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Column: Can girls STEM the tide of emigration?

Misconceptions about science, technology, engineering and mathematics are dissuading girls from taking them as subjects – doing a disservice to them and wider society, writes Dr Kirsten Foy.

Dr Kirsten Foy

DESPITE HIGH LEVELS of unemployment, there is huge demand in Ireland for engineers, particularly in the biomedical and IT sectors. Foreign engineers are immigrating to Ireland, while many young Irish people are emigrating.

The problem begins at school. Many second-level students, particularly girls, do not even consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects and are unaware of the security of employment that STEM courses can provide.

A recent Accenture report showed that misconceptions about STEM courses are particularly widespread among girls: 44 per cent of Irish girls believe STEM courses are more suited to boys, and 10 per cent worry that they would be the only girl in the class. The study also showed that parents are a significant influence on students’ subject choices at second and third level but that parents also have misconceptions, with 34 per cent believing STEM subjects are ‘more difficult’ than other subjects. To employ more Irish engineers in our technical sector we need to overcome these misconceptions among parents and students, girls in particular.

The ‘soft subject’ myth

Parents worry that students might achieve lower points in science and mathematics than in other subjects, but is this true? It is easier to obtain full marks in a subject with a definite right or wrong answer than in a more subjective subject. Typically, STEM subjects require learning a relatively small number of rules to be applied in the examination, whereas other subjects often require memorising huge amounts of information.

It’s hard to argue STEM subjects are more difficult when 9–15 per cent of students obtain A1s in physics and applied mathematics, but only 3–6 per cent achieve this grade in business and history. At third level there is an extensive range of engineering and other STEM courses available, catering for a wide range of abilities. Contrary to popular belief, not all engineering courses require higher-level mathematics or high points. The vast majority of Leaving Certificate students are eligible for entry to at least one of the third-level engineering courses available.

Gender stereotypes

The perception that STEM is ‘more suited to boys’ has been found to be partly due to a lack of female role models in these careers. There are already a number of initiatives under way to address this. This perception may also be related to two rather old-fashioned beliefs: that girls are more suited to careers that require ‘soft skills’ such as personal interaction, and that STEM courses and careers depend solely on logic and mathematics. These beliefs must be challenged and corrected. We now know that individuals’ skills vary widely; many girls are suited to careers that were previously male-dominated and vice versa.

Also, as computers have become capable of performing increasingly difficult tasks, the role of an engineer is focused far less on the ability to perform calculations or accurately draw machinery. Nowadays engineers require skills such as the ability to negotiate, to manage people, and to see the bigger picture.

It’s also wrong to assume that engineers have to get their hands dirty – many engineers work in offices or laboratories. For example, a biomedical engineer might design medical devices for patients with heart problems, a software engineer could find themselves developing a videogame, or a mechanical engineer could work on anything from industrial robots to renewable energy.

Many are begin held back by misconceptions

In Ireland only 10 per cent of engineering graduates in Ireland are women, compared with up to 34 per cent in some other countries, so there must be many Irish girls suited to engineering who are being held back by these misconceptions. Second-level students and their parents should be aware that engineering and other STEM courses could offer a great career with the possibility of staying in Ireland while earning a good wage. Remember: it’s not too late for a CAO ‘change of mind’ form!

For more information on STEM careers, visit SmartFutures.ie or steps.ie

Dr Kirsten Foy is a Chartered Mechanical Engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff and a member of Engineers Ireland.

Parsons Brinckerhoff is a leader in developing and operating infrastructure, offering strategic consulting, planning, engineering, and programme/construction management. It is part of Balfour Beatty plc, the international infrastructure group operating in professional services, construction services, support services and infrastructure investments.

Engineers Ireland is one of the largest representative bodies on the island of Ireland, with almost 23,000 engineers, incorporating all disciplines of the engineering profession in Ireland across industry, public service, semi-state organisations and academia.

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