Women in STEM: ‘Not just a matter of fairness, but a business imperative.’

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Women have been underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields for some time. With a skills gap looming on the horizon, the UK’s economy can’t afford to ignore women and the vital global resource they represent.

There’s no question that boosting the role women play in STEM fields makes sense in regards to economic growth- a recent report commissioned by the Welsh Government estimates that increasing the number of women in science across the UK could add £2bn to the national economy. In 2012 the then business secretary Vince Cable in reference to the nationwide female STEM professional shortage said: ‘There’s no way we can generate the number of scientists and engineers the economy requires without addressing the situation.’ A Forbes study in 2011 found that 85% corporate diversity and talent leaders agreed that a diverse inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging difference perspectives and ideas that drive innovation. So what factors drive the imbalance and what can be done to address them?

In core STEM GCSE subjects, there is very little discrepancy in participation between the sexes. But as we move higher up the educational ladder, and into employment, numbers begin to dwindle. Although Chemistry and Biology classes remain more balanced, only 21% of students sitting the Physics A-level exam are female. Going further along education this trend continues, and whatever the cause, it’s certainly not academic ability. Research carried out in 2014 reveals that females achieved higher A*-C combined grades compared to males in all STEM subjects at A-level. The cause may in fact be much more psychological, as a 2015 report from the OECD asserts that ‘gender differences in self-confidence’ could be a key factor in the issue. Factors that influence this ‘confidence gap’ are deep rooted and start early. Lack of female role models, gender stereotyping and unconscious bias feature heavily.

Going up the academic ladder and into career choices, challenges facing potential female STEM professionals evolve into lack of flexibility, incompatibility with having a family, sexism in the workplace and a sense of isolation in male dominated fields. Challenges like these lead to women being 45% more likely to leave STEM professions within their first year. However these barriers are being slowly but surely lessened.

Employers have a huge part to play in enabling change is this respect with the help of organisations such as WISE, who offer support to employers via their Ten Steps campaign who wish to improve their female employee retention.  Through initiatives like this and through a general rise in awareness of the subject, between 2014 and 2015 the number of women working in STEM rose by over 100,000 in the UK, including 12,000 professional engineers and perhaps most importantly 15,000 more STEM Managers, including The Royal Academy of Engineers’ first female president, Professor Dame Ann Dowling. Barriers are weakening and there has arguably never been a better time for women to get involved in a STEM profession, but by no means should we stop improving further. As the Prime Minister David Cameron said: ‘This not just a matter of fairness, but a business imperative.’

Katherine Hurst is an Engineering graduate, who currently works with Shell LiveWIRE UK, the UK’s biggest online community for young entrepreneurs (aged 16-30). Their ‘Smarter Future’ programme supports young entrepreneurs with smart and innovative ideas that meet the energy and resource needs of a fast-growing population.