving Certificate science subjects, with girls representing 62pc of those studying biology, 56pc in chemistry and 27pc in physics.
However, at national level, out of the approximately 118,000 people working in STEM in Ireland as of 2013, only one-quarter were female. A 2014 report from Accenture noted that the influence of parents in career choices of young women was significant, with a lack of parental knowledge of STEM opportunities (68pc) being a key concern. One in four teachers attributed the promotion of traditional ‘girl career paths’ contributing to the stereotype that STEM subjects are more suited to males than females.
‘At the 2017 SciFest regional finals in Dublin City University, female students represented 51pc of the participants, but 71pc of the award winners’
National initiatives such as SciFest are tackling this issue and providing opportunities for young women to be successful in STEM. Now in its 10th year, SciFest has promoted more than 9,000 second-level science students to develop and showcase their own STEM projects. At the 2017 regional finals in Dublin City University, female students represented 51pc of the participants, but 71pc of the award winners.
The Irish Government is now focused on the under-representation of women at all levels in the STEM area, with a National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions published in June 2016. To ensure young women continue to view a life sciences career as an attractive option, there must be a boost in the number of female role models, particularly those holding senior, high-profile roles.
While only 19pc of professors in Irish universities are women, efforts such as the Athena SWAN charter “to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science” are striving to redress this imbalance. In support of this charter, the Irish Research Council has set a requirement (from 2019) that funding will only be awarded to higher-level institutions that have achieved an Athena SWAN Award.
There has never been a more exciting time to work in life sciences. The evolution in technology has made it possible to push the boundaries of knowledge far beyond what was possible only a few short years ago. It is sobering to realise that the PhD project that one of the authors completed at the end of 1999 could now be carried out in a month or two!
Given the growing awareness of unconscious gender bias and positive steps being taken to address this, the future is bright for women to pursue a career in life sciences. As the saying goes: prepare to be amazed.
Dr Eilish McLoughlin is the director of the Centre for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning (CASTeL) and an academic member of the School of Physical Sciences at Dublin City University (DCU). She is actively involved in research on STEM education, focusing on STEM teacher education at both pre-service and in-service levels as well as pedagogy and assessment at second and third level. Dr Anne Parle-McDermott joined the School of Biotechnology at DCU in 2006 and is currently a senior lecturer in genetics, and principal investigator of the Nutritional Genomics Group.