By Eimear Dodd Journalism MA student, @TheCity_Dublin editor, @Irish_TechNews

What’s the best way to encourage more women and girls to pursue education in science and technology subjects? The question has long troubled technology companies, teachers, third level institutions and other agencies. If girls do not study science, technology, engineering and mathematicss (STEM), then they won’t have the skills to pursue a career in these areas. This then adds to the skills shortage in these sectors.

Microsoft Ireland took over UCD’s O’Reilly Hall on 26 April for the #GoForITGirls event. Over 800 secondary school students and their teachers were there as part of the celebration of Global Girls in ICT day on 27 April. They had been brought together to get inspired by science and technology by listening to role models within the industry.

Cathriona Halloran, Microsoft Ireland managing director, opened the event. She said she hoped that the young people present would leave with a sense of the opportunities within the technology sector.

Sinead Burke was an engaging MC who shared anecdotes about her experiences as a primary school teacher. The blogger, social influencer and PhD candidate hosted a discussion with Natalie B Coleman, fashion designer, Andrea Poppa, software engineer at Microsoft Ireland, Irish electronic artist Elaine Mai and nine year old CoderDojo ninja Lexi Schoene.

The panel talked about how technology influenced their lives. Natalie B Coleman described the influence of technology on the fashion industry as the “fourth industrial revolution”. While the design process begins with pen and paper, everything is transferred into the digital space.

They also shared tips and advice with the audience. Andrea Poppa described a qualification in a STEM subject as a solid career foundation. This was a group of women who appeared excited by the possibilities of technology and how it helps them to do what they love.

Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of business development for Microsoft, was the event’s keynote speaker. In conversation with Sinead, Peggy explained how a chance visit to her university’s engineering department led her to change her degree from business to electrical engineering. She said that engineering was never suggested as a possible career option, despite her interest in maths and science.

Their conversation also touched on the value of informal support. Encouragement from friends, family and teachers was crucial for career development.

“I loved maths and science in school, but never considered a career in technology until the mentors and teachers in my life made an effort to show me what was possible,” Peggy said.

“Every girl deserves that kind of encouragement, and it’s a privilege to be here in Dublin to celebrate Girls in ICT Day and speak with such an incredible group of girls and young women.”

Why the emphasis on encouraging young women to consider study and careers in the STEM industries? Peggy Johnson talked about the value of diverse teams. Their different perspectives can create novel solutions to problems. She encouraged those present to follow their inspiration. This had motivated her own move to Microsoft because “something on that campus sparked something in me”.

The morning also featured several short video presentations about some of the Microsoft’s projects in the areas of augmented reality and real-time translation.

Microsoft Ireland announced a commitment to help 10,000 girls in Ireland to engage with technology over the next two years. The YouthSpark initiative is designed to encourage greater involvement by girls and women in technology by demonstrating its many applications across multiple economic sectors.

Microsoft plans to work with a number of partners to achieve its targets. The company will introduce young people to coding in association with CoderDojo. The first project, Hour of Code, encourages young people to participate in an hour of coding in the classroom. While Coolest Projects will continue to celebrate the best projects completed in CoderDojos across the country.

A separate partnership with Junior Achievement Ireland will see new programmes on STEM related subjects and technology delivered in schools. Microsoft also has plans to assist women early in their careers through networking and other career events organized by Codess and GirlCrew.

Cathriona Hallahan of Microsoft Ireland said, “We can see from the trends that young girls are opting out of technology, by creating this ‘tech taster’ focus under YouthSpark we are hoping to inspire young women to seek to learn more and do more with technology. By changing the minds of even 10% of the young women that we engage with, we can have a real impact on society. We’re looking forward to engaging with many girls and young women in collaboration with our partners over the coming year.”

Encouraging interest in STEM is a complex problem. The #GoForITGirls event and the YouthSpark initiatives may be two pieces that can help to solve this puzzle.

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