‘Role models in STEM are important, but they’re not a magic bullet’

Having positive role models is a well-known help in almost any industry. There has been a lot of discussion around the need for role models in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), with an even higher need for diverse role models. As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

During the past number of years, there have been conscious efforts made at primary and secondary schools to improve awareness of the positive sides of STEM education and STEM careers.

One such organisation is Junior Achievement Ireland (JAI), a non-profit organisation that focuses on entrepreneurship education in both primary and secondary schools.

Today (2 October), JAI announced plans to further scale its successful Futurewize programme up to the end of 2019. Futurewize is a classroom-based programme aimed at inspiring young Junior Cycle students to explore a new world of career possibilities that are opened up through the study of STEM-related subjects.

I spoke to Wendy Murphy, senior HR director at LinkedIn, about her involvement with JAI and the importance of role models when it comes to STEM education. She joined the board for the organisation two years ago.

“We had approximately 180 employees volunteer time with JAI to helping children build skills for the digital world,” she said. “To this day, I am still receiving stories from employees of how those students they met are in contact with them, sharing how they have continued in education as a direct result of their interactions with our staff.”

While it’s clear that having a positive role model can play a significant part in changing perceptions and dispelling gender stereotypes in STEM careers, Murphy believes that more needs to be done at an industry level. “Role models and mentors are important for young people and professionals looking to move up the career ladder. That said, they are not a magic bullet and companies need a range of supports that create an environment so that women will feel confident and thrive.”

Murphy said this support needs to be at every level, including the recruitment process. “If you are looking for the best and most diverse talent, you should ensure that interview panels consist of people from a range of backgrounds in a bid to overcome any subconscious bias that may be present as part of the hiring process.”

Helping to build the future

The latest announcement from JAI shows a commitment to nurturing students at second-level education. The Futurewize programme is run with the support of Science Foundation Ireland and is targeted at students aged between 13 and 14, with the aim of maintaining their interest in STEM.

By the end of 2019, it is estimated that nearly 24,000 students will have completed the Futurewize programme. It is aligned with the strands of the Junior Cycle science curriculum, and the physical, biological and chemical worlds.

Murphy said encouraging girls to explore the value of STEM subjects is a key focus of Futurewize, and more than 60pc of the programme’s participants have been girls.

This year, more than 3,500 students across 150 classes will complete the Futurewize programme, facilitated by 150 trained volunteers from STEM-related roles who will share their own real-life experiences from the industry.

Being a role model in STEM

According to Murphy, it takes commitment, passion, experience in the sci-tech world and the ability to invest time in order to help talented students unlock their potential.

“Working in a STEM-related role means you are often at the forefront of innovation and, as such, you get to pave the way for those that follow you. This is hugely inspiring and exciting,” she said.

While initiatives such as Futurewize and efforts at corporate level need to be made to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds into STEM, the value of role models is undeniable. Aside from being a physical representative of what students can be in the future, role models can also give personal insights into their career and dispel any misconceptions that may exist.

One such misconception, according to Murphy, is how limited STEM is. “There is often an assumption that STEM only refers to engineering, but it actually covers a vast array of skills and roles in many different industries, from pharma to financial services,” she said.

She added that the exciting work you can do and the changes you can make within a STEM career are incredible, and students might not be aware of the differences they can make.

“For example, at LinkedIn, I have many female colleagues working as data scientists who, by virtue of the work, they are helping governments and companies create economic opportunity for the global workforce,” said Murphy. “The ability to map out the supply and demand of talent, the skills gaps and the flow of talent can unlock untold opportunities for so many.”

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