Máire Geoghegan-Quinn talks politics, quotas and women in STEM

4 Jul 2018

Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI director general, and SFI board member Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. Image: Jason Clarke

Before a weekend of celebrating women in science for Soapbox Science Galway, Dr Jessamyn Fairfield and Dr Dara Stanley chatted with newly appointed SFI board member Máire Geoghegan-Quinn about the ongoing challenges for women in STEM.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is a politician and former TD who also served as European commissioner for research, innovation and science. She chaired an independent panel on gender equality for the Higher Education Authority, and has recently been appointed to the board of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

She spoke to NUI Galway scientists Dr Jessamyn Fairfield and Dr Dara Stanley in advance of Soapbox Science Galway, a public event showcasing female scientists on 7 July 2018 in Galway city.

‘If you look at what is happening with the MacGill Summer School at the moment, it’s a disaster and disgrace! Pale, male and stale’

Stanley: You have done many things in politics over the years, including spending some time as EU commissioner for research, innovation and science. Was there a reason you were particularly interested in science over other roles?

Yes, I spent 22 years in the Dáil before retiring and focusing on other things. While I was based in Luxembourg, I was nominated by the government as European commissioner and moved to Brussels where I was appointed commissioner for research, innovation and science.

One of the things I was aware of was the lack of recognition of women scientists. If you opened a book about science, it always showed men in white coats with glasses and grey hair and not a woman in sight. If you asked a secondary school student if they knew a female scientist they might have said Marie Curie, but after that they really didn’t know. So that was one of the things I wanted to address.

Also, at this time in Ireland, there was a shortage of engineers and all the tech companies were saying you have to do something to encourage young people to do STEM subjects. This role also provided the opportunity to focus on young people, and promote careers in science.

Stanley: Did you study science at school?

I studied science at school up to Inter Cert, but did domestic science for Leaving Cert rather than pure science. I went on to be a primary school teacher and in those days science was not part of the curriculum for primary school children, which I believe it should be. This has got much better and we’re going in that direction now.

Stanley: There are issues around gender equality in many careers, including both politics and science. What do you think are the barriers to gender equality and what can we do to address them?

I think you are right, there are issues in every profession. If you look at what is happening with the MacGill Summer School at the moment, it’s a disaster and disgrace! Pale, male and stale.

I think one of the main issues is life-work balance. Certainly, when I was elected in politics first, the hours of work were not conducive to having a family. If you had a partner like I had who also worked full-time, then you had to find somebody to help with the family – my mother-in-law did it, my mother did it, and finally we got somebody who would live in to look after our two boys. But it was hard! So I think that is an issue that prevents women from progressing.

Another issue is facilities. My second son was born in July 1979, and I needed to go back to work in September (I was still nursing my son) as we had taken over the presidency of the EU. There were no existing facilities for babies in Leinster House. The then Minister for Finance and the Public Service supported me and wanted to do the right thing, as he said, “not just for you but for any woman in your position in the future that has to face this situation, so let’s do it right”. It’s difficult and challenging having a baby with you in a working environment, and it’s a matter of being really organised. The Gender Equality Panel for the Higher Education Authority found that facilities in many universities for women are not good either.

‘One of our recommendations was that unconscious bias training was essential – in person, sitting down, with someone leading and moderating the discussion’’


Máire Geoghegan-Quinn's headshot against a sky blue background

Image: Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

A third issue is around perceptions. For many years, if a man and woman (equally qualified) went for the same job, usually the man would get it – he wasn’t likely to get pregnant, or have to care for his ill parent because it was traditionally assumed this would be a woman’s job. That’s always a challenge, and something we made recommendations about in the report. Now, there is a monitoring system in place, with penalties and funding implications. It’s not just universities – all public institutions need to change.

For many gender issues, it’s not that people do it deliberately – they just don’t think! Unconscious bias was something we came across frequently during the gender equality panel discussions. Only when we challenged people across the table did they begin to think this was an issue that needed attention. One of our recommendations was that unconscious bias training was essential – in person, sitting down, with someone leading and moderating the discussion.

Fairfield: Gender quotas are often suggested as ways of counteracting gender imbalance in certain areas. Some people feel this would be ‘ghettoising’ women, while others feel there will never be a critical mass of certain genders without quotas to begin with. What do you feel about these ideas?

When I was in politics, I felt it was not necessary. Since then, things have changed and I figured quotas had to come. Gender quotas are tied to party funding, and now political parties search for women candidates, which has slowly begun to redress the balance.

During the gender equality report discussion, quotas were also a big issue. Some members of the committee felt strongly that it was the only way to deal with the issue – maybe not forever, but until a critical mass was reached.

I believe that if a woman is in a senior position – for example, as a professor – then she has an obligation to other women to mentor them, support them and help them to succeed. Francesca McDonagh, CEO of Bank of Ireland and a very powerful woman, tells a story as to how she once didn’t get a job she was the most qualified for because the person making the decision didn’t know she was interested. So it’s important to have self-confidence and make sure people know you are available.

Often, women are referred to by using negative or snide throwaway remarks. A woman may be ‘strident’ whereas a man is ‘positive’ or ‘in control’. Everyone wants to be popular, so dealing with tough issues can make things more difficult for women. I remember once being accused in the Dáil of ‘handbagging’ the Aer Lingus board. I objected to this as un-parliamentary language, and the rule was made that this term could not be used again.

Stanley: You have made lots of firsts for women in Irish politics over the years. What would your advice be for someone at an early career stage interested in leadership?

I believe self-confidence is really important, and sometimes I think the more you progress in your career, the more you need help with that. Women are often quite shy and not good at self-promotion. When we prepare a CV, we kind of minimise the CV, whereas a man’s CV can be much more detailed. Successful men always appear very self-confident. I believe presentation and media training is very important, and there are professionals out there who can provide it.

I also think if you have a woman in a senior role to you, it’s good to go and ask what advice she would give – she has already gone through whatever you’re going through during her own career. There are good male role models also in a lot of places and they can be very helpful as well.

As parents, we have an obligation to ensure that our sons and daughters are raised in an atmosphere that always encourages equality. Most of my mother’s generation did things differently.

Fairfield: Do you think there are particular challenges facing women in STEM?

I suppose women in STEM have a particular issue because they didn’t have enough role models, even though there are lots of role models out there. Certainly, in my experience when we were trying to get more women into science during my time in the Commission, we had lots of women scientists who were prepared to help us. We were a group of eight female commissioners who used to meet up regularly outside work and discuss all kinds of issues. It was good because we talked about things other than our policy areas; often about what you do to push women forward, how you get women into positions of influence etc. We had all experienced more or less the same kind of issues in our own countries.

Stanley: You’ve recently been appointed to the board of Science Foundation Ireland –

– And I’m thrilled! Ireland has set ambitious research targets at an EU level and really has punched way above its weight, particularly in research and science. So now, being on the board of SFI and looking at the national competing challenges, it is obvious that the Government needs to invest more in science.

As a politician, I know when you invest money in projects, you want to see the results, products or jobs, before the next election comes. You cannot do that with investments in science – it takes much longer to get results. So I understand it’s a real challenge for governments in every European member state to justify spending the money. Probably a different government will get the credit for what you did 10 years, 15 years previously, so that’s always a challenge. For SFI, if we have more money, we can invest more, support more researchers and draw down more support from the EU as well.

Fairfield: Thanks for speaking with us about your perspectives on science and on gender in the workplace. We’re looking forward to Soapbox Science this weekend where we’ll be showcasing the work of female scientists from the west of Ireland.

Soapbox Science Galway takes place on 7 July 2018 at the Spanish Arch. The free event will see 12 women scientists showcase their work in technology, science, medicine and engineering for the public.