Women Invent and the power of media representation

1 Dec 2021

Image: © Angelina Bambina/Stock.adobe.com

Having launched in 2013, Silicon Republic’s Women Invent campaign has become a powerful tool to ensure women in STEM get the spotlight they deserve.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021.

Every year, 8 March marks International Women’s Day, which has become an opportunity to celebrate women across the world and also tackle important discussions around gender equality, pay gaps and discrimination.

For the sci-tech world in particular, we have long been speaking about the gender gaps in AI, cybersecurity and engineering as well as STEM leadership as a whole.

However, as our editor Elaine Burke pointed out earlier this year, women in STEM deserve more than just an annual show of attention. Furthermore, women in STEM deserve attention for the work that they do rather than just for the sake of talking about gender issues.

This formed part of the vision that Silicon Republic CEO Ann O’Dea had when she launched Women Invent Tomorrow on International Women’s Day in 2013.

First announced as a year-long campaign in partnership with Accenture Ireland, Intel and the Irish Research Council, its aim was to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

“We know there are remarkable female role models out there that tend to pass below the media radar. We want to bring them into the spotlight over the coming months,” O’Dea said at the time.

That year-long campaign was relaunched for a second year in 2014, accompanied by the first of many mega lists of 100 top women in STEM.

In the years that followed, Silicon Republic continued to champion amazing women in STEM through its Women Invent series, from inspirational leaders to incredible scientists, innovators and technologists.

While we profiled these women, other changes were occurring in the world of STEM and beyond.

The Waking the Feminists movement was inadvertently created by the Abbey Theatre’s centenary programme for 2016, which featured an almost entirely male-dominated run of plays.

Hidden Figures, a film about a number of pioneering women during NASA’s earliest years, hit cinemas and highlighted the pivotal role many women of colour played in the NASA space programme. Meanwhile, a Women of NASA Lego campaign was underway and resulted in four new figures of notable NASA women designed by Maia Weinstock.

Closer to home, Irish start-up Arklu was empowering young girls to be themselves with Lottie Dolls, which were inspired by real children, flying in the face of the plastic fashionista dolls representing unrealistic body standards. In fact, a special edition Stargazer Lottie became the first ever doll to go aboard the International Space Station.

The Women Invent campaign became embedded in our culture to the point where it is no longer sign-posted as interesting or revolutionary that this aerospace engineer or this glaciologist happens to be a woman – but that the work they do is worth shouting about.

With more than eight years and hundreds of interviews under our belt, we couldn’t possibly go through every single one.

However, to celebrate 20 years of STEM with Silicon Republic, it would be remiss of us not to highlight a very brief sample of just some of the amazing women we have profiled over the years across a range of disciplines from both Ireland and abroad.

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin

Many of us in Ireland will instantly recognise Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin from our TV screens, having been crowned the Rose of Tralee in 2005 and graduating from University College Dublin with a first-class honours degree in theoretical physics the same year.

A passionate and inspiring STEM advocate, particularly for maths, the area in which she now lectures, Ní Shúilleabháin has been involved in a number of STEM role model projects and is a member of the Gender in STEM group at the Department of Education and Skills.

Silicon Republic spoke to her in 2016 as part of our Women Invent series about the many strings she had to her bow, and again in 2017 after she won the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication award.

Deborah Blum

In 2016, Silicon Republic interviewed American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Deborah Blum about some of the challenges facing science journalism.

At the time, Blum was coming to speak at the Sci:Com conference in Dublin about ‘science denialism’ and the importance of strong scientific communication – something that has become more important than ever in the last two years.

Blum is director of the Knight Science Journalism programme at MIT and won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting for a series of articles on the complex ethical and moral questions surrounding primate research.

Prof Lydia Lynch

Irish immunologist Lydia Lynch has been deep in research for nearly two decades. First interviewed for Silicon Republic in 2015, Lynch spoke about her research around how particular lipids could manipulate the immune system.

At the time, she had just received €1.8m in funding from the European Research Council for a five-year project on the subject.

Fast forward to 2021, and we spoke to Lynch again about her latest work at the Lynch Lab. Founded by Lynch and based in both Trinity College Dublin and Harvard University, the lab focuses on immunometabolism – studying how the immune system and the metabolic system interact.

Gillian Tans

Women Invent has also profiled women in the sci-tech corporate world, such as Gillian Tans, chair of online travel company Booking.com.

Tans previously served as chief operating officer for Booking.com before being appointed as CEO in 2016. She stayed at the helm of the company for more than three years, before stepping down and taking on the role of chair.

Having joined the tech industry just after the dot-com bust, Tans has been a leading woman in tech for roughly two decades.

Emer Coleman

One of the many women listed in Silicon Republic’s top 100 women in STEM in 2014, Emer Coleman was put at the helm of the Open Data Governance Board, which was established in 2015 to provide strategic leadership and governance in Ireland in line with best international practice in the area of open data.

