Speech at a Reception for Women in Science
Áras an Uachtaráin, 31 January 2016
It is such a great pleasure to welcome so many women in science to Áras an Uachtaráin as we mark St Brigid’s Day.
Dár leis na Ceiltigh is é an lá amárach, Lá le Bríde nó Imbolg, an chéad lá earraigh. Anseo in Éirinn tugaimíd Lá 'le Bríde air, agus is lá é ar a dhéanaimíd ceiliúradh ar shaol Naomh Bríde. Ba bhean í Naomh Bríde a dhiúltaigh do ghnásanna a ré agus a chaith a saol ag bunú clochar ina bhfuair na mílte ban óga oideachas. Nuálaí struchtúrach agus nuálaí oideachasúil ab ea í Naomh Bríde. Sa lá atá inniu ann cuimhnímid uirthi agus déanaimid í a cheiliúradh toisc í a bheith ina sampla inspioráideach de bhean Éireannach a chinntigh go gcloisfí a guth i sochaí ina raibh ceannas ag fir.
[In the Celtic World tomorrow, St Brigid’s Day or Imbolg, marks the beginning of Spring. Here in Ireland, it is Lá le Bríde, a day when we celebrate the life of St Brigid, a woman who, rejecting the conventions of her time chose, as an innovator in both a structural and educational sense, to dedicate herself to the founding of many convents in whose schools thousands of young women received the opportunity to be educated. Today she is also remembered and celebrated as an inspiring example of an Irish woman who ensured her voice was heard in a male-dominated world.]
Present today are women who have excelled, given a lead in science and in its application for the betterment of humanity. St Brigid’s is a story that resounds, in ways, with some of you here today. Many of the obstacles that once stood between women and the pursuit of a career in science have been removed in recent decades. That is a welcome development, but the field of science – or at least in some areas of science – barriers remain to advancement. However, that situation is changing and that is why we are here today: to celebrate the breakthroughs that have been made, and the leading role that women are now playing in scientific research and in industry. As we do so we are committing to make every effort to ensure that even more must be done to enable even greater access and participation by women at all levels of science.
The contribution of women in science is all the more valuable as we work to locate science within a paradigm of sustainability. That is emphasised in the challenges set to us by issues such as climate change, global hunger and environmental degradation. It is in the applied area of science that we see disappointing and unacceptable levels of female participation.
Official figures tell us that the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects continue to have a significant problem with regard to female participants, and continue to attract and retain more boys and men than girls and women.
The position appears, in fact, to be dis-improving. Last year, entrant figures from the Higher Education Authority showed that while ten years ago 47 per cent of new entrants into science, maths and computing courses at university level were women, by 2013 that proportion had fallen to 40 per cent.
If we look at maths alone, 35% of entrants in 2004 were female, but that figure had fallen to 22% by 2014. When we read such statistics itis dispiriting but not surprising to learn that out of almost 118,000 people working in the STEM sector in Ireland, just a quarter are women.
This situation is not unique to Ireland. Across Europe women are greatly underrepresented in the fields of science and technology, with an estimated six to seven percent of technical positions being filled by women.
There are many factors that are related to this underrepresentation including the way work is structured, gender discrimination and public attitudes.
Science is an important and influential discipline – one which has a pivotal role to play in the great concerns of humanity in our time, and one which has the potential to make the greatest contribution to improving our world. That is why we must keep asking ourselves why are there so few women in science and why is society being denied the intellectual contribution of so many who could be, but are not, represented in the world of science?’
Yet at the Young Scientist event hundreds of girls give us projects that are original, of a high intellectual standard and of wonderful applicability.
Women like you are such important role models. For these students your achievements stand testament to the fact that women today can choose the subjects and careers they wish to pursue, make their unique and vital inputs at this challenging moment in human history, when scientific research is presenting us with new possibilities to address great challenges.
In the world of science there have always been great female pioneers; women like Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or Dorothy Hodgkin each of whose groundbreaking work has helped to shape the world we inhabit today.
Then closer to home, we have the heroic groundbreaker Kathleen Lonsdale who first showed that benzene formed a hexagonal flat ring and she also became the first woman to be elected to the Royal Society of London; Jocelyn Bell Burnell the world renowned astrophysicist and campaigner for the empowerment and recognition of women in science; Kay McNultywho became one of the world’s first computer programmers; Eva Philbin, Phyllis Clinch and Carmel Humphries who not only made significant contributions to teaching and research in their scientific disciplines, but also broke new ground by leading their departments in UCD in the 1960s with great distinction.
These, and so many other laudable pioneers, paved the way for today’s women in science, including the eminent and illustrious women we are privileged to have in the room today, and we do indeed have eminent scientists and science teachers with us. As experts in your fields, award winners, holders of distinguished Chairs and Professorships for which you need to be more than the best in the field; esteemed researchers, writers, and lecturers you are all breaking new ground paving the way for new generations of women who will follow you in using their talent and creativity in the pursuit of careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, and in doing so they will be playing their unique role in crafting a better world.
I have no doubt that the future is bright. To revert again to the 2016 Young Scientist Exhibition in the RDS, which I had the pleasure of opening, it was such an uplifting occasion that bore witness to the wealth of scientific talent and promise that exists in young Irish citizens; their great creativity, curiosity and, above all, their willingness to look at life from different angles and different perspectives.
Sixty two percent of entrants to the Exhibition were female and the overall winners were two schoolgirls from Loreto in Balbriggan, Maria Louise Fufezan and Diana Bura, whose investigation into the Effects of Enzymes used in Animal Feed Additives on the Lifespan of Caenorhabditis Elegans’ was described as work that is “important for the environment and the food industry and will undoubtedly lead to further research in this important area”.
Maria Louise and Diana are here today, as is Elizabeth Cullen who won this year’s BT Masters for her project focusing on recording environmental factors in people diagnosed with cancer. All three join an impressive list of former female winners, many of whom have gone on to successful and distinguished careers in science.
Before I finish, I would like to make special mention of the late Mary Mulvihill who contributed so much to the creation of a positive environment in Ireland for women in science; not least through the establishment of the supportive network that is Women In Technology and Science (WITS) of which I am very proud to be patron.
In a world in which the study of science has become a foundation for innovation in industry, Mary never lost sight of the cultural value of science and of the creative instinct that drives so much scientific progress. Mary, through her published work also generously ensured that the legacy of those Irish women scientists, who did not always receive the recognition they deserved in their lifetimes, would not be forgotten. Her family, who are represented here today, can be very proud of the profound legacy she too has left behind.
Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh arís as teacht anseo inniu. Guím gach rath agus beannacht oraibh ar fad in bhur réimsí éagsúla saineolais, in bhur saolta oibre agus in bhur ról mar eiseamláirí d'eolaithe na todhchaí
[May I conclude by thanking you all, once again, for coming here today. I wish each and every one of you success in your fields of expertise, in your future careers and in your role as inspirational role models for the scientists of the future.]