How does it get better for women in STEM?

8 Mar 2019

Image: © jozefmicic/

For International Women’s Day, eight women in STEM in Ireland share their messages of hope and demands for critical change.

Our final question to our panel of eight women in STEM for International Women’s Day asked: are you hopeful that the situation for women in STEM is changing for the better? We also asked what has been effective in creating positive change, and what they would like to see done to continue this improvement. Here’s what they had to say.

‘Staff and students more often speak out about discrimination’

I think the situation is changing for the better compared to a few years ago. Certainly there is much more awareness about inclusion and equality. Also, staff and students more and more often speak out about episodes of discrimination.

One thing that I believe would be a game-changer is to allow for extended paternity leave. This would greatly help women in research – and in any professional path – not to give up their career when they decide to have kids and start a family.


‘I am hopeful for these prospects changing’

It is reasonably self-evident across most university academia that there stands a stark issue of women being overrepresented at degree, unpaid and entry-level jobs in research, and that our prospects sadly look like stagnating and falling off the career progression ladder at postdoc and (if we’re exceedingly lucky) assistant professor level.

I am hopeful, with universities’ heartening engagement with Athena SWAN (as I have seen in my own Health Sciences Faculty in Trinity College Dublin), for these prospects changing.

I think Irish STEM needs to look at how to translate active recruitment drives to get more women into STEM into active retention and fair remuneration policies to keep the majority of talented students and graduates in Ireland (and, if possible, in public academic institutions) after our degrees.

A vital way to do this in a changing and digital world is through crediting various non-traditional forms of research involvement, engagement and communication (see SFI Engage for conversations on this topic), as we see from projects such as Athena SWAN just how much traditional edifices and hierarchical accreditation and hiring practices disproportionately favour white men.


The societal perception of STEM will change for the better’

I am hopeful that the situation for women in STEM is changing for the better. I think that the recognition alone that STEM is underserved by women is awakening the cause, but it needs to be highlighted more.

We need increased promotion of female participation in STEM careers through school education, highlighting of role models, and increased opportunities for women to facilitate a career in STEM while balancing their family and home life. By highlighting these issues and reinforcing the message, the societal perception of STEM will change – for the better!


‘With each generation, things will become more equal’

With the next generation and the one after, things will become more equal in terms of females in higher-level positions. I think awareness is good. I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m a woman, but I do think all this awareness has made me reflect on why I may be different, as a woman, to my male colleagues. I found that it’s most often intrinsic differences such as imposter syndrome, or fear of sharing an idea in case it’s stupid, or even sitting at the boardroom table instead of the chairs behind. This realisation that I, and other women, do these things more than men has made me train myself to improve this and not be afraid – or be afraid and make sure to do it anyway.

I think when younger people see women involved at every level, it’s then less scary for them. It becomes normal. Therefore, in 10 years’ time, I think the situation will be different and this question won’t be asked any more.


True support for families will change a lot of things for women’

From a family perspective, I think the community is getting more understanding of maternity leave etc. I think this happens as a result of a more even distribution of responsibilities in the home, with men now taking on roles of picking kids up from school and minding them when they’re sick, as women go back to work.

In my eyes, it’s generational. Men are becoming increasingly involved in child-rearing and therefore are gaining more of an understanding of the sacrifices and challenges that face working parents. Yes, there are more male professors in academic STEM departments, but many of their careers began when a woman could not continue to work if they got married, a time of little support for families. True support for families will change a lot of things for women. I would be a big advocate for shared parental leave as per Norway or Germany.

Although I’m speaking on this as a new mam, it’s also essential to remember that ‘women in STEM’ doesn’t just mean ‘mothers in STEM’. Women across the board have faced bias in promotions or harassment in their roles regardless of their family situation. I think the biggest change in this will come with time. I don’t see any quick fix, unfortunately, and it’s a very complex issue.


‘Only for hard-cash incentives, it wouldn’t be so’

There is certainly much more awareness, particularly thanks to Athena SWAN awards and all the work that requires. Only for that hard-cash incentive, it wouldn’t be so. Little things matter, like having meetings outside of core office hours – this can really affect your work.

There is so much more work to do. Not everyone is supported; not everyone works in a supportive environment, or has support at home when the job requires travel.


‘Uncomfortable conversations lead to growth’

I am hopeful because of the focus on this issue now. We have a long way to go but people are beginning to have the difficult, perhaps uncomfortable, conversations to understand where we are, why we are here and where we want to go. Uncomfortable conversations lead to growth and that is exactly what we need to continue pushing for gender diversity.


‘For the first time in 20 years, research funders are ensuring female participation’

I am hopeful if a little wary of spin and lip service. For the first time in 20 years, I can see that the research funders are actually examining the practical implementation, execution and impact of ensuring female participation in their STEM research schemes. In the past it has been focused on encouraging participation without actual delivery (eg quotas).

The recent Health Research Board and SFI calls have actually looked at the practical implementation and impact of taking a career break. For example, the SFI Frontiers scheme (currently open) has a category for returning researchers and will facilitate this through teaching buy-out to enable the research. This is crucial. This may also be a reflection on the fact that these funding agencies are also similarly staffed by former female STEM researchers.