Improving gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industries has received international focus in recent years. Earlier this year, Secretary-General António Guterres, UN Chief, announced: “Advancing gender equality in science and technology is essential for building a better future.” In Ireland, this issue is proactively being addressed.
Industry leaders are beginning to realise the benefits of diverse teams. McKinsey’s Diversity Wins report in May 2020 outlines that the most diverse companies, in terms of both gender and ethnicity, are now more likely than ever to outperform non-diverse companies on profitability. To sell a product, you have to understand the market, and to understand the market, you have to know all corners of it, which means representing different ethnicities, genders and socio-economic backgrounds in your decision making. With a proportionate number of women in the workplace, STEM innovations, progressions and discoveries are unlimited. Leaders are also identifying that employees want to work for diverse companies so, to attract the best talent, leaders must address their diversity and inclusion policies.
Many report that the gender gap issue starts with education. It’s clear that, for many reasons, STEM subjects resonate with some girls and not others. However, working in technology isn’t just about knowing how to code. In all industries, there are areas of collaborative work, design, quality assurance, project management and so on that require the soft skills that many women possess. The challenge is that girls who tune out of science and maths at an early age don’t appreciate the depth of opportunities where they could thrive within the broader technology environment that they are potentially overlooking. Compounding this is that, for many generations, there haven’t been female leaders across multiple disciplines to show girls and other women the extent of the potential pathways available to them to follow.
Ireland is taking on the challenge. With one of the highest numbers of software developers per one million inhabitants in Europe, Ireland has one of the highest levels of female representation. According to the European State of Tech Report 2020, 32 percent of software developers in Ireland are women compared to an average of 30 percent in Europe. This is a promising figure that will hopefully increase and be reflected in other areas of industry thanks to Ireland’s Minister for Education and Skills’ plans to make Ireland best in Europe in STEM by 2026 and to increase by 40% the number of females taking STEM subjects for Leaving Certificate.
In addition to government plans and funding, Ireland is closing its gender gap with several initiatives aimed at inspiring women to pursue STEM subjects in an engaging way, encourage them to remain working in industry, return after time off and help them progress to senior levels.
Attracting talent and inspiring the next generation
Ireland is a collaborative environment where the government, industry and academia are interlinked. Academia across the country is keen to produce graduates with the skills and calibre that industry needs to increase their students’ employability and industry readiness. In that context, Universities and Institutes of Technology in Ireland regularly engage with industry on syllabus content, ongoing relevance of programming languages etc. Technology leaders also actively lecture at third level. Viewing technology as a pivotal area for economic growth, the government continually analyses the future of industry and ensures education can fulfil industry requirements too – Ireland’s first master’s course in AI was created in response to demand for AI skills.
This collaborative effort linking education and industry in Ireland extends to encouraging girls to study STEM subjects and inspiring them to pursue more scientific careers. By engaging children and young adults in a fun, welcoming way, Ireland’s numerous initiatives, that range from learning about climate change and investigating the science behind simple questions they have about the world, to free coding and computer science workshops and women in STEM careers events , can help to break down barriers that young girls have towards studying sciences at an advanced level. These initiatives help young girls to develop the self-belief that they can have a fruitful career in science or technology, so that they don’t close doors for themselves at such an early age.
It’s also crucial to support women from non-scientific backgrounds who want to make the move into technology. After all, it will take much longer for the gender gap to close if we have to wait for today’s teenagers to study and move up through the ranks to senior leadership. Ireland offers excellent opportunities for professional women to upskill and cross-skill through Skillnet Ireland, Springboard and other programmes, in multiple areas relevant to technology including leadership, DevOps, data analytics, RPA and AI, design, media, insides sales, communication, and digital transformation. Combining these skills with the soft skills they have honed in their careers so far, makes for a compelling competitor.
Retaining women in technology and encouraging their progression
Once women have studied, developed skills on the job and established themselves in the technology industry, how do you ensure they develop in their career within Tech or indeed are enabled to return and develop following a gap in employment? So often, women only advance their careers to a certain point due to a variety of reasons including care-giving commitments that can impact on their time availability and the opportunity to progress.
These issues come down in part to having an enabling leadership and culture. Leadership teams that aren’t representative of a current or future workforce, in the context of diversity, is unlikely to recognise all the challenges and supports needed to enable ongoing participation and progression – for example working time flexibility, remote/blending working, training, benefits etc. To attract and retain female talent in technology, increased promotion of women into leadership roles is needed so that women have appropriate representation, a supportive female culture and role models to pave the way for them to succeed.
The 30% Club Ireland, supported by over 200 Irish Chairs and CEOs of leading businesses, is helping this issue by promoting female representation in senior management and supporting female talent with a selection of programmes. Women Mean Business is another organisation that celebrates and promotes female entrepreneurs and businesswomen, connecting women and recognising their contribution to the Irish economy and society as a whole. While TechLifeIreland annually highlights female founders and investment into female led start-ups in Ireland – this year crossed the target of €100m in a single year.
Alongside this, it’s important that women get the support they need via mentoring to elevate their own careers. Mentoring can be a phenomenally powerful process regardless of whether it’s a formal or informal programme. With this in mind, Ireland offers some excellent networking and mentoring opportunities for women working in technology, in addition to further training and returner programmes. Women ReBoot and Women Returners are excellent examples of the initiatives available in Ireland that help develop women’s skills, competence and confidence to re-engage with technology businesses after a career break.
Towards agender diverse future
Everyone has an obligation to strive for a more inclusive society and working environment. Leadership is a key enabler to change, and organisational leadership should reflect its teammates, the communities in which it operates, and the customers they aim to serve and win. There is still a lot of progress that needs to be made to improve gender diversity, but with its multi-pronged approach to supporting businesswomen in STEM, Ireland is on the right course to supporting greater diversity and setting the right example.
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