WITS: Celebrating 30 years of representing women in STEM

6 Nov 2020

WITS at the Women in Science reception Áras an Uachtaráin in 2016. Image: WITS

Reflecting on the last 30 years, outgoing WITS chair Julie Hogan talks about the organisation’s highlights and looks ahead to the work that still needs to be done for women in STEM.

Women in Technology and Science (WITS) Ireland celebrated its 30th anniversary this week, having been founded in 1990 by the late Mary Mulvihill.

WITS is a national independent voluntary organisation representing women studying and working in STEM in Ireland and providing a network for women in the sector.

Throughout its 30 years, WITS has worked on a number of initiatives. In 2004, the organisation launched the WITS Talent Bank project, a directory providing background information on more than 150 women working in Irish science and technology.

In 2008, WITS and the Open University, in collaboration with InterTrade Ireland, launched Re-Enter – a one-year, all-island pilot project to help trained, skilled women to re-join the workforce after a career break.

Julie Hogan has been chair of WITS for the last three years and has been involved in the organisation for approximately eight years. She said it’s very difficult to pick a highlight from her time there.

“I could go with the SALI professorships, which showed a real commitment from government to undo some of the gender discrimination in third level, or Dr Sandra Collins talking about ‘Collecting and Keeping the National Memory’, explaining how tweets were more ephemeral than vellum, or I could go with representing WITS at Áras an Uachtaráin and meeting President Higgins and his dogs,” she said. “Too many great memories to pick from.”

Looking ahead, Hogan said the organisation is planning to focus on “the first step up the ladder for women” as she hands over to incoming chair Andrea Johnson.

“You know that feeling early in your career when you realised that ability and hard work was still not going to be enough to get you a fair shake at promotion? It’s still a big problem, and we’d like to measure it and start fixing it,” said Hogan.

“We’re planning to research the impact on women in STEM in Ireland and develop some best practice to help change things.”

She added that there is a lot of anecdotal information from Ireland along with data from other countries that suggests women can struggle to get the first promotion or big project at the beginning of their careers.

“If that happens to be when they’re thinking of starting a family, it can be enough to make them consider dropping out of the workforce or to leave the STEM field. In fast-moving technologies, if you’re out of the loop for a few years, it can be very hard to break back in, and Ireland is losing a lot of talent.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic