MATRIX has launched its report on Women in STEM at the Titanic, Belfast.

The report argues that by 2030, 33% of young people moving into STEM careers in NI should be girls and that government must aim to establish Northern Ireland as an exemplar STEM region. If the potential for the entire population to embrace STEM is realised, it will drive innovation and economic growth, building a better place to live.

Every MATRIX report published to date has identified and prioritised the issue of STEM skills shortages as a barrier to growth in Northern Ireland’s (NI) science & technology sectors. A major contributing factor to this is the significant gender imbalance across the STEM skills pipeline. The 2016 Advanced Manufacturing, Materials & Engineering (AMME) and Digital ICT reports in particular documented continued, poor representation of women in their respective sectors.

Northern Ireland now faces a significant STEM shortfall in the immediate term and that shortfall is set only to increase as future demand for STEM skills increases. Encouraging more women into STEM and supporting them to remain in this area could go a long way to solving those skills shortages. In examining the issue, MATRIX highlights the persistent disengagement of girls in core STEM subjects between GCSE and A Level/FE as being absolutely critical:

  • In 1999, 11,943 boys and 11,104 girls were born in Northern Ireland.
  • In 2014/15, 87.6%* of the girls (9,647) took STEM GCSEs, compared to 91%* (10,873) of the boys.
  • But when it came to Core STEM A levels or FE vocational exams in 2016/17, only 30.7%* (3,376) of girls took one. That compares starkly to the 85%* (10,221) of boys who did so.
  • So the decline in girls participating in Core STEM between GCSE & A Level/FE is anticipated to be 65%, compared to a 6% drop off for boys.
  • The gender imbalance in Core STEM participants can never recover from this catastrophic decline, so to understand the imbalance we must understand what puts girls off Core STEM at GCSE/A level/FE.

*Projections based on UK WISE rates of qualifiers.

The report found that despite women comprising almost half (48%) of the entire workforce in NI their representation in non-traditional, STEM occupations remains low. Women in STEM leadership roles, i.e. management, directorships and as senior officials remain underrepresented across all STEM fields (17% average).

Creating a more inclusive, respectful and meritocratic employment culture is fundamental to driving diversity in the workplace. Employers committed to proactively addressing gender gaps by embedding diversity strategies, will in turn secure increased growth and prosperity for all.

MATRIX recommends the establishment of a DfE led, cross-departmental working group to develop a STEM action plan to make NI STEM-ready by 2030.

Speaking at the launch, Dr Bryan Keating OBE, MATRIX Ambassador and former MATRIX Chair, said:

“Now is the time for action – Northern Ireland businesses need to get ahead on these issues, and we know that diversity matters. Having a diverse workforce and leadership team means value added – Women bring different perspectives which prompts better understanding of customers, employees and wider stakeholders.

“In this the national ‘Year of Engineering’ – a campaign celebrating the world and wonder of engineering, and recognising the importance of role models and visibility of STEM careers to encourage girls to explore ALL of their options, MATRIX has commissioned case studies of TRULY inspirational women in STEM.”

Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Impact),Ulster University and Chair of the study, added:

“Gender diversity in STEM is not just a moral imperative – it is one of economics. In an era where high growth in technology investment and industry is regarded globally as a key driver for productivity and competitiveness, Northern Ireland must avail of all of the resources available – and women are almost half of the workforce.

“MATRIX has provided the evidence in this report as to why it is now time for positive and collective action. The underlying risk of further stagnation is unacceptable.

“There is a need to have better measures in place to evaluate impact, so that we know what best practice looks like, to learn, and to scale. We must collectively agree to align our efforts to avoid inefficiencies and to be of mutual benefit to each other. And of course, collaboration must be encouraged and supported –  better communication is the key to this.”

As part of the study, MATRIX produced some videos showing Northern Ireland women in STEM careers, talking about the work they do and what inspires them.

Lyn Weir, Digital Content Manager at Chain Reaction

Dr. Laura Finney, Engineer at James Leckey Design

Kelly Moore, Software Engineer at Kainos

Emeryn Erwin, Food Technologist at Moy Park