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  •  ‘Increasing women in STEM careers begins with education, with both public and private sectors needing to take responsibility'

    Written by Dr Kristel Miller, Senior Lecturer, Ulster University

    Prof Kristel Miller is a lecturer specialising in Strategy and Innovation at Ulster University. She details to Sync NI the steps she feels are necessary to improve the uptake of females into science and technology roles within society.

    have always been interested in technology from a young age. My earliest memory relating to technologies is when we first got a Sega Mega Drive around 1991 and the whole family, including my mum, used to fight over time slots to play it! 

    Coming from a working class family, I was not afforded the latest technologies, which only further fuelled my educational choices to explore further into technology and innovation.

    Despite having largely male lecturers during my computing and technology modules within my degrees, it was only during my PhD years (2008-2011), when I was exploring university technology commercialisation, that I really realised the gender imbalance of women entrepreneurs within STEM fields. Out of the 32 academic entrepreneurs I interviewed, only 1 was a female. Whilst this was not a representative sample, it demonstrated that there was a significant disparity and visibility of females within these fields. 

    Within universities, the gender balance of female entrepreneurs in STEM-related fields is improving, where for example, 40% of inventions in the past three years from Ulster University had a team involving a female or sole female inventor. Some of these improvements are driven by changes in the academic ecosystem and funding landscape which now more explicitly encourages and supports diversity and has had female targeted interventions. 

    However, these numbers are not reflective of the wider technology related sectors overall. Recent surveys suggest that just 19% of tech workers are women. Depending on what subsector of the technology sector, between 5 and 22% of leadership roles are held by females. Alarmingly, the percentage of females in technology sectors has not changed that much in the past 20 years, despite the growth of technology related sectors and increased awareness of the gender disparity.

    There is a strong business case for more diversity within technology related sectors, where studies have illustrated that increasing the diversity of leadership teams will lead to increased performance and revenue. Furthermore, males and females think differently and bring a varied range of cognitive capabilities and social and emotional skills. As seen over the past 18 months of Covid-19, these types of skills are imperative for organisational resilience and the future of work.

    However, the stark reality is that women within STEM related sectors still face more significant challenges than their male counterparts. Recent research that I conducted with colleagues from Ulster University Dublin City University and Northumbria University on female STEM entrepreneurs highlight the visible and invisible challenges. Visible challenges can range from meetings and networking events taking place at times which are not suitable to those with childcare responsibilities. 

    There are many stories of female STEM entrepreneurs being visibly treated differently, where they can often be overlooked as being the director if they are with a male colleague, and report that they are often faced with different questions and having to prove themselves more in investment and business situations than males. The invisible differences relate to elements which may not be seen by which are felt by female STEM entrepreneurs. 

    These can include their perceptions of self which can be the result of being a ‘visible minority’ within technology related fields. This then can result in self-doubt, fear of gender-based stereotypes and feeling the need to change various elements of their self, such as attitudes and dress to ‘fit in’ to the more traditional masculine cultures and behaviours prevailing within STEM related sectors and organisations. Many STEM females report that they often feel the need to portray a different identity in order to be deemed a legitimate female STEM entrepreneur. 

    With the growing cumulative disparity of gender within STEM sectors, there is a need for conjoined and transformative interventions across all regional stakeholders in order to overcome ongoing challenges and challenge the status quo. Therefore, short and medium to longer term strategies are needed. 

    In the short term, there needs to be more awareness of the continued visible and invisible gender-based challenges within STEM and the value a more gender diverse workforce can bring should be promoted. Furthermore, greater knowledge and communication is needed of the vast opportunities available within a diversity of roles within technology related sectors in order to encourage more females to pursue these sectors as a career path. This should be coupled with strong interventions to increase the visibility of female role models within STEM. This can help normalise more diversity in relation to how a typical STEM or technology sector worker/entrepreneur looks and behaves.

    In the medium to longer term, I believe education is really the key at multiple levels. This should start at as early as possible, where it is widely acknowledged that parents, teachers and wider social networks all play an important role in females occupational choices. Upon reflection, I think my mum’s interest and natural skill for beating all of us kids at video games could have normalised my interest in technology! Therefore parents and teachers should be made more aware of the opportunities within technology related sectors for females.  

    The future of work is deeply embedded within technology, therefore technological skills should be deeply embedded within all levels of the formal curriculum. This is slowly happening, where Covid-19 has helped to rapidly progress this however, many secondary skills still face challenges with access to technology and skills of teachings which then limits the availability of subject choices related to IT. 

    Therefore, more public sector investment is needed in teacher training and technological resources for schools. However, the private sector should also play a key role with outreach activities to inspire females to pursue certain career paths from an early age. Furthermore, upskilling and bridging short courses can be very valuable educational interventions to help promote technology related sectors as a future career path for the current female workforce.

    This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download your FREE copy and sign up to receive future digital editions here.

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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