What can our next Government do for women in STEM?

29 Jan 2020

Dr Andrea C Johnson. Image: Fennell Photography

Dr Andrea C Johnson outlines the policy that WITS Ireland is calling for from 2020’s general election winners.

I am privileged to work in an award-winning culture at Workhuman, and with that privilege I’ve been able to see really see all the humans on my teams through a lens of potential and capability. It’s by using this lens that I have a 50-50 gender split on our application engineering team, with every woman now in a different role and career path from that when we first met.

As I look out over a sunny Park West skyline, I know my little corner of the world here at Workhuman is very different to the stark reality women in STEM face.

Last year I was asked to join the executive board of WITS Ireland, an organisation for women in technology and science, founded in 1990. WITS is a national independent voluntary organisation representing women studying and working in STEM in Ireland. The founding members thought that the organisation had, at best, a 10-year life span as it would no longer be required once equity was achieved.

This year marks its 30th anniversary.

Towards an equitable future of STEM

In 2017, McKinsey published a report which has been used widely since as a stark jumping-off point to address the impact of automation. In 10 years, between 400m and 800m jobs will be displaced by automation, and up to 375m of us will switch job categories entirely. The World Economic Forum expects that 65pc of the jobs we hire Gen X to do, do not exist yet.

Using this research as a backdrop, with high-speed change and innovation permeating throughout many industries, one has to ask: how are we building an equitable pipeline to fuel the fourth industrial revolution?

‘How are we building an equitable pipeline to fuel the fourth industrial revolution?’

As a nation, we go to the polls on Saturday, 8 February. While there are many issues to be addressed in this election, WITS has published policy calls in which it advocates for change and equity for all who work in STEM from general election candidates. It asks representatives to examine the gender pay gap, the leaky pipeline, and second and third-level education initiatives.

All of these need to be addressed, in a joined-up approach, in order to start to move the needle towards equity and opportunity for all.

Gender pay gap

In Ireland, women earn, on average, 13.9pc less than men. The Government’s National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 includes actions to reduce the gender pay gap but no targets to help focus efforts. What action can be taken to ensure that we see real reductions in the gender pay gap?

Ireland has the lowest percentage of women graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction in the EU. STEM jobs tend to be better paid than other sectors more dominated by women, so closing the gender gap in STEM could significantly drive down this pay gap.

Leaky pipeline

Many initiatives I have been involved with over the years, such as Teen-Turn, focus on introducing young women to STEM. However, as I moved into a leadership role, I found I was seeing us lose women in their mid and early career. In fact, research conducted in 2012 in Scotland found a remarkably high attrition rate for women in STEM, with 73pc of women graduates leaving STEM roles compared to 48pc of men.

The Department of Education and Skills and Solas are working on attracting women into STEM careers but it is just as important to keep them there. WITS would like to see an action group set up and funded by the Department of Justice and Equality to target the leaky pipeline in STEM.

Equality in education

The tipping point for women choosing whether to stay in STEM research often occurs at postdoc level, where the proportion of women in academic positions starts to roll off. This, in turn, reduces the number of women role models.

WITS welcomes the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative funding of women-only professorships to address the fact that less than one-quarter of professors in Ireland are women. It also welcomes the support of initiatives to end sexual harassment and violence in third-level education.

As a further step, WITS calls on the Department of Education and Skills to ensure publicly funded third-level institutions include maternity, paternity, adoption and other family leave as eligible leave for postdoctoral contracts, and to ensure that doctoral students also have access to leave during their research.

‘As we look to elect a new government, there is no better time to advocate for change’

According to Eurostat, Ireland’s public spending on education at 3.8pc of GDP was the third-lowest of 26 EU countries in 2015. At €11.1bn, the 2020 budget of the Department of Education and Skills is the largest in its history, but enrolments at all levels of education have increased far beyond expenditure from 2008 to 2018.

WITS call for a reversal of this trend, with funding urgently required to improve access to and uptake of gender-segregated subjects for girls at second level, highlight STEM role models for girls, and recruit more physics and other pSTEM (physical science, technology engineering, and maths) teachers.

Start the conversation

The data is stark, and it can sometimes get me down. There is much to do and you can feel utterly powerless and insignificant.

A great first step is to start a conversation, whether that’s on your doorstep with a local candidate, with a teacher in your children’s school, or within your organisation.

As we look to elect a new government, there is no better time to advocate for change. As my friend Dr Anita Sands says: “Big breaths, small steps: that’s how we make a difference.”

Let’s keep the conversation going, each and every one of us, and see where it takes us.

By Dr Andrea C Johnson

Dr Andrea C Johnson is a senior director at Workhuman and executive board member of WITS Ireland. She is committed to advancing women in STEM through initiatives such as Teen-Turn and Reboot.