Cultivating a diverse and inclusive knowledge ecosySTEM
The vast, ubiquitous and intangible nature of STEM can act as a deterrent to some who lack a direct connection to the field. Gender stereotypes, the systematic absence of women from the STEM narrative and the lack of prominent female role models in STEM are significant contributing factors. CONFIRM, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded Research Centre for Smart Manufacturing, is committed to the creation of a diverse and inclusive community of practice with wider experiences, different ways of thinking and fresh approaches to problem solving. This article will serve to provide readers with an introduction and insight into CONFIRM’s vision: to make STEM meaningful and accessible to all through its Inspire – Advance model.
By the age of approximately 5 or 6, children have already begun to make decisions about what they do not want to do in terms of their career. Some of the factors that influence these decisions include the perceived gender-appropriateness of careers, social level of careers and accessibility3. Opinions about the apparent suitability of a career based on one’s gender have a significant impact on uptake of STEM subjects and subsequently pursuit of STEM careers later in life.
Factors emerging from international research suggest several key factors that further impact on female engagement with STEM throughout childhood and teenage years:
- Gender Stereotypes: 29% of young people believe that STEM disciplines are more suited to boys’ ‘personalities and hobbies’. This is compounded by the fact that 50% of teachers also believe that STEM subjects are geared towards males 
- Lack of Knowledge: 59% of Irish female students feel they do not know enough about STEM 
- Parental Influence: Females are 14% more likely to be influenced by parents than males . This can lead to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes
- Fragmented Career Information: Given that parents are the primary influencers in terms of career and subject choices for females, 68% of Irish parents feel poorly or moderately informed about the breadth of STEM careers available to their daughters 
- Lack of Role Models: Parents and teachers (82% and 89%, respectively) agree that the science and technology sector lacks high profile female role models 
Upon examination of the Irish workforce en masse, a significant gender bias is evident from the fact that women account for just 25% of workers of a cohort of 117,800 in jobs that use STEM skills . With far fewer females than males pursuing careers in STEM fields, the limiting factors listed above continue to be perpetuated.
While formal education has an important role to play in combatting female underrepresentation in STEM, the importance of both informal and non-formal educational interactions is also well documented. Research indicates that a significant amount of learning takes place through informal STEM education initiatives especially in terms of building an understanding of who STEM is ‘for’, and can be especially useful in countering the pervasive stereotypes about ‘ability’ and STEM . The CONFIRM Centre Education & Public Engagement (EPE) programme is built on this idea.
EPE plays a significant role in terms of the Centre’s Gender and Diversity plans and is underpinned by three pillars of activity – Education & Careers, Public Engagement and Capacity Building – each of which contributes to the overall goal of enhancing perceptions of modern manufacturing and highlighting it as a valuable and exciting field of STEM. Our goal is to open the field of STEM to everyone, increasing awareness of the relevance and importance of STEM to wider society.
Through the EPE programme, CONFIRM researchers work directly with Primary and Secondary school students through National initiatives like iWISH , as well as though internally developed activities, which aim to enhance students’ perceptions of STEM. Annually, CONFIRM hosts Transition Year student work placements and funds an Undergraduate Bursary programme every summer – both initiatives are required to have a minimum of 50% female participation. Continuous Professional Development workshops are held with teachers each year to inform STEM teaching and learning nationally. A significant portion of these activities focuses on STEM careers, addressing STEM career misconceptions and perceived suitability. CONFIRM’s researchers and industry partners play an important role in these activities, acting as positive role models for female students engaging with the Centre.
The EPE programme is a central element of CONFIRM’s strategy to inspire engagement in STEM regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or any other factor that may traditionally have been perceived to be a barrier. Effective communications begins with a thorough understanding of the audiences and environments in which they operate. To effectively promote STEM and ensure resonance with all of society, the Centre created a collection of collateral communication materials. On a more holistic level, the CONFIRM Centre aspires to catalyse change, creating a more diverse and inclusive environment in STEM by igniting the learner’s curiosity.
From a technological standpoint, over the past 100 years, there has been huge advancement in Robotics, AI, IoT, and blockchain – to name but a few. These innovations are driving a digital workforce transformation, spurring the rapid transition from Industry 3.0 to Industry 4.0. Interestingly, while the world of work is changing rapidly, advancements in workplace gender equality have progressed albeit at a slow pace.
