Why are women still underrepresented in STEM?
We’ve been talking about the lack of women in STEM for years - so why haven’t we solved it yet? This is not just a matter of social justice; it is a matter of economics. Achieving gender parity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) would boost Britain’s labour value by at least £2bn.
The shortage of women in STEM begins with a shortage of girls studying STEM subjects beyond GCSE and into higher education. Despite initiatives to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects at school, the fact that these subjects are still so male-dominated is putting girls off. Just 35 per cent of students who study STEM subjects beyond GCSE, and just 25 per cent of STEM graduates are female. Knowing that your class is going to be full of boys can be off-putting for girls, especially at secondary school age.
The number of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. Since 2015, the number of women in STEM (women graduating in core STEM subjects) has grown from 22,020 to 24,705 in 2019. This would appear an increase, however, due to the more rapid growth in the number of men graduating in these subject areas, the percentage of women in STEM has fluctuated from 25 per cent, down to 24, and finally up to 26. The gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering.
In the last decade, the number of women working in engineering roles has almost doubled from 25,000 to just over 50,000. This is positive data; however, the overall percentage split is still very low.
Research shows most girls and young women are attracted to careers that help people. Of course, that is a common desire for job seekers regardless of gender - but stereotypes of what it means for a woman to help people are funnelling girls into HEED (health, primary education, and domestic) subjects. So, making girls aware of how STEM subjects can help people is a vital step towards gender parity.
Most people associate science and math fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female”. Research has identified implicit bias is common, even among individuals who actively reject these stereotypes. This bias not only affects individuals’ attitudes toward others but may also influence girls’ and women’s likelihood of cultivating their interest in math and science. Taking an implicit bias test can help organisations identify and understand their biases so that they can work to compensate for them.
Providing more visible role models of successful women in STEM would also help. Many top IT and consulting companies, like Accenture, PWC, and KPMG, are trying to attract more women into leadership roles by offering more flexibility, thus also providing role models for the next generation.
With a growing expectation by businesses for hiring managers to achieve a gender-balanced graduate intake, whilst also attracting the best and brightest talent available whilst filling the required number of engineering roles is almost impossible to achieve. According to WISE, a community interest company that encourages women into STEM education and industries, for the third year in a row just 14 per cent of engineering graduates are female and only 15 per cent of computer scientists are female, down from 16 per cent last year.
Why should business be concerned? What are the benefits of improving Diversity & Inclusion in your workplace?
- Bigger talent pool
- Better performance
- Increased employee engagement and trust
- More opportunities for innovation
- Stronger business results and profits
Attracting and retaining more women in the technology and engineering workforce will maximise innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. Scientists and engineers are working to solve complex and challenging problems – putting people and equipment in space, developing renewable technologies, providing people with clean drinking water, etc. Engineers design many of the items we use daily, including cars, IT/computers, TVs, mobile phones, and microwaves. When women are not involved in the design of these products, needs, and desires unique to women may be overlooked e.g. Some early voice-recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women’s voices were unheard. Other examples include the early automotive airbags which were tailored to adult male bodies, resulting in avoidable deaths for women and children. With a more diverse workforce, scientific and technological products, services, and solutions are likely to be better designed and more likely to represent the wider economy.
What can businesses do?
How can we change the gender balance in engineering and attract more women? It’s so important to attract a diversity of talent to any business and making changes to business processes, recruitment strategy, culture, and working practices can make a huge difference.
While the lack of women in STEM may start at school age, businesses have a pivotal role to play not only in hiring more women but also in retaining them. Discrimination and harassment are facts of life for women in STEM, with over 50 per cent saying they’ve experienced discrimination and 20 per cent saying their gender has made it hard for them to progress in their careers.
Business leaders who are serious about overcoming this have several priorities to focus on:
Create a culture where women feel welcome
Let’s face it: Many engineering companies are male dominated, which can create unwelcoming environments for women as a result. If companies are going to get serious about increasing the number of women in the workforce, and truly have an inclusive workplace, they need to make sure everyone feels welcome and included.
This may sound easy or like it just happens, but that is far from reality. Not feeling a sense of belonging, or having worked in a hostile culture, is one of the top reasons women leave the job, especially in science, technology and engineering fields. One simple intervention is educating individuals about the existence of stereotype threat. Engage men to help cultivate an environment where women feel valued.
