group of young multiethnic diverse people gesture hand high five, laughing and smiling together in brainstorm meeting at office, company culture

For boosting gender diversity in STEM, confidence is key

group of young multiethnic diverse people gesture hand high five, laughing and smiling together in brainstorm meeting at office, company culture

By Aimée Williams, vice president of content, consumer & business services division at IDA Ireland

Organisations may be starting to recognise that gender diversity is key to success, but the bigger question is why we don’t see more females in executive and senior leadership teams.

The New York Times reported in 2015 that there were more large companies run by CEOs called John than women CEOs. Since then, a report conducted in late 2018 shows that, despite female CEOs driving more value appreciation and improved stock price momentum for their firms, there was still a male-to-female ratio of 19:1 for CEOs. Attitudes towards women in business may have evolved over the last few years but not enough; there is still a vast underrepresentation of females in key executive positions. When looking at the proportion of women in top leadership positions in STEM, the difference becomes even greater.

The main challenge with increasing gender diversity in STEM senior leadership roles is more about encouraging women to work in STEM full stop, which needs to be addressed at a young age. A survey of more than 2,500 schoolgirls in Ireland revealed that 85 per cent of girls say they would like to know more about STEM or STEM careers, and interestingly, 93 per cent of teachers surveyed ranked self-belief in the girls’ ability as a major challenge to the promotion of STEM. To overcome this, we need to showcase the diversity of roles that come from STEM careers, tell the stories of successful women, have the opportunities seen and develop the confidence in the younger generation so that they see a career in science or technology as an exciting, diverse and rewarding journey.

If I reflect on my own experiences at school, I was definitely not aware of the career opportunities in STEM or the rising presence of technology companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple in Ireland. In truth, I never set out for a career in the technology industry; I didn’t feel good enough at maths and science in school. Routes into STEM are varied though and it’s important that young girls and women know this so that they don’t block themselves from opportunities where they could succeed and feel fulfilled, whether that’s in STEM or not.

For me, studying international business and languages at university, which included a year’s study abroad in France, truly opened my mind to different cultures and new ways of thinking and engaging with others. It encouraged me to step out me out of my comfort zone, which helped me to start building my networking capabilities – something that has been a huge benefit in my career.

My involvement in the technology industry started while working at IDA Ireland, the Irish Government’s agency for foreign direct investment (FDI). Our job is to partner with multinational companies of all sizes, in helping them leverage Ireland for business support growth opportunities. Technology companies – be they enterprise tech, edtech, travel tech, sports tech or consumer tech – are one of the core focuses of our business. Over the past 10 years I have worked in attracting some of the world’s most innovative companies to Ireland, whilst also supporting many of our existing technology companies to scale and expand mandates in Ireland.

Like a lot of women, at varying stages confidence in my abilities has been the biggest inhibitor during my career, despite having terrific male and female managers who have supported its growth and pushed me onwards. I’ve found that confidence builds through action, and sometimes the best way to overcome a lack of self-confidence is by adopting a ‘just do it’ attitude. It takes constant investment, resilience and focus to keep building and growing.

Not coming from a tech background, it was daunting at times to find myself face to face with founders, CEOs and CTOs of tech companies, where I needed to understand their business in order to identify a solution. To overcome this, I went out and sought knowledge. I spoke to friends who were software developers or other IT experts and asked them to explain to me how all the pieces of tech fit together. I also read up on articles talking about software-as-a-service (SaaS) models and attended tech conferences to expand my knowledge and boost my self-confidence.

Investing in growing my confidence and knowledge has also helped me to tackle other challenges that many women working in STEM often face, such as being listened to in meetings. There have been many times where my ideas haven’t been considered and then, frustratingly, the chosen idea is flawed in many ways and does not represent the best option. As I have grown in experience and confidence with speaking up, I’ve learned how to deal with this. My advice to women in this situation would be to highlight the positive parts of the idea and ask more about the delivery of the solution to establish how the outcomes will ultimately help to achieve the end goal. The purpose of this is to have my voice heard, present an alternative option, but also contribute with ideas, so that a blended and optimal solution is reached.

It’s important for women to work in all industries across all functions and sectors, but mostly to work in roles they enjoy, that challenge them, that help them grow. We know that diversity of thought, approaches and experiences only add value to companies, and this equally applies to STEM careers. I’ve never put definitions around what I wanted to be when I “grow up”, other than being successful in my chosen career, and keeping that broad mindset has facilitated my career in successfully adapting to work across multiple sectors, cultures, personalities and size of companies.

Overall, I would advise women to share what they want to achieve – it’s surprising how many people will support and help them get there. By pushing myself to be curious, asking for help and surrounding myself with positive energy, my confidence and career has significantly grown and allowed me to deal with challenging situations.

About the author

Aimée WilliamsIDA Ireland Aimée has over 17 years of working in the fast-paced Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) industry and her experience spans a diverse range of sectors including technology, consumer products & services, engineering, life sciences, start-ups and clean technology across international territories. Currently based in the Digital Technology Division at IDA Ireland’s global HQ in Dublin, Aimée is responsible for promoting Ireland as an international investment location, as well as supporting the EMEA Leadership teams of existing clients. At present, Aimée’s focus spans across the content platform technologies, consumer tech, consumer products and business services sectors, working with North American fast growing, mid and enterprise size multinational clients as they develop international growth and talent strategies. Prior to this Aimée spent 5 years working with early-stage companies from all across the US and Europe as they scaled internationally and built-out growth strategies for EMEA. Aimée has also spent three and a half years on an international assignment at IDA Ireland’s Paris office, can speak French and has a BA in International Business and Languages. Aimée currently sits on the Board of the Digital Hub Development Agency.