What’s it like to be a woman in STEM in Ireland today?

8 Mar 2019

Image: © jozefmicic/Stock.adobe.com

For International Women’s Day, Silicon Republic asked eight women about their experience working in STEM in Ireland.

How would you summarise what it’s like to be a woman in STEM in Ireland today? That’s the first question we asked our panel of women in STEM. Here are their answers.

I’m still in research because I was supported during maternity leave’

I have been lucky – I have three young kiddos (seven, four and two) and I was supported during all three periods of maternity leave by various funding bodies in different research groups. Thanks to that, I am now still in research and I have been able to compete for, and win, independent research funding that allows me to work part-time, which was really important for me. But it certainly is hard work!

However, the periods of work between maternity leave were not fruitful for me because they were relatively short periods. Developing your own research project takes time and when this is interrupted, no one takes over your work, so maybe I will feel the effects of that lack of productivity soon.


‘Having children has negatively affected my career’

There remains a focus on taking the traditional academic route, which many women are unable to take due to making the decision to have children. In my personal case, having four children has most definitely negatively affected my career.

There is also a confidence gap and the imposter syndrome issue, which many men do not have. Recently I have seen the rise of the ‘spoofer’, as I like to call it, versus those that have the knowledge but do not have the confidence to display it. For example, our female researchers often will not even consider applying for funding. Another example is the academic ‘manel’, which I am noticing more and more. In my case I would like to see more diversity also, not just gender.


‘I’m concerned with increased tokenism’

I am grateful that Ireland has moved on from my mother’s generation and that I can work and have a family (I’m a mam of two and currently on maternity leave). I feel very at home in my workplace and have not encountered any significant difficulties in my career as a result of being a woman. I also do my best to just get on with work and not get bogged down on minor issues. Yes, some people are more supportive than others, but isn’t that always the way?

I am, however, concerned with increased tokenism and targeted approaches in STEM. For example (although there are many), I recently discussed career options with a male postdoc who pointed out a number of excellent training opportunities specifically for women which he could not attend and there were no alternatives. This is very unfair in my opinion.


‘It’s good to have a job you’re passionate about’

I love being a woman in STEM and always have. For me, as a mother of three, a career in STEM is flexible and well suited to motherhood, especially if you have the discipline to shut off at some stage (which I don’t).

Research can be so exciting, it’s difficult to not always be thinking about work and trying to solve the problem you’re working on. It doesn’t make sense to me that I would only think about it between 9am and 5pm, which means I bring work home every day. But I also enjoy this and my kids can see that it’s good to have a job you’re passionate about.


‘Women of colour are even more underrepresented’

Being a woman in STEM in Ireland is unique. There are not as many of us as I’d like; however, there is headway being made in understanding the importance of embracing all genders and how we form inclusive environments that work for all walks of people.

Being a woman of colour in Ireland is even more underrepresented as, again, there are even less of us. This means our stories are incredibly important in paving the way for future women, of all ethnicities, and in showcasing the importance of gender diversity alongside ethnic diversity.


‘I moved to Ireland because the academic system is meritocratic’

One of the reasons why I moved to Ireland to pursue a career in academia is that I found the Irish academic system meritocratic. Here, I feel my competences and achievements are recognised and considered an asset by the institutions I am affiliated with. Also in Ireland there is a multitude of funding opportunities from various funding agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the Irish Research Council and Enterprise Ireland.

For example, in 2016, I was awarded a Starting Investigator Research Grant from SFI. Through this funding I have been able to form a small research group in the School of Computer Science in University College Dublin, where I recently joined the staff as a lecturer. I am also affiliated with the SFI-funded Lero research centre where I have the opportunity to work with colleagues from other universities in Ireland and with practitioners from industry.

However, although there is an increasing awareness about supporting diversity, I believe there is still unconscious bias among students and academics towards women. Sadly, often women are still considered less capable than men.


‘It is frightening to see how many of us fall off the career ladder’

In a unique position as a queer, disabled woman of colour in STEM, the key feature that stands out to me is the imbalance of thresholds for merit and accreditation for privileged and less privileged people when it comes to remuneration, accreditation and employment.

It is frightening to see the numbers – not for how many of us fall out of the job market altogether, but how many of the 10pc of STEM graduates in academia fall off the career progression ladder entirely. It is certainly a disincentive for me to continue in pure research rather than work in full-time clinical practice with an academic component that will not risk making or breaking my employment and advancement prospects as a whole.


‘Challenges still exist in balancing a career, family and home’

In the last number of years, the research has been performed and published: STEM is undersubscribed to by women. Today, in Ireland, I do recognise the initiatives that are being launched to create gender balance, and I am hopeful that a continued focus on gender balance in STEM will result in increased participation from both girls and boys.

For me, I believe we have it easier than our female counterparts had it even a couple of decades ago when it was taboo to work outside the home, let alone in a male-dominated field. However, challenges still exist regarding balancing a STEM career, family, home etc. I think this is applicable to both males and females, and joint initiatives to assist working parents and carers would provide a better work-life balance. Highlighting careers with great work-life balance will always be attractive to females, and allow flexibility for parents and families.