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Lost in the Sy-Stem

Jessica Viola investigates the gender gap relating to girls studying science and maths at Leaving Cert level
Niamh Cullen pictured with some male engineering students in UCD

In 2019, the Understanding Gender Differences in Stem study found that the Leaving Certificate subject choice of girls strongly influences whether they will study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) at the third level.

It was recorded in 2016 that less than 1% of girls studied higher level engineering as a Leaving Cert subject in Ireland, in comparison to one in six boys. 

One of the biggest issues connected to the lack of women studying engineering and other Stem subjects is how difficult these subjects are to access in all-girls secondary schools because the classes are not provided for them. 

In 2019, 55.7% of all-girls secondary schools offered Stem related subjects, other than maths or science, compared to 95% of all-boys secondary schools offering the same subjects for the state exams.

“We’re not encouraged to study the subjects that you encounter for the course,” says Niamh Cullen, a masters engineering student at University College Dublin, who previously attended an all-girls secondary school.  

“We’re not encouraged to study the subjects that you encounter for the course”

Niamh Cullen

“Personally, I feel that my secondary school did absolutely nothing to encourage girls to do engineering or barely even science,” Cullen states. 

“Boy schools get offered technical graphics engineering, which is a Leaving Cert subject, or even woodwork, but, I haven’t come across a single girls school in my area that offers that,” Cullen continues.

A representative from the Department of Education also adds, “Generally, subjects such as engineering, technology, graphics subjects and materials and construction subjects are optional. Other science-based subjects including chemistry, biology and physics may also be optional, depending on a particular school’s curriculum at senior cycle.”

A Leaving Cert student, who chose to remain anonymous when talking to The City, said that her class had to specifically request her all-girls school to provide applied maths classes for the students. 

Cullen’s experience reflects this. “I remember myself and some other classmates had to go up and ask the school counsellor about studying it in the school. I don’t know why applied maths isn’t more heavily encouraged.”

“The opportunity to choose science and technology subjects in school is something that we feel very passionate about,” says Jennnifer Keenahan. 

Jennifer Keenahan picture with some of her research team and collaborators

Keenahan is an assistant professor in engineering at UCD and on the Executive Committee for Women in Technology and Science (Wits). The goal of Wits is to promote girls, ladies, and women in the fields of technology and science so they can be encouraged to have a career in Stem. 

“We would like to support and see more of that [Leaving Cert science and technology subjects] and then build on that at third level, and encourage girls and ladies into those subjects at third level. We would like to see more ladies stay in Stem,” Keenahan states. 

“We would like to see more ladies stay in STEM”

Jennifer Keenahan

In 2019, only 77% of all-girls schools offered physics, chemistry and biology for the Leaving Cert whereas, 92% of all-boys schools across the country supply all three classes.

Keenahan also comments on the matter saying that the lack of science classes in all girl’s schools, “historically, has been a challenge.

“Even still, in some schools, some subjects, like applied maths, may not be available on offer in all schools. That certainly is a barrier and can be a factor, which is something that we would like to see addressed,” she adds. 

Although the number of girls sitting applied maths for the Leaving Cert is increasing, it still remains under 35% in total, graph obtained from the STEM Education Policy Statement 2017–2026

A representative from the Department of Education states, “The Stem Education Policy Statement acknowledges the need achieve gender balance in Stem education and careers. It acknowledges that there is a need to increase the uptake of Stem subjects and increase the number of females taking Stem subjects for Leaving Certificate.”

The lack of guidance in all-girls schools for sciences and other related subjects can also discourage girls from choosing a career related to Stem, as their school counsellors and families have little knowledge about the subject and career path. 

“At career fairs, they don’t really talk about it. We got loads of talks in different colleges about business, commerce and law courses but never one about engineering,” Cullen tells me. 

A prototype of a rotating disk electrodeposition device with ultrasonic agitation, photo by Niamh Cullen

This issue is further acknowledged by The Department of Education, “A key pillar of the Stem policy is to nurture learner engagement and participation; it also includes a commitment to monitor uptake by all students, and to increase female participation in Stem. “

The Department is “committed to increasing awareness around Stem, it is not just awareness for young people but also for teachers and parents. This work has included awareness campaigns with Science Foundation Ireland targeting students in the run up to CAO deadline (#IGetPaidToDoThis, ‘This is STEM’), information flyer for schools and parents on the Department’s approach to Stem education, how to promote STEM and where to look for more information on Stem education.”

“Starting [Stem subjects] at a really young age is always a good thing to do,” advises Kennahan.

“Increasing awareness around Stem, it is not just awareness for young people but also for teachers and parents”

Department of Education

“Primary school science and the BT Young Scientist are opportunities where kids in primary school and secondary school can get involved in science and technology projects,” Kennahan

In 2017, the Irish government created a plan to have the best education quality and training service in Europe by 2026. A part of this initiative is to have a 40% growth in girls studying Stem subjects at Leaving Certificate level. With only five years left to reach this target, can Ireland succeed in its goal?

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