Plugging the pipeline to advance women in STEM

5 Feb 2016

SFI programme manager Dr Fiona Blighe believes that funding agencies can play a part in enabling gender diversity in STEM.

In most academic institutions, men make up the majority of the senior staff and decision-makers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Can funding agencies enable women in STEM to be better represented at those tables?

Agencies have a role to play, according to Dr Fiona Blighe, a scientific programme manager with the funding agency Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Leaky pipeline

Blighe recently penned an article for Euroscientist where she pointed out that while women make up almost half of new STEM PhD graduates in Ireland, just 21pc of the 451 active SFI award-holders are women.

It’s a male-to-female ratio that is not unique to Ireland, Blighe tells “We are not sticking out here, it is really similar across the board, unfortunately,” she says.

Can SFI help to fix the ‘leaky pipeline’? The agency has made a strategic decision to review its operations and take steps to encourage gender diversity, such as an allowance to support research projects during maternity or adoptive leave, and the Advance Award Programme to encourage women to remain in or return to research.

Getting started

Blighe also points to the Starting Investigator Grant, which supports early-stage researchers who are moving towards setting up their own labs.

“We increased the cap to 12 for each research institution and we said that only six of these applicants could be male,” she explains. “So it is up to the institutions to put forward six great female applicants.”

Blighe credits SFI director-general Prof Mark Ferguson’s commitment to tackling gender diversity. “You have to have the person at the top believing in this,” she says.

But she also notes that a funding agency’s policies won’t solve everything, and that research institutions and other funders have their parts to play too. “We are looking at everything we do to make sure we are not adding to the problem,” she says. “If everybody plays their role, I think we can address this and make a difference.”

Catching the science bug

Blighe’s own interest in science was ignited by studying chemistry and physics for the Leaving Certificate – to the extent that her mother had to ensure she also studied her other subjects, she recalls. “For me, the scientific subjects were the ones where you could get a real kick out of them – going from total confusion to suddenly understanding something was a brilliant feeling.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Blighe went on to study science at college, earning an undergraduate degree in advanced materials from Trinity College Dublin.

Reading an article about the possibility of building an elevator to space using carbon nanotubes fuelled her interest in ultra-thin materials, and Blighe did a PhD and spent several years as a post-doctoral researcher at Trinity working in nanoscience, before moving to Dublin City University, where she applied her knowledge of nanomaterials to help develop gas sensors.

Evaluating research

During her post-doctoral years, Blighe recalls being drawn by questions about the broader scientific process, how science happens and how decisions are made, and she worked on gender in STEM with the Centre for Women in Science and Engineering Research before moving to SFI.

“In SFI I am involved with what happens after people are awarded funding, in the evaluation of people’s research and making sure the Irish taxpayer is getting value for money, and that the research is going as it should,” she explains. “It’s a great job because you are constantly getting to see what is at the forefront of Irish science, you are out there meeting the researchers and their teams.”

She also looks to engage international reviewers to assess whether the research SFI funds is up to world standards, and the organisation has set a target of securing a minimum of 30 per cent of female reviewers on any panel.

Study what interests you

Blighe encourages young people to study subjects that interest and energise them, rather than trying to second-guess what the hot career will be in several years time. “Study something that you really are interested in,” she says. “People who have a genuine interest and passion in jobs succeed and, even if you experience failures, you will be doing something that you love, so I see it as a win-win.”

And for her, science is the energiser: “A scientific training is an excellent start for every aspect of your life,” she says. “It changes how you think and it is really empowering.”

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication