Estelle Brachlianoff, Senior Executive Vice-President at Veolia UK & Ireland, discusses women in STEM careers and how to get more women on-board
In 1906 it’s understood that Alice Perry was the first woman to graduate with a degree in engineering in the UK and Ireland. She graduated with a first class honours degree in Civil Engineering from Queen’s College Galway (now NUI, Galway) and in doing so set a precedent for women in a male dominated field.
Yet over a century later there is still a striking gender imbalance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. After all, out of 118,000 people working in STEM careers in Ireland, only a quarter are women, and male students studying STEM-related courses outnumber females four to one.
So why is there such an imbalance? The current lack of female engagement in STEM subjects may be derived from the outdated belief that maths and science are deemed as ‘boy’ subjects throughout school. And a further factor that exacerbates the problem is lack of knowledge surrounding the different roles available for women (and men) who study STEM subjects. As influential business leaders and future business leaders, we need to start fully demonstrating and promoting the portfolio of careers STEM subjects’ offer, as opposed to leaving them to the imagination. After all, they don’t all involve lab coats, overalls or goggles. On the contrary, STEM subjects can open doors into careers such as preserving the habitats of endangered animals, turning inedible food waste into green energy or even space exploration. Yet these exciting career paths are rarely acknowledged.
Despite the rather disheartening statistics, it appears the tide is gradually starting to turn for the better as the number of STEM role models in Ireland visible to women is on the up. From tech publication Recode’s associate editor, Kara Swisher, to mineral exploration investment company StarVest’s co-founder, Jeanne Sullivan, there is an increasing number of women speaking out about addressing the gender imbalance and encouraging more girls to pursue careers in STEM.
Mentoring from female business leaders is also especially vital because, alongside education, encouragement is a key method by which the number of women entering STEM careers can be increased. Why? Because if the possibility of pursuing STEM careers is promoted they will be more likely to realistically consider a similar career at a later stage. So what could you do?
The action being taken to encourage women to follow in Alice’s footsteps is more crucial now than ever. According to the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland (ACEI), Engineers Ireland and the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI), Ireland has a substantial deficit in engineering graduates. This means we are facing a potential risk in failing to meet the future demands of the industry as well as economic growth, and I believe female engineers can help fill this deficit. Therefore, through continuous learning, mentoring and coaching, let’s make STEM more inclusive and our industry more competitive at the same time.
 Irish Times, Feb 2015