The UCD Women+ in STEM Student Network had their first major event last week, on Tuesday, March 26th, centred around building a career as a woman in STEM. The network, which was set up by Environmental Biology student Sadhbh McCarrick and Electronic Engineering student Orla Keaveney, has been active since the start of this semester. The event welcomed six female industry leaders to take part in a panel discussion, highlighting how they built their careers, and advising women who are starting out their careers in STEM.
It began with a presentation from Dr Rebecca O’Neill, of Wikimedia Community Ireland, where she spoke about the contributions Irish women have made to STEM in the last 200 years. Prevalent examples were Dr Kathleen Lynn, who was one of the first female medical graduates of UCD and founded St. Ultan’s Children’s Hospital, which was entirely managed by women, and Ellen Hutchins who was Ireland’s First Female Botanist. The presentation highlighted the physical barriers which historically prevented female contribution to academia, and not just the sciences, in Irish history. It was reassuring to hear of Irish women throughout history who persevered without recognition and who had to give up their research upon becoming mothers, recognised for their contribution.
Although these days the barriers to women advancing their careers are not as clear as the marriage bar, unequal pay and sexism in the workplace are prevalent realities for many women in the field. Often, female students cite isolation and a lack of role models contributing to imposter syndrome, when working in STEM. Elizabeth Conway, engineering manager of Analog Devices gave a short presentation dealing with the importance of support from higher levels of management, as key in setting up female leadership groups, within companies. Mary Browne, Senior Business Analyst at Citi, spoke about how we can see positive changes taking place within the industry, and was adamant that men want to address the gender balance as much as women do.
The panel discussion, headed by Orla Keaveney, saw the speakers giving more detailed advice regarding how they built their careers. The importance of putting oneself forward, and taking all opportunities which come your way was a prevalent narrative.
Dr Sharron Shannon, of UCD, inspired the audience with her reasons for deciding to stay in academia, after her degree in science. She was consistently motivated by the energy and passion associated with research and loved being around people who care deeply about what they are studying. Mary Lennon, compliance manager of Jacobs reinforced the concept that having female role models encouraged her when she began her career. Pretending that gender imbalance does not exist is naive, said Dr Shannon, and this is why women need the extra networks and support in male-dominated industries. Sara ElShahawy, Senior Technical Program Manager at Pivotal, is involved in the inclusive safe spaces at Pivotal. She spoke about when starting out she accepted all opportunities, without thinking about the pay, as she loved what she was doing, which helped her ignore biases against her. Hopefully, in the future, these hits will not be required for women to break into the sector, in order for them to find their voice.
A huge issue currently in the discussion around women and the sciences is retention. With many STEM courses in universities seeing more and more women graduate, less of them stay in the STEM industry, with many going into business or other fields. This is resulting in leadership roles continuing to be dominated by men. Browne hopes to find out why exactly this is happening, as it is not, as she put it, as simple as women wanting to start families, which is holding them back. Dr Shannon spoke on how it is of vital importance, for those in positions of social power, with greater capital, to help those who are less represented, and to fight to make the sector more inclusive.
On a final note to the event, advice for women who are beginning their careers in STEM was discussed, be they in college or new graduates. Those starting out were encouraged to speak up for what they believe in and to not forget why they decided to study STEM in the first place. To not give up on dreams, even when dealing with difficult situations, which others may not have to experience. To learn how to negotiate pay, to know your market value and to speak up if you feel like you are not being paid equally. These can often be difficult conversations to have but are necessary to help reduce the divide.
In terms of changing the culture around Womens’ Network groups, and women in STEM societies, change needs to occur from beneath. To make sure that all genders feel included in the attempt to reduce barriers such as the glass ceiling. These changes will not occur overnight, but the more people who are interested in the advancement of Women+ in STEM, the more likely that effective change will occur. The goal of the UCD Women+ in STEM student network is to foster and nurture a love for STEM subjects amongst women, by developing a community of inclusiveness, based on a goal of gender equality in the Sciences. From inspiring a younger generation of girls to discover a passion of STEM to providing a support network for women+ STEM students in UCD, to allow them to explore their future careers. The network would like to thank all six speakers from the evening and hope that those in the audience were inspired to keep fighting for gender equality in STEM.
By Ruth Moore – Science Writer