Currently in STEM only 25 per cent of the UK’s graduates and 21 percent of its workforce are female.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has previously been seen as stereotypically male and ‘geeky’: not cool, not fashionable and not something to aspire to. It also had a lack of female role models and little flexibility around working hours, so no wonder women were leaving in droves. Thankfully times are changing….
Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of EEF, the representative voice of British manufacturing in the UK and Europe, says “Science and engineering is a very social world to get into; it’s about solving the problems of the future. It’s highly collaborative, digital, high-tech, and there’s no reason why girls can’t do it – some truly inspirational women already are doing it. These are the messages we need to get across. We need to change the way we talk about ourselves in STEM.”
More diverse courses, apprenticeships and returnships are exciting ways forward, says Dame Judith.
“We’ve got some of the best scientific and creative talent in the world. It’s crucial to enhance that with an effective system of flexibility and diversity.”
Returning after Maternity Leave
“Over 90 per cent of those surveyed had got back to work [after maternity leave], but there must be thousands who did not,” says Dawn Bonfield MBE, materials engineers and president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). “The cost of lost training and experience if a woman fails to return has been estimated at £200,000 each, so both women and employers lose out.”
Dawn says maternity breaks for women in STEM are an opportunity rather than a problem, which will result in more women at the top.
“Studies show that organisations perform better with diversity at the top,” says Bonfield. “Employers must stop thinking negatively about maternity leave and see it as a positive opportunity.”
Simple but effective ways of helping women build a bridge back to full time work include flexible working, which 14 per cent of women in the survey said would help.
More companies could follow the lead of Thames Tideway Tunnel, which is constructing a 25 kilometre sewer tunnel in London. It introduced paid 12-week professional internships (now closed) for professionals returning to the workforce after two or more years. They were given assignments, coaching support and an internal mentor.
Other companies, such as engineering consultancy Atkins, offer a returners course. This includes help with adjusting to being a working parent and creating return plans such as departmental updates, handover plans and support networks.
The Next Generation
Crucially, the need now is to focus on the next generation and start discussions on STEM with children and in schools, which can be a major influence on a child’s career choice.
“If we want to inspire the next generation to get into STEM we must introduce them to breadth of STEM careers early on – and maintain that initiative,” says Kirsten Bodley, chief executive of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET).
The Aspires research project by King’s College London found that most children in years six to nine liked school science but most 14 to 19 year olds did not aspire to science careers and thought STEM qualifications led only to careers as scientists, doctors or in science teaching.
Worse, there is a perception that STEM careers are only for boys, which influences girls’ career decisions. “As well as reaching girls we must reach boys. They must also understand that it is OK for girls to go into STEM,” Kirsten add
Women in Business Awards
These prestigious awards, held annually for the last five years, includes the category Spotlight On Women In STEM. The award is to “recognise women who have achieved significant success through either, science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) in their industry, on an individual basis, or through their leadership of others”. The winner of this year’s award is Sandra Sassow, CEO and co-founder of SEaB Energy, which transforms waste on-site into energy and fertiliser. She has not only “positively impacted her organisation” but is a positive role model for women and girls looking to work in STEM.
If you or someone you know is looking for a part-time or flexible role within STEM, then please get in touch with Ten2Two.