After graduating from University College Cork, Coleman left Ireland in 2005 and went on to work on open data and policy in the UK and other countries. She was the architect of the London Datastore, which involved releasing all of London’s public sector data.

Since then, Coleman has worked as an independent digital consultant and is currently the project director of Up Accelerator, a technology media accelerator based in Manchester.

Abeba Birhane

In May 2020, Silicon Republic spoke to Ethiopia-born researcher Abeba Birhane about how data harvesting in Africa by major companies has ushered in a new age of imperialism and colonial conquest.

Birhane is a cognitive science PhD researcher at the Complex Software Lab in the school of computer science at University College Dublin.

A few months after her interview with Silicon Republic, she helped to uncover the racist and misogynistic terms in an MIT library of 80m images that was used to train AI.

As part of the team at the Complex Software Lab, Birhane will feature in a new BBC StoryWorks piece on the importance of ethics in AI software development.

Edel Browne

As well as corporate leaders and experienced scientists, Women Invent has also profiled some incredible women from the younger generation such as Edel Browne.

In 2013, her project won her the Best Individual Award at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE). The project centred around technology to help people with Parkinson’s disease overcome ‘gait freeze’ by shining a light in front of the foot.

That idea became Free Feet Medical, a start-up she co-founded when she was a 19-year-old biotechnology student in NUI Galway. Now, Browne works as a senior analyst in Accenture Life Sciences and was named on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2019.

Peggy Johnson

Tech leader Peggy Johnson made our list of top 100 women in tech in 2016 when she was executive vice-president of business development at Microsoft.

Having moved from Qualcomm in 2014, Johnson secured a $7.8m signing bonus when she was hired by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. In her time with the tech giant, she and her team forged strategic acquisitions and partnerships with companies such as Cyanogen, LinkedIn and GitHub.

She spoke to Silicon Republic in 2019 about her time with Microsoft. Last year, Johnson left the tech giant to join augmented reality start-up Magic Leap as CEO.

Helen Dixon

A well-known name in the Irish tech scene, Helen Dixon was appointed as Data Protection Commissioner for Ireland in September 2014 and is responsible for upholding the rights of individuals regarding how their data is used.

She spoke to Silicon Republic in 2015 about her role in policing the data giants based in Ireland which, in the years that followed, has included a wealth of fines, probes and disputes for Big Tech.

Many of these disputes followed the landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in 2018, when we spoke to Dixon again about its implications.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a climate activist and president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad. She spoke to Silicon Republic during an event in 2018 co-hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs and the Embassy of France in Ireland, which sought to generate creative responses to the climate crisis.

The environmental activist spoke about the struggle indigenous people face when it comes to the climate emergency.

Ibrahim previously co-chaired the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, which established priorities on climate, leading to five explicit references to indigenous people in the Paris Agreement.

Anne-Marie Imafidon

An important part of shining a light on women in STEM is to encourage younger generations that ‘if they can see it, they can be it’. One of the women who is making a huge difference in this space is Stemettes CEO Anne-Marie Imafidon.

Stemettes runs hackathons, panel events and exhibitions to encourage girls to learn to code, to become familiar with technology and to see where it might take them in their careers.

Imafidon spoke at Inspirefest in 2015, where she talked about a new Outbox Incubator for young women in STEM, which proceeded to grow and foster young talent. She was awarded an MBE for services to young women and STEM sectors as part of the 2017 New Year’s Honours List.

Fionnghuala O’Reilly

Fionnghuala O’Reilly was 15 years old when she first learned what it meant to be an engineer. Now, she is a NASA datanaut, ambassador for Engineers Ireland and a correspondent on US STEM TV show Mission Unstoppable.

Having previously been crowned Miss Universe Ireland, O’Reilly is a passionate advocate for bringing your whole self to a STEM career, rather than keeping different sides of your personality separate.

Silicon Republic most recently interviewed O’Reilly as part of Women Invent earlier this year, where she spoke about navigating the worlds of engineering and modelling as a woman of colour.

Alessandra Sala

As Ireland’s Women in AI ambassador, Alessandra Sala has been moving the needle for women in tech and AI for years.

Sala became the head of analytics research at Nokia Bell Labs in 2015 and we first spoke to her about this role and her career in 2017. She was then interviewed as part of Women Invent in 2020 about diversity in STEM as a whole and her role with Women in AI.

In October 2020, Sala moved on from Nokia Bell Labs and took up the role of director of AI and data science at Shutterstock.

As well as being an advisory board member at CeADAR, Ireland’s centre for applied AI, 2021 has seen her take up the mantle of global president for Women in AI and governance committee chair at ML-Labs, the SFI centre for research training in machine learning.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic