Views and announcements

Making the world of tech more inclusive at Queen’s University Belfast

  • Written By Professor Karen Rafferty, Head of the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EEECS) at Queen’s University Belfast.

    Professor Karen Rafferty, Head of the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EEECS) at Queen’s University Belfast and – the first female to be appointed in the role talks to Sync NI about how she’s championing diversity, equality, and inclusion across QUB. 

    Karen, can you start by telling us a little about yourself?  

    First and foremost, I am a proud mother of 3 young children who keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. After that I am a daughter, a wife, a friend, a colleague and, of course, an academic.  

    I was brought up in a traditional household, where the importance of a good education was instilled in me from an early age. I attended grammar school in Dungannon and had a largely uneventful educational experience; never imagining that I would go on to be Head of School of one of the biggest Schools in Queen’s University Belfast. 

    I studied an MEng in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Queen’sbefore continuing my studies with a PhD in Computer Vision.  After a period as Deputy Head of School, I became the Head of School of EEECS in 2018; a position I am extremely proud to hold.  

    As Head of SchoolI am responsible for its strategic direction and for planning our education and research portfolio. We have 200 staff members who teach, mentor, lead and conduct outstanding inter- and multi-disciplinary research to drive our future mission, which is to enhance the use of technology in communication, health services, data security and other related areas.      

    In my career to date, I am proud to have published over 90 research papers and 2 subject textbooks.  Alongside this I am an active researcherfocusing on the synergistic use of software and hardware to lead the way for the adoption of new tools and systems in different applications.   

    Currently, I am leading the creation of tri-partite agreement with PwC and Ulster University to develop an Advanced Research Centre within Northern Ireland.  The research focus will be based on automation, digital empowermentvisualisation, and virtualisation.  The centre will provide considerable opportunity for Queen’s University, and we are excited to work alongside PwC and Ulster University.     

    How does your passion for equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in tech stem shape your role at Queen’s 

    On accepting my Head of School appointment, I made it clear that I am passionate about growing the community culture within Queen’s and ensuring EDI is embedded throughout. I have led EEECS through our latest IIP and SWAN renewals which involved developing ambitious people action plans.   

    I am in the process of developing a Leadership Charter that is built upon a platform of a defined vision and preferred behaviours. The framework will set out the behavioural expectations of what good leadership looks like and develop commitment to a new approach which demonstrates how our leadership team will work together.  

    Several different programmes in place within the Queen’s, focus on enhancing the confidence and resilience of our female student and staff cohorts.  Research suggests that self-confidence, or a lack of it, is one of the most significant factors preventing females holding leadership positions within the sector.  To address this, a leadership development programme was createdThe main aim was to upskill female scientists and engineers with the skills to successfully navigate their future leadership journey.  The initiative benefits the wider STEM community as participants have the confidence to take up leadership roles within organisations and become role models for other femalesThe programme has inspired our females to provide leadership and innovation on diversity issues when they have undertaken work placements and within our own School as part of our Athena SWAN work.   

    At Queen’s we understand that post primary education shapes young minds and in 2014 QUB delivered a teacher upskilling programme which was funded by Department of Education and Invest NI.  This resulted in a growth of 236% in the number of pupils taking an A-level in Computing in Northern Ireland between 2015 and 2019 of which 24% of students are currently female. 

    Queen’s is a hugely diverse organisation and within our School alone we have staff from more than 30 nationalities. A key focus is to promote and embed EDI into our culture, and we have introduced inclusion workshops, including unconscious bias training, into our mandatory induction programme for all students and staff. I have also recently completed a successful grant as a co-investigator called Inclusion Really Does Matter: Improving Reactions to Gender Equality Initiatives Amongst Academics in Engineering and Physical Sciences”.  This was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and allowed us to develop a range of resources which can help to improve reactions to gender initiatives.   

    Could you tell us about what’s next for the school of EEECS and how you hope to continue this success?  

    It is an immensely exciting time for Queen’s and EEECS.   The technology sector in NI is thriving and has developed a global reputation for both fin-tech and cyber-security amongst other areas of inward investment. This growth has been underpinned through a strong graduate talent pool. However, the increased demand for professionals has not been met with a corresponding growth in the number of graduates with high-level digital skills, which has experienced a decline 

    A 2019 NI CBI survey found 86% of software firms experienced significant difficulty in recruiting suitably skilled graduates with 95% expecting to increase their hiring in this area in the foreseeable future. As reported through the Department for Economy’s Skills Barometer 2019, Computer Science is forecasted to have an undersupply against expected demand, this may become a constraint to economic growth within NIThe computing degree programmes and associated outreach and employability activities within Queen’s have supported the growth of the NI technology sector to date and provide a basis for future growth.    

    The past 2 years have been challenging for higher education, and during this time I have witnessed the transition from face-to-face teaching to a new online world of blended learning and a rapid growth in our student numbers at both undergraduate and post graduate level. EEECS launched two new postgraduate certificates in Cyber Security and Software Development which were developed for individuals who lost employment or where furloughed during COVID-19. Furthermore, we had notable research successes in edge computing, computing systems and new generation wireless communications, and the long awaited and welcome appointment of several new academic, research and professional services colleaguesDespite the challenges, we continue to provide an excellent learning experience for our studentsNone of this would have been possible without the support and contribution of each one of my colleagues. 

    My focus for the remainder of my time as Head of EEECS at Queen’s will be to develop our community by encouraging, collegiality, diversity, and freedom of thought, and perhaps most importantly through the creation of a culture of respect where everyone’s views are valued and respected.   

    What piece of advice would you offer to females who are hoping to enter the world of tech?  

    Always remember, that regardless of your gender, through hard work, diligence and focus, there are a multitude of opportunities for everyone in the world of technology. Always be true to yourself, never compromise your values and principles, and join me in to one of the most rewarding and challenging sectors of the economy! 

    To find out more about what’s on offer at The School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast, then visit the website:  

    This article first appeared in the Winter 2021/22 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.

    Got a news-related tip you’d like to see covered on Sync NI? Email the editorial team for our consideration.

    Sign up now for a FREE weekly newsletter showcasing the latest news, jobs and events in NI’s tech sector.

Share this story