Getting more women into STEM means starting young
An interview with Regina Moran, Vodafone Enterprise Director
It was while on a visit to a primary school that Vodafone enterprise director Regina Moran first realised that getting more women to work in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) would require getting the message to girls at a really early age.
“We were conducting engineering experiments with a group of 4th class kids and there was an experiment where you connect a lemon to a copper coin to create a battery and light a little LED. It’s a great little experiment for kids but even though it was a co-ed school, the boys all jumped up first to connect the lemons,” she said.
“Even at this early age, the girls in the group deferred to the boys. So we changed the rules and said ‘if you want the prize of a packet of Haribo for the team that lights the LED first, then each person has to connect up a lemon’. And then the girls stepped forward.”
STEM is hugely important
The lesson Moran learned was if you want to convince girls that a career in STEM subjects is a viable choice, you need to get this message to them before society tells them otherwise.
“Getting more women involved in STEM is hugely important, and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of energy on personally over the years,” she said.
“Fifty percent of the population is female but we certainly don’t see women in fifty per cent of STEM roles. The numbers tell the true story and it’s a fact that we’re not attracting enough people into STEM in the first place, and the proportion of those people that are women just isn’t good enough.”
Moran followed a circuitous route to her current position. After studying electronic engineering at Waterford Institute of Technology, she moved to Cork Institute of Technology and specialised in micro-processers.
“I come from a working-class background and when I told the career guidance teacher in school that I was going to do electronic engineering instead of the usual job of primary school teaching, the civil service or banking, she didn’t quite know what to say,” she said.
“But I wanted to do something different and I went for it. In college there were maybe 50 people doing electronic engineering and of those four were girls. When I went down to Cork for the diploma class, there was no girls at all.”
More role models now
After college, a job as a systems engineer with Amdahl and an MBA eventually led her to the chief executive’s position with Fujitsu for the UK and Ireland in 2005. However when faced with the decision of whether or not to move to a senior global role within that company arose in 2017, she decided to change direction and join Vodafone as enterprise director.
“I wanted to move sector. Telecommunications and IT were converging and I wanted to learn more because I do really believe in the notion of learning all the time,” she said.
In Moran’s career working in technology and communications in Ireland, a lot has changed for women in the industry. To begin with there are many more role models for young women to look up to.
“You’ve got the likes of Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone, Cathriona Hallahan, managing director of Microsoft Ireland and Louise Phelan, vice president of Paypal -- there’re loads more role models that have come up through the ranks in those organisations and have attained leadership positions. When I was growing up, quite frankly that wasn’t the case,” she said.
Making STEM exciting
For younger women embarking on careers today, the world is a different place. The dawn of the smartphone and the internet age has put connected technology in the hands of young people.
“Very few people when I was growing up had access to a PC or technology and we certainly didn’t have smartphones. Now there’s a whole wave of youngsters for whom that is just normal. That’s a change for girls and for boys because girls use smartphones every bit as much as boys do.”
The problem, according to Moran, is that the STEM sector isn’t getting the idea of the value of a career in these subjects to kids early enough. The middle of secondary school is simply too late.
“We’re not grabbing attention early enough in the education cycle. There’s been a lot of focus on transition year and beyond but I think we need to go right back into primary school, right back to the point where there’s a completely level playing field between boys and girls.”
“At that point they’re all equal in their interests and they’re like sponges -- they’ll learn anything. But by the time secondary school rolls around and they’re 14 or 15 then they’ve already adopted ideas about what jobs boys do and what jobs girls do.”
“The other thing I would say is kids love stories, so the question is how can we create stories about the impact being involved in STEM can create? I mean STEM -- it already sounds boring doesn’t it, the word STEM? So how do you bring it alive with You Tube videos, cartoons and mechanisms that kids will look at to learn how exciting it is?”
“Because I really think it’s an amazing career. It’s a passport to anywhere in the world and you can change the world with science and technology and engineering. But I don’t think the imagery around it is positive quite frankly.”