“At Confirm we value all aspects of diversity in order to build a research culture which impacts on all facets of society. We recognise that in the manufacturing arena female representation is, in the main, less than 20%. While this may be considered a low base, in Confirm we strive to recruit female researchers, Principal Investigators and to have strong female representation on all our Governance boards. As Smart Manufacturing is a multi-disciplinary activity involving ICT, Mechanical and Electronic Engineering, Data Science and Communications, we believe that we can overcome this relatively low base and strive for strong gender diversity at all levels of our Centre and in our Community of Practice portfolio.” – Prof. Conor McCarthy; Director, Confirm Centre for Smart Manufacturing
At present, gender representation within CONFIRM Centre follows a similar trend to European averages, with just 20% of research staff among the Post-Doctoral and Senior Researcher cohort identifying as female. As a Centre, we do not wish to align with international trends within the sector – we wish to break these trends and facilitate an environment where diversity in all respects is encouraged and celebrated. Such is CONFIRM’s commitment to gender parity, to help address this imbalance a set of near to long term actions were developed at all Centre levels and functions. The CONFIRM Centre research fellowship programme, SMART 4.0, will significantly affect the number of females in this cohort due to its strong gender balance focused strategy.
In these times of global pandemic, the business, economic & social case for equality, diversity & inclusion in STEM has been firmly underlined. Marie Sklodowska Curie actions (MSCA) are a European Commission funding vehicle to enable intersectoral, interdisciplinary and international mobility of researchers with no age or geographical restrictions. The SMART 4.0 program with CONFIRM Centre is a MSCA cofund (European Commission/SFI) fellowship, which fosters excellence in researchers’ training, mobility and career development, spreading the MSCA best practices aimed at actively promoting diversity and inclusion in technology and science in Ireland.
Success in improving diversity is not a side issue: it is a critical business imperative whether your business is research or product development. It therefore needs to be understood and championed at the most senior level and promoted throughout organisations. Diverse teams bring wider experience, different ways of thinking and a fresh approach to problem solving. SMART 4.0 with CONFIRM Centre is dedicated to the creation of an empowered, diverse and inclusive workforce that strives for advancements in STEM innovation and equality of opportunity, agnostic of gender or circumstances.
The path to this ‘success’ is a non-linear journey; however, nonlinearity, coupled with seeming misconceptions and gender stereotypes, does create the perception that the journey ‘must’ be harder for women to become active participants in the STEM ecosystem. However, it is the responsibility of all those who are advocates for and/or involved in STEM activities to challenge these misconceptions and to create a culture that is both diverse and inclusive.
Success, as in life, is not easy – but challenges and risks maketh the wo/man.
- Accenture (2014) Powering economic growth; Attracting more young women into science and technology. Available: https://www.accenture.com/ie-en/~/media/Accenture/Conversion-Assets/DotCom/Documents/Global/PDF/Industries_14/Accenture-STEM-Powering-Economic-Growth.pdf [accessed: 11/05/2020]
- Accenture (2017) Girls in STEM; Powering Economic Growth: Attracting more young women into Science and Technology 3.0. available: https://www.accenture.com/t20170905t101544z__w__/ie-en/_acnmedia/pdf-60/accenture-girls-in-stem-research-report-2017-online.pdf [accessed: 11/05/2020]
- Davenport, C., Dele-Ajayi, O., Emembolu, I. et al. (2020) A Theory of Change for Improving Children’s Perceptions, Aspirations and Uptake of STEM Careers. Res Sci Educ (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-019-09909-6. Available: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11165-019-09909-6#citeas
- iWISH (2018) 2018 Survey of female students’ attitudes to STEM. available: http://www.iwish.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/I-Wish-2018-Survey-Final.pdf [accessed: 11/05/2020]
- McGuire, L., Mulvey, K.L., Goff, E., Irvin, M.J., Winterbottom, M., Fields, G.E., Hartstone-Rose, A. and Rutland, A. (2020) ‘STEM gender stereotypes from early childhood through adolescence at informal science centers’, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 67, 101109, available: http://dx.doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2020.101109.
- STEM-ERG (2016) A Report on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education: Analysis and Recommendations, The STEM Education Review Group available: https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Education-Reports/STEM-Education-in-the-Irish-School-System.pdf [accessed: 11/05/2020]