I would like to highlight the area of education for innovation. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills said: “Innovation is completely dependent on knowledge and skilled people, and we have significant competitive advantage in our people. With one of the youngest populations in Europe and one of the most highly educated in the world, Ireland has a resource that cannot be easily replicated elsewhere.”
I had the honour of being the Rapporteur for the Oireachtas Committee on Jobs its report on important key issues for female entrepreneurs and women in the technology industry. We made 12 recommendations and there was cross-party support for all of them. I will outline an important element, namely, the skills required to innovate. There is a national challenge in the context of increasing the number of second level students – boys and girls – who take the STEM subjects, namely, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Without a grounding in these subjects at second level, students are not able to pursue the related courses at third level. They then become excluded from a range of exciting careers in multinational and growth Irish companies. Likewise, they are unlikely to go on to spot entrepreneurial possibilities in these specialist areas and lead start-up companies to exploit such possibilities. There have been a series of policy responses to increase interest in STEM subjects. The awarding of extra points for higher mathematics achievement at Leaving Certificate by the former Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan, is one direct incentive which is proving effective. Smart Futures is a collaborative Government-industry programme promoting STEM careers to second level students in Ireland and highlighting opportunities in careers such as pharma, medical devices, information and communication technologies and energy.
From my research as Rapporteur for the Oireachtas Committee report, I note there is a particularly acute challenge of encouraging girls to study the STEM subjects. The Committee had access to research findings which provide valuable insights on the attitude of women to STEM subjects and related careers. The submission by a transition year student, Ms Anna Porter, contained original research among 216 women who had made a career in STEM-related subjects. A genuine interest or passion for STEM subjects and a subsequent career in this area emerged as the main motivation for the majority of respondents. Parents and teachers were the predominant influencers on choosing these subjects and careers. Peer pressure was cited as another important influence. The key recommendation by this young person was that STEM subjects need to be presented in as interesting a way as possible at school level. To counteract gender stereotyping, these subjects need to be taught in a way that will appeal to students in general and will, in particular, stimulate girls’ interest, passion and curiosity. I spoke with a Women in Enterprise group, comprising some 45 females, last night and I made the point that one will not thrive unless one has a passion for the subject area in which one is working. We need more women to participate in the STEM subjects and in the information technology sector. Sadly, only 25,000 women out of a total of 125,000 are employed in it.
The Accenture company, as part of the Women Invent Tomorrow programme with the Silicon Republic company, has carried out extensive research on the barriers facing parents, young girls and teachers when it comes to making choices about STEM-related subjects at school and which, in turn, will facilitate or not their choice of subsequent career. The original survey covered 1,000 persons – young women aged 18 to 23 years, secondary school teachers, and parents with daughters in post-primary education. The key barriers identified include negative stereotypes persist that STEM subjects are more suitable for boys and that the subjects are overly difficult. From my research and the evidence I have gathered over my lifetime, I have found that if one has good teachers, one will learn anything. I am referring to teachers who are fully competent to teach the STEM subjects, but I am not sure that is the case everywhere. Parents lack information on STEM career options, yet they are the main influencers when it comes to advising their daughters on how to define educational and career paths. A disconnect exists between industry’s skill needs and students subject choices for Leaving Certificate. I would put full responsibility on parents who should encourage their daughters to take STEM subjects, including maths and engineering. I believe it is down to them, but they do not understand; they think it is just being at a computer every day. It is exciting and if one talks properly, women can find and follow their North Star if they have the education and backup they need, but parents need to have vision to encourage young women to do it.
I refer to two recommendations made in the report of the Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on key issues for female entrepreneurs in Ireland and their participation in the tech sector. What we are talking about is all about innovation.
Recommendation 11 reads: The Committee recommends that a more powerful, sustained and clear campaign to inform parents, teachers and girls of the intrinsic value and career benefits of studying STEM subjects and considering related careers should be undertaken, this should be led by Government, engaging industry to a greater degree, as well as teachers and parents associations.
Recommendation 12 reads: The Committee recommends that the capacity and frequency of existing programmes operated with the support of Enterprise Ireland to assist women entrepreneurs (such as Female Founders and Female High Fliers Programme) become more proficient in technology should be enhanced substantially so as to give much more women the opportunity to participate in them.