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Gender Diversity in STEM: How can your business do more?
It’s no secret that gender diversity remains an issue in many industries, particularly STEM. To add to this, COVID has also presented a set of challenges this year that leaves businesses in a position where maintaining gender diversity becomes even trickier than it was before.
According to EngineeringUK’s 2018 briefing 'Gender disparity in engineering’, only 12.37% of all engineers are women in the UK and only 46.4% of girls aged 11-14 would consider a career in engineering, compared to 70.3% of boys.
However, all hope is not lost. There are still a number of things you can be doing to keep gender diversity on the agenda, which we discussed with our panel during our most recent webinar.
The key takeaway is that we need to be encouraging more women to have a career in STEM, starting with the way we teach girls in school, and following this right up to university level and beyond.
At school level
Alysia Haughton-Nicholls, a Science Teacher at Harris Academy in Sutton, noted that it’s important to increase pupils’ awareness of careers in STEM by making links to the curriculum and running virtual webinars where every volunteer speaker is a woman. As a teacher, she likes to ensure that women are at the forefront of promoting STEM careers; for example, she commented:
‘We’ve got displays of famous female scientists in our classroom.’
And Alysia’s best advice? Start young.
There are four main factors that play a part in this:
- Local community
- National perspective
To hear a more detailed breakdown of Alysia’s insights on these four factors, click here to watch our on-demand webinar.
By talking about this subject with girls early on in their school years, it can help to prevent common misconceptions about STEM careers. For example, Claire Hemmings, CEO at Plecos Technologies and Director at Force Development Services, discussed how she asked her colleagues to get their daughters’ (aged 15-17) opinions on what they think engineering is. Unsurprisingly, their answers revealed that no progress has been made, with one response even going as far as ‘I don’t know. It’s for boys’.
‘These girls have no idea what engineering is and they’re no further forward. And then we wonder why in 2, 3, 4 years’ time, when they go to university, why they haven’t picked engineering as a subject.’
So, whilst there are pockets of schools that are at the forefront of this movement, it’s clear that, across the UK in general, there is a lot more work to be done.
According to Professor Averil MacDonald, of Reading University, science isn’t actually the issue, with female students outnumbering their male counterparts across the board in many subjects such as medicine, biology and psychology. The real issue lies within engineering and physics, with her arguing that barriers aren’t just presented to the girls themselves and that it goes beyond that:
‘The biggest barrier for girls studying physics and engineering is her mother.’
Professor MacDonald pointed out that mothers want their daughters to be happy and quite often hold more stereotypical views:
‘If she’s cautious of sending her daughter into what she sees as an unfriendly, male-dominated, dirty, unpleasant working environment, she will caution her daughter against it. So if we’re trying to inspire the girls, we’re wasting our time if we don’t equally inspire their mums.’
By engaging the parents and reassuring them that it definitely can be a happy working environment for women, Professor MacDonald believes that more progress will be made.
She also points out that it isn’t enough to simply get women to study engineering or physics at university because there’s no guarantee they won’t drop out or choose a different career path after they graduate. In fact, each year, around 75% of female students choose what they consider to be ‘better’ offers, usually within the banking & finance sector.
This is because companies within these sectors are advertising themselves as a great career opportunity to women in their first year of study, whereas engineering and technology companies often do this much later when these women have already made up their mind.
Nerys Thomas, Head of Inclusion and Diversity at Leonardo, is well aware of this competition and the work that needs to be done to retain these female students and professionals in STEM fields. She discussed how the female engineers at Leonardo work tirelessly to inspire and encourage girls into considering an engineering career by showing them how exciting their work can be.
According to Nerys, having someone to look up to is one of the most important factors in inspiring the next generation of female scientists and engineers. She commented:
‘They can’t be who they can’t see.’
To find out more about how work experience at university level can play a crucial part in a woman’s future career, click here to watch our on-demand webinar.
We’re all aware that the career barriers for women don’t just stop at university level, but continue well into the world of work. Claire Hemmings shared her insights on what it’s been like as a woman to progress in her male-dominated career. She noted how, because it was so difficult to get work experience, she struggled initially to get inspired and suggested that she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t had a family member in the industry.
Claire recalled how difficult it was to get recognition as a woman in this field at the time, commenting:
‘I was expected to prove myself significantly more than my male counterparts. I was paid significantly less than my male counterparts.’
And, although she believes that this has progressed somewhat within the last 10-15 years, Claire often still finds herself being the only woman in the room.
There are many different routes into engineering, all equally valid, and it’s important to make girls aware of this early on. Whether it’s through an apprenticeship, university, or working their way up from the bottom, more needs to be done to inform them of their options.
To hear more of Claire’s insights on what can be done at industry level to retain women, click here to watch our on-demand webinar.
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