Let’s build additional supports to get women into science

ROLE MODEL: We can help young Irish women achieve their full potential, writes Julie O'Neill of Alexion Pharma


The benefits of these investments are significant, with pharmaceutical companies alone employing 60,000 directly, paying €3bn in taxes, and generating half our national exports (some €55bn in 2011).

Throughout the recession, the pharmaceutical sector showed strong job growth and given recent announcements, this momentum shows no sign of abating – provided we maintain our competitive advantage.

Multinationals have a long checklist to meet before investing in a country. Indeed, when it comes to the biopharmaceutical and technology sectors, the availability of staff with a background in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is increasingly dictating these decisions. But today, Ireland has a serious gender imbalance in these subjects that we need to correct, and quickly.

According to the Central Statistics Office, women are vastly under-represented in science and technology-based careers, at less than 25pc. More worryingly, the proportion of female entrants to STEM courses at universities fell from 47pc to 40pc between 2005 and 2013, despite increased encouragement of women towards related subjects.

Many factors contribute to this imbalance, including historical trends and traditional beliefs that these subjects are more suited to boys than girls. But the modern economy is about knowledge and innovation – and the jobs are there to prove it.

The need to promote equal uptake of STEM subjects is all the more heightened when we consider that, according to the European Commission, demand for STEM professionals is expected to grow by around 8pc between now and 2025. This is much higher than the average 3pc growth forecast for all occupations. But to continue to benefit from this positive growth trend, we need to make sure these careers appeal to as many people as possible.

The Government’s Action Plan for Jobs recognises the potential of STEM-related employment and has made it a priority area for job creation. This is paying dividends.

Last week for instance, I had the pleasure of announcing Alexion Pharmaceuticals’ €450m investment to build a biologics manufacturing facility at College Park in Blanchardstown.

This project – the second phase of our College Park construction – will bring another 200 full time jobs for Alexion, bringing Alexion’s total workforce here to nearly 500 employees.

Underpinning our investment in Ireland (it’s some €580m to date) is our ability to recruit highly competent and skilled staff. Specifically, as a biopharmaceutical company with a mission to develop life-transforming therapies for patients with severe and life-threatening ultra-rare disorders, we rely on the availability of staff with core STEM capabilities.

The importance of accessing the right talent in this context cannot be underestimated. As an Irishwoman working for a multinational, I see first hand the competition that exists for these investments and how pools of skills can be a trump card for countries. In the modern economy, education policy is jobs policy and while Ireland has a lot to offer in terms of talent, long-term STEM-related employment clusters cannot be built on gender imbalances.

The Government is actively promoting STEM subjects in our schools through Smart Futures. This involves a partnership between Government, industry and educators to promote STEM careers and role models to post-primary students, guidance counsellors and parents.

But we need to do more, particularly with parents and second-level students, to highlight the attractiveness of STEM subjects and the significant employment and advancement opportunities that careers in these industries can bring.

In academia, all 21 Irish universities and institutes of technology are now signed up to the Athena Swan initiative, an international charter that commits them to advancing women’s academic careers in science, technology, engineering, maths, and medicine.

Initiatives such as Women Invent Tomorrow at Silicon Republic also champion the role of women in STEM – with its 2014 report with Accenture recommending practical initiatives to increase female participation in STEM careers, including making STEM career information real, tangible and meaningful for parents.

Clearly, excellent work is already being undertaken both by industry and government to raise awareness of STEM careers and to promote women in STEM as role models.

Despite this, as an employer in this sector in Ireland, I am concerned about the long-term trends. I firmly believe addressing the STEM gender gap should be a priority area in education and jobs policy to avoid putting the future on hold for thousands of Irish students.

One idea is to provide a government advisory forum for female participation in STEM subjects to report regularly to the Oireachtas Committee on Education & Skills and the Ministers for Education and Jobs.

This forum should be tasked with assisting in the delivery of government strategy in this area as well as providing regular feedback on the coordination of job creation and education policy as it relates to STEM.

There are excellent initiatives under way in Ireland, and industry has already demonstrated its willingness to contribute but this interaction must be on a formal, sustained basis until we reverse the trend. The mutual interest and complementary approaches of both industry and Government in this area provide an excellent basis to deliver policies to buck the trend.

We also need to look at what those of us already in industry can do to support young women as they advance their careers.

As a past president of Ibec, I believe we need to better utilise existing business networks to enable and empower young women to be the next generation of female leaders in industry. Similarly, mentorship opportunities can give women the confidence to grab the opportunities that do exist, and are hugely rewarding both professionally and personally.

Women have every ability to achieve whatever goal they wish in their careers and lives, but in some areas – such as STEM – there is a need for additional encouragement and support. Through a concerted policy approach, and the help of today’s female industry leaders, we can help young Irish women achieve their full potential and bridge the gender gap in STEM.

Julie O’Neill is executive vice president of global operations at Alexion Pharmaceuticals

Sunday Indo Business.