One of our summer duties in DCU is to visit our students who are out on work placement – what we call our INTRA programme. I generally find it to be an interesting experience especially when I visit the big multinational pharma companies. When I leave, I always breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that I work in the relatively free and open atmosphere of academia. I often think that multinationals have a cult-like feel to them and my visits make me question the idea that companies want creative, original thinkers. In fact, I suspect they want competent workers who will buy into the company ethos and do things the company way. But that’s just my perception.
Anyway, my last visit was to a company who make chromatography columns – this was very much a chemistry-led company. The student I was visiting was working in the ‘Tech Ops’ department and his supervisor, the Tech Ops manager, happened to be an ex-student of mine. I had supervised her final year project so I remembered her well.
I got the usual tour of the facility and while all the tech stuff was interesting in its own way, what struck me was the fact that the majority of the employees (highly educated) that I met or passed in the corridor were female. The three process chemists that I chatted to were female as were the three analytical chemists that I met. I shook hands with quite a few people but not a single one of them was male. (That’s not to say that were no men around; there were but I got the sense that they were in the minority.)
And it struck me that the notion that there is a lack of “women in STEM” and the constant repetition of this mantra could in fact be counterproductive to the point of being a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know for sure that there is a lack of women in ICT, engineering (some branches being worse than others), maths and physics. But to extrapolate this to all of the disciplines that come under the STEM umbrella is simply wrong.
So instead of constantly repeating the message that there is a lack of women in ‘STEM’ and, in the process, sending out the message to young women that they mightn’t ‘fit in’, wouldn’t it be far better to emphasise the idea that the modern workplace is diverse and multidisciplinary. In some industries, there will be lots of women working in technical roles while in other there may not be. But even in industries where some of the tech roles remain male-dominated, people do not work in silos. Every company will offer, indeed demand, opportunities for interaction with fellow workers from different disciplines. And, in general, career progression will involve moving away from ones initial discipline into roles that demand a broader perspective. So just because you study physics at college doesn’t mean you’re going to be working in a male dominated environment for the rest of your career.
In other words, we need to be far more accurate in how we portray the career trajectories of STEM graduates – male and female. Then let people make fully informed decisions about the career path that they want to follow,