Time to close the gender gap – why we need more women in STEM

For anyone who has attended a technology trade show or conference in the last few years, it’s clear that the technology industry still suffers from an identity problem when it comes to diversity. Whilst initiatives have started to improve the balance of men versus women, figures show that women are still significantly underrepresented in the Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) industries.

According to the most recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) data, women make up only 18% of digital technology roles. Furthermore, the UK Government’s Wise Campaign found that only 8% of women progress to a Level 4+ STEM qualification with only 24% of women progressing to the STEM workforce. European statistics also show that only 1 in 3 STEM graduates is a woman; only 17% ICT specialists in the EU are women; and 93% of capital invested in European companies this year went to all-male founding teams.

So why are these numbers so low? We believe the stumbling blocks lie with education and careers guidance. According to data from UCAS, 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women. Whilst it is undoubtedly growing (the number of women graduating in core STEM subjects grew from 22,020 to 24,705 in 2019 for example), the figures also show that the percentage of men graduating in these subject areas has grown more rapidly, leaving the number of women still lagging behind.

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One of the main difficulties in attracting women to digital and STEM occupations would appear to be their perception as largely male-dominated roles. Tech roles are often seen as ‘jobs for the boys.’ From very early ages we need to create an environment where children are able to think widely rather than have their options shut down by traditional stereotypes of traditional male and female subjects. STEM subjects should be introduced from reception age for children, long before they even start thinking about careers or specialisms to choose at school. Learning STEM subjects often requires a hands-on technical approach, which is not only fun for children, but is more likely to help them retain the knowledge they have gained. By incorporating STEM into early education, we can all help to fill the skills gap at an early age helping prepare them for deciding which subjects to take at GCSE and A-Level. This is where many females can be lost from the science/mathematics pathway and where we can certainly do more.

Looking beyond school, we can also see that gender diversity problems exist within universities and higher education settings. In 2018 the government published two pieces of research examining the current demand for digital skills in the UK job market and the digital skills needed to succeed then and in the next 10 years. The research found that barriers existed especially for women who were under-represented on higher education courses in computer related subjects, and within the industry as a whole. The COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem yet further with a report from STEM Women finding that 60% of female STEM students have had their future career prospects negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Organisations like BT are already trying to address this issue with initiatives like the Barefoot Volunteering Scheme, which they have launched in partnership with Computing at School (CAS). The scheme enables volunteers to work directly with teachers to help them understand the STEM elements of the curriculum and encourage pupils’ interest in STEM from a young age.

However, much more needs to be done especially when retaining women in STEM presents a further challenge. This is where we have seen success with mentoring schemes – helping to develop the employee and not a specific end result. Again, BT has developed its own Women in Technology Group which pulls together over 100 women from the business and encourages development opportunities. What’s more, its Women’s Network has launched its own mentoring scheme, working in specific schools and allowing volunteers to ‘buddy up’ with 15-18-year-old females.

Openreach, a subsidiary of BT is also actively encouraging women to take up careers in engineering and technology. Last year the intake of women engineers was higher than in previous years but there is still more to do.

With technology such a significant part of our daily lives, and artificial intelligence and machine learning paving the way the future – a career in STEM is accessible for everyone. And while many organisations have implemented diversity and inclusion programmes, they seem to be making little difference to the gender balance. We can’t think of a career that is more satisfying, better paid and potentially world changing than tech. We need to work harder at getting this message out to everyone and change the perception of tech as being “a job for the boys” to one which far better reflects the gender diversity of our population.

Written by Crissi Williams, CEO of the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals (ITP)

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