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Thank you, Alastair, for your very kind introduction.
I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation to I WISH and to Accenture for their invitation to address you today, to mark the publication of two important reports that expand our knowledge of the factors influencing the career choices of young women today.
Let me begin by saying that there has probably been no more exciting time to be a scientist in Ireland than now.
The world we live in is increasingly shaped by technology and science. It has brought untold benefits – improved health, increased food security, the burden of physical work has been reduced, and opportunities for leisure, entertainment and personal development opened up to ever greater numbers. It is true that technological advances have not been without problems – environmental and social – with the greatest challenge possibly coming from climate change. However many of the solutions will also be found through the development and application of science. For young people who want to make a difference in life, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics provide skills, opportunities for creativity, and pathways to deeply rewarding careers.
For many second-level students a career in the sciences can feel like a leap in the dark. This is especially the case for those who do not have family members studying or working in these fields. It can be difficult to picture yourself working in those fields, particularly when the popular if stereotypical image of an engineer or a scientist does not look like yourself. STEM learning areas are perceived my some students, and especially girls, as difficult. For example, so many girls vastly underestimate their innate ability and potential to excel at mathematics. We must overcome this perception and build confidence in STEM subjects, encouraging our existing students and future generations to understand and embrace areas related to STEM.
Before I say any more, I should mention that my own background influences the perspective I bring to this issue. I studied mathematics at third level, and subsequently went on to teach at second level with career guidance being one of my areas of interest.
We should not underestimate the positive impact that teachers can have in overturning the stereotypes that can act as barriers to grasping opportunities. Role models at local and community level are equally important to expanding young people’s horizons as to what is possible for them to achieve.
These are some of the challenges that I WISH addresses in its conferences and highlights in its survey findings. I look forward to hearing more about their research.
My main contribution to the discussion this morning will be to offer the wider context and summarise for you what the Government is doing to ensure women and girls participate and benefit from the growth sectors of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
We know that the STEM sector is perhaps the key growth sector for employment in the coming years.
When it comes to attracting investment from overseas, Ireland has continued to punch above its weight. The IDA is having great success in marketing Ireland as a global hub for investment in high-level research, development and innovation. We aspire to be a smart economy and, in Innovation 2020, have set out a strategy for research and development in science and technology. Collaboration between higher-education institutions and industry has provided a fertile ground for start-ups, and support for the development of clusters of compatible industries, as we have seen with medical devices and technology.
Ireland has today become home to nine of the top ten global ICT companies, nine of the top ten global pharmaceutical companies, 17 of the top 25 global medical devices companies, and more than half of the world’s leading financial services institutions. Ireland is now in the Global Top 20 for the quality of our scientific research, and is ranked first in the world for its research in nanoscience, second in computer science and in immunology, third in animal and dairy science, and fifth in materials science.
As the current Action Plan for Jobs has highlighted ICT, bio-pharma, life sciences and med tech as key areas for the growing economy, the Action Plan for Rural Development also highlights opportunities for high-quality employment in rural Ireland through further developing the STEM sector.
There is an increasing demand in Ireland for graduates with STEM-related skills and qualifications across different sectors of the economy.
The National Strategy for Women and Girls, which the Tánaiste and I launched last May, identifies gender equality in education and training, and particularly in STEM type courses and careers as one of the key challenges for the period to 2020. The Strategy aims to tackle the gender imbalance in STEM education and careers, and to promote gender balance in higher education leadership. The actions being pursued in this regard include reviewing the existing research base on barriers to the uptake of STEM careers by females, including subject uptake at post-primary level. Under the Strategy, guidelines will commence for promotion of STEM careers to young people and parents, taking account of best practice and resource implications. The Strategy Committee, which I chair, will continue to meet on a regular basis during its implementation. As the Strategy is framed as a living document, the facility will exist to add further actions over its lifetime, in respond to changing needs.
The National Strategy for Women and Girls complements the National Skills Strategy, the Action Plan for Education and the Digital Strategy for Schools which provides an integrated strategic framework through which the Department of Education and Skills is promoting STEM within the education system. This is a key priority for the Department. Later this year, the Department will publish a STEM Education Policy Statement and Implementation Plan, building on the range of reforms and initiatives already underway.
Going back to my opening comment - there has probably been no more exciting time to be a scientist in Ireland.
This is also a good time to be a female scientist or engineer.
There is a growing realisation that the absence of women from technology poses a societal problem. As we increasingly use technology to understand and navigate the world, there is a burning need to make sure these systems are designed in a way that responds to the needs of society in all its diversity. The most effective way of doing this is for their creators to be drawn from as broad a pool as possible. The National Skills Strategy 2025 commits to addressing the gender imbalance in relation to STEM. Perhaps the most significant step has been to introduce Athena SWAN gender equality accreditation as a criteria to be eligible for research funding from Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board. As the Innovation 2020 strategy also provides for promoting gender equality in research careers while promoting frontier research across all disciplines, we are laying the foundation for leadership in developing truly inclusive and adaptive technologies.
Last October, at the launch of the I WISH, my colleague Minister Bruton, the Minister for Education and Skills, stated he wished to play a vital role in the promotion of STEM to girls at a pivotal moment in their lives. This is a commitment shared by the Government as a whole.
The Government recognises and appreciates the value of government-industry collaboration to promoting STEM careers to post-primary students. Through the Smart Futures Initiative, managed by Science Foundation Ireland, we aim to continue to improve the strategic coordination and alignment of industry outreach resources. More than 28,000 students have directly engaged with this initiative to date, through the efforts of over 50 STEM-related organisations, such as the valuable work being done by I WISH.
To conclude, I would like to express my appreciation to Accenture and to the I WISH team for the work you are doing in this field. It is clear that your initiatives are contributing significantly to opening up a world of opportunity for a generation of young women. I wish you all success with your future endeavours.
Thank you for your attention.