Encouraging STEM uptake: why plugging the skills gap starts at school

Analysis of the 2021 A-Level results reveals important trends across the school curriculum, with STEM subjects being a focal point for many. It’s interesting to note that while there are some encouraging trends, there also remains a lot of work to be done to further increase the uptake of STEM subjects in general, and among female students in particular.

This time around, the data shows a 6.13% increase in the overall percentage of students taking STEM subjects. For the first time, female A-Level maths students overtook male students in the number of A* grades achieved – with 29.1% getting an A* compared with 28.5% of their counterparts.

There was also a 5.79% increase in female students taking STEM subjects in 2021 – with increases across all key STEM subjects: Computing (up 13.02%); Maths (2.34%); Further Maths (4.32%); Physics (8.16%); Biology (7.06%) and Chemistry (7.31%). However, male students still significantly outweigh female students taking maths, further maths and physics.

More than one quarter of female students achieved an A* in Computing this year, up from 17.8% in 2020 and 3.7% in 2019. Despite an increase of more than 20% in the number of girls taking Computing last year, this has fallen back to a 13% increase in 2021. The percentage of girls taking Computing remains virtually unchanged this year at around 14.5%.

How are organisations increasing workforce diversity in tech?

As part of our focus on diversity in tech this month, we take a look at what organisations across the sector are doing to increase workplace diversity. Read here

The looming skills gap

The ongoing difficulty in significantly raising interest in STEM subjects has a clear and damaging knock-on effect in the labour market. Analysis published last year, for example, highlights the problems this creates for employers, with two-fifths citing a shortage of STEM graduates as a barrier to recruiting the staff they need. Almost all (89%) of STEM employers said the recruitment process was taking much longer than usual, with three quarters forced to inflate salaries in order to attract appropriately skilled talent, while 48% were looking abroad to fill open positions. As a result, only about a quarter of the UK workforce in STEM industries is female – which is bad news for the UK companies investing in a raft of Industry 4.0 technologies.

So where does that leave ‘UK plc’? With demand for digital-native talent at a premium, and the very nature of job roles evolving fast, business leaders need to step up their plans to address the looming skills shortage. That includes attracting more women to technology roles and re-evaluating hiring and management practices to eliminate unconscious bias.

Nominations are now open for the 2022 Women in IT Awards – one of the largest technology diversity awards programme in the world

Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen some incredible dedication, transformations, and innovation from professionals and organisations alike – especially in the tech sector. And our 2022 Awards, now in its eighth year, aims to highlight the growth, continuity and results of these incredible women, allies, and organisations.

View the categories and nominate yourself or a colleague/peer who deserves to be recognised and celebrated.

Building momentum

Few people would argue that gender stereotypes remain among the root causes of this alarming shortfall. According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for instance, more boys consider STEM careers than girls, despite similar performances in the OECD’s science test. That’s not helped by a dearth of positive role models – a situation that if reversed could have a significant impact on the interest of female students in STEM subjects.

The good news is this is perhaps beginning to change. Professor Sarah Gilbert is among the most high profile leadership figures – of any gender – to emerge during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s vital that the achievements of Professor Gilbert and other female scientific pioneers are seen by the students at all stages of their educational journeys if we are to build a compelling message that women belong in roles across the spectrum of STEM industries.

How can big tech boost cloud talent and improve diversity at the same time?

Poonam Flammarion, head of Cloudreach Talent Academy, spoke to Information Age about improving levels of diversity in tech and addressing the cloud skills shortage. Read here

Challenging bias

Part of the challenge for businesses has been that leaders and recruiters still use assumptions about the value of certain backgrounds and degrees as the basis for their hiring strategy. This has been a particular issue in the technology industry where a formal ‘technical background’ has long been viewed as a minimum requirement to get on the career ladder. In some forward-thinking companies, however, there is more value now being placed on soft skills, such as creativity, persuasion and collaboration. These companies also recognise that employees can build specialist technical skills via routes such as internships, apprenticeships or on the job training.

To play a full role in building the STEM workforce, businesses should also offer wider support to organisations that are working to ensure equal opportunities for girls and women. Code First Girls is one of a growing number of organisations that support young adult and working age women, in their case, “to become kick-ass developers and future leaders.” Businesses that are committed to equality of opportunity in their technical teams can help promote inclusion and tap into the female talent pool by working with these like-minded organisations.

Given the rapid pace of technology-based change impacting developed economies worldwide, the need for further positive change is vital. The World Economic Forum, for example, argues that over half of all employees will require significant reskilling to maximise the impact of current digital transformation trends. The bottom line is that when it comes to plugging the skills gap, gender equality across STEM disciplines is not just a requirement for any modern, progressive society – it’s also an economic imperative.

Written by Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president EMEA at Skillsoft

Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice consists of the best articles written by third parties and selected by our editors. You can contact us at timothy.adler at stubbenedge.com