First-world problem: Women are technology’s gatekeepers in emerging economies

24 Oct 2014

(Left to right) Ann O'Dea, CEO of Silicon Republic; DCU president Brian MacCraith; Linda Doyle, director, CTVR; Alan Smeaton, member of the Irish Research Council; and Nora Khaldi, founder and CSO of Nuritas. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

A review of how Irish schools embrace STEM is under way and a key will be ensuring greater gender balance in selecting subjects that will lead to rewarding careers, the Innovation Ireland Forum in Dublin heard today.

More than 117,800 people work science, technology, engineering and research in Ireland but only 25pc of those are women.

Research earlier this year by Accenture found 44pc of secondary school students belive the reason they didn’t pursue STEM subjects was because of “the perception that STEM subjects are more suited to males than females”.

The research also found one in four teachers believe promotion of traditional “girl career paths”, such as nursing and teaching, are contributing to the stereotype.

A lack of female role models in the sector has been identified as a key problem.

At the Innovation Ireland Forum, delegates heard that in the developing world, women are seen as leaders in technology and are very much the gatekeepers of technology.

The president of Dublin City University (DCU), Prof Brian MacCraith, said he is chairing a review of STEM for the Irish Government, which will be reporting in late November.

“The ICT industry is an area of economic growth but the difficulty is only 55pc of the jobs can be provided by Irish graduates,” he told the forum.

MacCraith said a major focus of the report for Government will focus on the nature of teaching, the promotion of STEM, and of course correcting the gender imbalance when it comes to selecting STEM subjects at second level.

Prof Linda Doyle, director of CTVR, pointed to the major disconnect occurring in Western, first-world economies, compared with the reality in emerging economies.

“Look at emerging economies. Women play a dominant role in technology, they are the gatekeepers.

“Women have a natural affinity for technology, it is not just what men gravitate towards.

“Something is wrong here, why are we not able to harness that? There is something wrong in undergraduate education and a context that needs to be redesigned.”

Mainstreaming a passion for STEM

Nora Khaldi, CSO and founder of Nuritas, a Dublin-based company that is ‘creating the future of food’ told the audience how it was her love of pure mathematics that led her to build a company that could change the world.

She said children are being forced to choose far too early in their education what subjects to pursue.

“It’s OK not to like science. The big decision is deciding when you are 12 that science is not exciting. We need to harness children’s innate curiosity and showcasing that science can be exciting.”

MacCraith said you only have to look at the energy and buzz at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin every year to see how excited young people are about science.

This year, 54pc of entrants to the competition are girls.

MacCraith added that we only have to look also at the growth of the CoderDojo movement, which was born in Cork three years ago and has grown to 25,000 kids worldwide learning how to code every week. He said more than 200 teams took part in the most recent CoderDojo Coolest Projects competition.

“We need to support young people when they are excited about problem solving. We need to mainstream STEM. We need to create a love of problem solving, apply multi-disciplinary solutions and embed this in the education system.

“Every young person can be an innovator. We need to allow them to have an opportunity to pursue STEM if they wish and get into coding.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years