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.