Although instances of explicit bias may be decreasing, implicit bias continues to have an adverse effect. Implicit biases may be stronger than, or in some cases contradict explicitly held beliefs or values. Therefore, even individuals who espouse a belief in gender equity and equality may harbour implicit biases about gender and, hence, negative gender stereotypes about women and girls in STEM. Although implicit biases operate at an unconscious level and are influenced by our cultural environment, individuals can resolve to become more aware of how they make decisions and when their implicit biases may be at work in that process.
Senior management advocacy
Make sure diversity is on the agenda of the leadership team, not just in the human resources department.
Promote more women to leadership roles
This includes encouraging more women in a business to put themselves forward for these roles. 40 per cent of women in STEM say they have been passed over for promotion in favour of a less qualified man and are wondering if they need to leave their employer to progress in their career
Explain the path of advancement
Many businesses have an ad-hoc approach to promotion. When the criteria for evaluation are vague or no objective measures of performance exist, an individual’s performance is likely to be ambiguous, and when performance is ambiguous, people view women as less competent than men in STEM fields.
Women and others facing bias are likely to do better in institutions with clear criteria for success and structures for evaluation are in place. Very clear promotion criteria and the merits required, transparency in the evaluation process to why you get promoted are a necessity… and make sure people understand across the entire employee base.
Provide more flexibility
The burden of childcare (and eldercare), inflexibility around the still female-biased workload of parenting and how it disproportionally falls are critical. Businesses need to enable women to manage senior leadership roles in tandem with their family responsibilities by avoiding a workaholic culture, and a paucity of financial and logistical family-friendly support structures.
Reward employees and avoid the gender pay gap
Another factor in urgent need or improvement is the gender pay gap in STEM, which widened by 3 per cent last year. More experienced scientists and engineers suffer a wider pay gap than recent graduates. Pay your female employees the same as your male employees for the same work. Do not wait for them to ask for a raise - women are socialised to ask for raises less than men.
Join women tech groups
Collaboration with schools
Lack of new talent coming through the door. We’ve heard it time and time again that stimulating the STEM talent pipeline is the answer - but what does that look like exactly? Gender roles play a major factor in societal views and this impacts how children form attitudes about the careers that they might become interested in. Create programs where you can partner with schools -from sup through the university/college level - and show students real-world examples of what an engineer does in the high-tech sector.
Evaluate mentoring, sponsorship, and networking programmes to target improvements. Research shows companies who put effort into developing, mentoring, and sponsoring female talent will show a higher retention rate than those who do not show this leadership commitment.
Maternity and back to work
Women returning to the workforce after career breaks often lack the confidence of their professional skills. Returners and support programmes can change workplace perceptions towards women and improve the diversity in the workforce, empowering these women to return.
Women are often daunted by the idea of returning to the workforce after a career break. This is a key barrier to improving senior female representation. For this reason, 60 per cent of mother returners feel either less confident or not confident in the contribution they can make. This also affects confidence in their professional skills. A programme should seek to upskill mid to senior-level women who have taken a career break.
Review the recruitment process
Recruiting, retaining, and promoting women in STEM does not just happen “it has to be driven” very deliberately and intentionally, and every aspect of culture, your recruitment process at every level re-evaluated and fine-tuned. Look at how you recruit at all levels,
- check the text in job descriptions are attracting a broad candidate pool
- use job descriptions that are gender neutral
- get away from the list of skills and think about the purpose of the role.
- use skills-based assessment tasks and structured interviews to select your shortlist based on merit; where possible, remove references to gender in applications
- include multiple women in final shortlists where possible
Overall, there is often a mismatch in how organisations design their diversity policies and how they implement them in the workplace. Knowing how to measure the success of a diversity or inclusion program is also a challenge. Set goals where you want to be, this can include:
- Primary, which includes basic characteristics like age (generational diversity), race, gender, and sexual orientation
- Secondary, including education, marital and parental status
- Workplace, including the individual’s job level, work pattern, and years with the organisation
- Style, including work habits, leadership style, and communication style
Despite progress towards gender equality in the last 10 years, social norms around gender roles still pervade. If you are nervous about getting into science, technology and engineering, the great news is that the traditional workplace is/has changed for the better.
The tech sector is already growing at 2.5 times the rate of other industries, as digitalisation takes an even bigger hold post-pandemic. This creates recruitment and retention problems, so all businesses are continually developing policies, for a wider talent pool whilst increasing gender parity.
If you would like to find out more about women in engineering, please contact Redline or browse our recent jobs.
For other inspiring interviews about Women in Engineering click on the links below.