UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science lauded by UCD and President Michael D Higgins

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

The 11th of February marked the occasion of the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

President Higgins delivered a message to celebrate the day, describing it as “a most appropriate occasion on which to celebrate the contribution of women to the field of science”, as well as acknowledge the importance of that contribution, and “above all” encourage young women to consider a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

The President outlined that although “significant progress” has been made in encouraging women and girls in STEM “much remains to be achieved”. President Higgins stressed “a considerable gender gap still exists” in STEM fields. The President outlined that in most countries “fewer women than men complete STEM university degrees. Less than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women, and less than a third of all female students globally select STEM-related fields in higher education.” Higgins described that statistics for Ireland as “only slightly more encouraging”, stating that “just over 35 percent of all those engaged in STEM research in Ireland in 2016 are female”. The President stated that the “exclusive” domination by men in the field of STEM has been “much to the detriment of science and society’s loss.” 

President Higgins said that in order to address the gender gap, society “must go beyond quantification and identify those qualitative factors that at the very outset deter women from pursuing careers in STEM fields”. Higgins stressed that despite these challenges, Irish women in science are playing a “courageous role”, using the battle against Covid-19 as an example. Higgins outlined that the day is an appropriate day to recognise the feats of women in STEM by “making a commitment to investing in inclusive STEM education and research and the re-structuring of career paths in science and technology in such a way that they do not exclude women and girls at any stage of their career”. 

President Higgins stated that his message to “every young girl who is wondering if a future in science is for her” is “to have faith, to take inspiration from the many talented women who have excelled in science and technology” and to “carry your knowledge and skills with pride.” 

The University Observer spoke to Colin Scott, Chair of the Gender Equality Action Group in UCD. Scott described the challenges of male dominance within STEM disciplines as “complex”. He outlined that a “significant part” of the challenge arises from “social structures and ways of thinking that tend to encourage boys to study STEM subjects at school to a greater extent than girls”, stating that “the tendency to gender segregation in schools has historically reduced opportunities for girls to discover and study the full range of STEM subjects.”

Athena Swan is a framework used within higher education to further gender equality. Scott outlined that all Schools in the College of Engineering and Architecture secured Athena Swan Bronze recognition in 2019, “indicating that the College understands the challenges and has a credible plan to address the challenges”. Scott stated that UCD has been “heavily involved” in measures to encourage women applicants into STEM disciplines, outlining that at undergraduate level “female participation has risen in the Engineering disciplines from 19% to 26%” between 2015 and 2018. He further noted that female intake to Engineering was 30% in 2018, which is higher than HEA engineering data of 25%, and the total enrolment of female students in Computer Science has grown from 15% in 2015 to 19% in 2018.

Scott stated that in 2019 UCD received funding from Science Foundation Ireland for the project ‘Girls in DEIS Schools: Changing Attitudes/Impacting Futures in STEM’, which was led by Professor Judith Harford, Rachel Farrell, and Dr Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain. He noted the academic role models for women in engineering, for example, Professor Orla Feely, Vice President for Research, Impact and Innovation, and Professor Aoife Ahern, Dean of Engineering and Principal, UCD College of Engineering and Architecture.

Scott stated that “at UCD we are keen to encourage more women into studying STEM disciplines and to support them successfully through their studies, transforming opportunities”. He further outlined that UCD “are taking a wide range of other measures to remove barriers to gender equality throughout academic careers, detailed in our Gender Equality Action Plan, submitted as part of the successful Athena Swan Bronze renewal in 2020”.