Just a quarter of the people working in Ireland’s STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are women. That number drops even further when you extend the net to Britain – 15% – and yet further still when you drill down into specialist fields like computer science.
One problem might be a lack of role models for young people.
A recent PWC report showed that 4 out of 5 university students can’t name a single woman working in tech today.
Learners overwhelmingly view the STEM fields as a male-dominated environment, with one student noting that the stereotype leads many women to swerve the subjects altogether. This, despite the fact that women have been behind some of the most ground-breaking inventions of all time.
To counteract this prevailing misconception, the “STEM Superheroines” campaign by Currys PC World and Microsoft spotlights eight notable women in STEM and highlights how their inventions changed the world.
Take Kevlar. Everyone knows what it is and how it helps save lives, but did you know that Kevlar was invented by chemist Stephanie Kwolek in the 1960s? It was Kwolek who led the breakthrough and who helped usher Kevlar into mass production in the 1970s. In fact, she regularly received calls from officers thanking her for saving their life through her invention.
Or how about DNA? The discovery of DNA’s twisted ladder shape is traditionally attributed to two men, Crick and Watson, but Rosalind Franklin is the unsung third member of the story. She, along with her student Ray Gosling, captured the image of DNA that Crick and Watson would go on to describe in the 1953 paper that made them famous.
Then there’s Ada Lovelace. Lovelace is perhaps the best known of all the women covered in the STEM Superheroines campaign. Unfortunately, much of her renown might come solely from the fact that she was the daughter of Lord Byron and the protégé of inventor Charles Babbage.
However, Lovelace was also a brilliant mathematician. After obsessing over Babbage’s mechanical computer, The Analytical Engine, she came to a surprising realisation. She figured out that the programmable calculator could do more than solve equations; it could create music and graphs too. The code she ended up writing is thought to be the first example of computer programming.
As the winds of change blow across industries, let’s hope we see an uptick in the number of stories about women in sciences. Research by Microsoft suggests that women would be up to 20% more likely to pursue STEM-related careers if they had a female public figure in the industry to look up to.
Let’s face it, it’s partly a marketing problem: men have been depicted in films and television and in literature as the doer of things while women have typically been portrayed as the caregiver of the home; the keeper of peace. Both are clearly gross oversimplifications of the truth.
More needs to be done to champion STEM to women and girls so we can create more Kwoleks, Franklins and Lovelaces for generations to come.
You can find out more about these female pioneers by taking a look at the Stem Superheroines campaign.