Tackling Gender and Diversity in STEM

InspirefestTired, inspired and emotional pretty much sums up how I felt after two full days at InspireFest 2015, a two-day international event organised by Ann O’Dea, CEO and Editor-in-chief of Silicon Republic. Tired because these past two-days were action-packed and intense in a conference focused on tackling gender and diversity in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sector. Inspired, because they introduced a stellar line up of international and Irish speakers. Emotional, because the stories shared by Kathy Kleiman, Dame Jocelyn  Bell Burnell, Brianna Wu and many others were at times extremely moving.

Unusually for an event like this the speakers were mostly female. Their themes were broad and varied but they shared a common aim: to tackle bias and encourage more female participation in the STEM sector. And, boy (if you’ll pardon the expression) were there ever some good role models in the line-up, among them Professor Susan McKenna Lawlor whose experimental physics experiments are at the forefront of space exploration and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars.

Like the speakers, the audience too was largely female and included some Irish participants in this summer’s Outbox Incubator, notably blogger FrizzyRoselle who I had the pleasure of meeting on Twitter. You can find her account of what  it felt like to be shortlisted in this SiliconRepublic.com interview.

Lessons from History

After an opening address by Ann O’Dea that included a moving tribute to science journalist Mary Mulvihill, the main conference business got underway with a session entitled Lessons from History.

The speakers were:

  • Kerry Howard, author of a forthcoming book about the World War II women code breakers of Bletchley Park
  • Kathy Kleiman, Co-Producer, The Computers a movie telling the story of the six women who programmed the ENIAC, the world’s first all-electronic, programmable computer (a secret U.S. World War II project)
  • Dr Nina Ansary, author of The Jewels of Allah which highlights the accomplishments of powerful female voices from Iran, past and present.

All three speakers presented the stories of real women who, for one reason or another — unconscious bias or simple sexism — history almost forgot. Not surprisingly, the foundations on which these women built successful careers are pretty much the same as those cited by women in business today:

  • supportive family
  • school
  • potential
  • work

What is surprising, though, is that as recently as the second world war, women’s contribution was still mostly left out of the official record. Kathy Kleiman brought this out strongly in her presentation about the women who programmed the ENIAC, the world’s first all-electronic, programmable computer. She described how when she first spotted some of these women in a photo and asked who they were, she was told they were models. Only the men in the photo were named in the caption! Kathy’s dedication and research uncovered the important work done by these women and she tells their story well using it to make the broader point that getting attribution for your work matters. Kathy’s point was nicely summed up in this tweet by Mary Carty.

Diversity in STEM #inspireFest2015

Leadership Lessons

From lessons in history the conference moved on to lessons in leadership shifting gear to focus on power and influence. Here, Margaret Burgraff, a VP with Intel delivered a professional and controlled presentation on the importance of authenticity and self-awareness. Dream your dream, she said, write it down, make a plan. You’re the architect of your future.

Then Bethany Mayer, President & CEO of Ixia (a network monitoring business) took the floor to share her personal experience of “navigating the glass maze”. Sometimes you have to move sideways to move forward. Don’t let others define you, she said, echoing Burgraff’s earlier point and adding: “Your reputation is all you have. Be careful with it.”

Shelly Porges, a global entrepreneurship advocate, former senior advisor to Hillary Clinton and Co-Chair of the National Finance Council of Ready for Hillary shared leadership lessons from Hillary Clinton, namely:

  • Have a Vision;
  • Take Risks;
  • Adapt;
  • Elevate others

“Some leaders are born women”
Shelly Porges

All three women were joined in a panel discussion by Carolan Lennon (Eircom) and Prof Brian MacCraith (DCU) which linked nicely to a further panel discussion focused on workplace and workforce issues.

Innovation through Diversity

Wrapping up the morning, the last keynote before lunch was delivered by Steve Neff, Chief Technology Office of Fidelity Investments. He described some measures his company is taking to improve diversity but what really caught my attention was his observation that within 10 years two-thirds of the wealth in the US will transition to women investors. This, he explained,  poses a massive challenge for the financial services sector because “70 per cent of women don’t like the product that is produced by financial advisers and 72 per cent don’t like the service.”

Next Generation

Over lunch, we got to play with Google Cardboard before the afternoon got under way with keynotes by representatives of the next generation including Lauren Boyle, a 10-year old coder who creates apps and games. Lauren was followed by Emer Hickey and Ciara Judge (remotely) whose business Germinaid Innovations will provide agricultural solutions. Then Anne Marie Imarfidon (Stemettes) joined the girls in a panel discussion facilitated by Ann O’Dea — possibly the best panel discussion of the day up to that point.

Reaching for the Stars

The penultimate session keynotes were delivered by Ariel Waldman (spacehack.org ), Dr Lucy Rogers (author, It’s only Rocket Science) and Professor Susan McKenna Lawlor, (Space Tech Ireland), the latter saving a bombshell proposal for the panel discussion (hosted by Leo Enright). What I loved about all three presenters was their individualism. Where process is, arguably, the hallmark of global organisations, passion drives these indvidual high-achievers.

Waldman tells a brilliant story of how talked her way into a job at NASA before going on to set up spacehack.org, a directory of ways to participate in space exploration.

Then came Dr Lucy Rogers whose passion is clearing up all that space junk. “Why worry about space debris? A piece the size of a cherry is like a grenade to a spacecraft.” she explained.

Next up was Professor Susan McKenna Lawlor, Ireland’s famous experimental physicist who has built instrumentation for scientific missions to space. This woman truly puts the ‘awe’ in ‘awesome’. Space Technology Ireland is involved in the Rosetta Mission, which saw a spacecraft chase down a comet for years, before landing a probe (Philae) on its surface. McKenna Lawlor updated her InspireFest 2015 presentation days before the event when, having been asleep since the misadventure that impacted its landing on the comet, Philae woke up and began transmitting data.

All three women participated in a panel discussion hosted by Leo Enright and McKenna Lawlor took the opportunity to announce that she would like to construct and launch Ireland’s first spacecraft in an initiative involving schools and teachers and with an estimated budget of €5m.

Immediately there were suggestions from the floor that the project could be crowdsourced and/or crowdfunded. Techmums founder, Dr Sue Black caught the mood:

Irish space craft

And then, as if Day 1 was not already awesome enough, the platform cleared for the final keynote of the day, delivered by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell — a moving if at times sad and depressing personal account of her life in astrophysics. This is the woman who discovered radio pulsars and it is shocking to hear her describe the sexism she encountered throughout her career. Only now, aged over 70, is that improving. “I’m pleased to report my career is nicely peaking at 70+”, she said.

Day 2

An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD opened the second day of the conference and the first part of the morning was given over to debugging the gender and diversity gaps. Two speakers with project that address medical issues particularly appealed to me on Day 2 — Ciara Clancy, the CEO and Founder of Beats Medical described developing a treatment for Parkinson’s that is delivered via the mobile phone. It helps people with Parkinson’s to overcome their mobility symptoms. Louise Kenny, Director of the Irish Centre for Foetal and Neonatal Translational Research described her work with INFANT a project aimed at improving the treatment of women with pre-eclampsia.

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Video game developer, Brianna Wu got a standing ovation for her keynote in which she described the abuse she has come in from gamers who don’t like her feminist stance and there were a couple more good panel discussions — one with founders and one with investors. I particularly enjoyed hearing from Dublin Start-up Commissioner Niamh Bushnell and Sharon Vosmek, CEO of Astia.

Huge kudos to Ann O’Dea of siliconrepublic.com and her team for coming up with a truly innovative and inspirational event.  If you get the chance to go next year, I highly recommend it.

Improving language skills

I am  always interested in ways to improve my language skills. Lately I have been brushing up on my school-level French using Duolingo, a clever app that uses written, aural and oral techniques with some social and gaming elements that make learning fun. The app takes full advantage of the features on your smartphone using the headphones and microphone as well as getting you to write. It allows you to customise a daily practice target and provides a coaching utility that sends daily reminders by email or SMS to your smartphone.

Using the Duolingo App to Learn a Language

Apart from French, you can use Duolingo to improve your language skills in German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese — and you can choose to learn several languages simultaneously should you wish. It helps a lot that the app is installed on your smartphone because it makes it so easy to fit the daily practice into a busy schedule.

The idea of using gaming-type technology to teach languages is interesting. It is definitely true that Irish people have a language deficit. Despite learning Irish for 12 years between the ages of 5 and 17, most of us leave school without any noticeable degree of fluency and 6 years of French, German or Spanish seem to similarly fail to deliver practical competence to any significant level.

Recently, I spoke to the director of a company based in Dublin that employs more than 850 people from about 30 countries doing business in eight different languages. He told me that the company has found it difficult to source Irish employees with fluency in other languages, even among language graduates.  Although, interestingly, a few years ago, the availability of language skills in Ireland was reported to be a factor in Amazon moving its European services centre to Cork.

The EU has ambitions for its citizens to be able to speak two foreign languages and introducing languages to children from an early age is seen as one of the keys to achieving that goal. A Eurobarometer report published in 2012 reported that the countries where  respondents were least likely to be able to speak any foreign language were Hungary (65%), Italy (62%), the UK and Portugal (61%) and Ireland (60%).

Studies like this one have explored the advantages of using gaming technologies to teach languages and Duolingo, which was nominated Apple’s iPhone App of the Year at the end of 2013, has shown that learning can addictive and fun. Wouldn’t it be terrific if apps like this could also improve the employability prospects for our young people and better still if greater language competence turned out to be just one more reason for businesses to locate in Ireland.

Apps iLike

DowncastNot too long ago I was complaining about the problems I have been experiencing with Apple’s Podcasts app. Well, this week I took the plunge and deleted the app from my iPhone 4 replacing it with Downcast — a paid app that lets you search for, stream and download audio and video podcasts. So far all of my favourite subscriptions and streaming without problems and I’m finding it easier to navigate than Apple’s podcasts app. I particularly like that it shows both the size of the file you’re downloading and the available space left on the iPhone. For details see www.downcastapp.com


In the process of doing my podcasts research, I came across a couple of other apps that I’ve also been having some fun with. Viddy by Viddy.Inc is a neat app that lets you edit video on your iPhone. I like its simple slider feature that allows you cut a video clip from a minute or two to just a few seconds making for faster uploads when you’re on the move. Viddy is easy to use and has social share features.

tuneinTunein Radio from Tunein will let you listen to live local and global radio on your iPhone. It streams the shows and I just use it on wifi because 3G in this part of the world is too patchy to rely on. If you’re a radio fan, this is an app well worth checking out before you invest in an Internet radio!

FlipboardIf reading rather than listening is your thing, Flipboard from flipboard.com is a neat app that collates content from selected feed sources such as RSS, facebook, Twitter and blogs and presents the content with selected images through an easy to browse, user-friendly interface that also allows you to select stories from these various sources and compile them into a personalised magazine which you can then browse and share. This is a very interesting digital publishing model that could have signficant implications for publishers.

RTRIrish Real Time Rail by Stuart Woolley is a very good app for Irish commuters. Enter the train station name and it will show you what trains are due. It tends to be a minute or two ahead of the overhead display on the platform but that can be a good thing.

CarnivoresCarnivores: Dinosaur Hunter by Tatem Games. Apparently there are millions of people playing this game so you probably already know more about it than I do!


Podcast Download Problems

Perhaps I’m just not suited to syncing. Ever since Apple introduced the Podcast app last year I’ve been experiencing podcast download problems on my iPhone 4.

Examples of Podcast Download Problems include include:

  • Recent podcast episodes not appearing in the iTunes store
  • Podcast ‘Playback failed’ messages
  • Podcast cannot be downloaded at this time messages
  • Various sync issues possibly due to incompatible settings between the various devices I own — but that’s just a guess.

Whatever is going on, it appears to affect my iPhone more than my laptop. For example, one podcast that I subscribe to released a new episode this week. The episode duly appeared on my iPhone but wouldn’t play or download. It wasn’t listed with the other podcast episodes in the iTunes store so I couldn’t stream it either. When I connected my laptop, the episode downloaded automatically to my iTunes library and plays perfectly but I can’t see it in the iTunes store from my laptop either.

I tried Google for solutions and came across a few suggestions including changing Podcast settings on the iPhone and turning the iPhone on and off but nothing seems to make a difference.

So, today, I decided the time has come to part company with the Podcast app and find an alternative which, based on what I’ve read so far, will probably be Downcast or Instacast.

Watch this space for updates.

Update: It’s been some time since I initially posted about my podcast download problems. I switched to using the Downcast App and now mostly use it instead of the Podcasts App on my iPhone. Interestingly, the Downcast App also seems to work better with my iPhone docking station.