Written by Priyankaa Joshi
More women are needed in science and tech jobs in order to tackle Wales’ “chronic” STEM skills shortage. Priyankaa Joshi looks at what is being done to improve gender diversity
In a time of rapid technological change, the jobs of the future are undoubtedly in STEM (science technology, engineering and maths).
As Wales is no longer reliant on coal mining or large-scale manufacturing, a thriving STEM sector is increasingly important to keep up in the fast-moving global economy.
According to research by STEM Learning, one in five new jobs in the UK will be STEM-related by 2022. Despite this, a huge 89% of science and tech businesses are struggling to recruit. In order to tackle the growing disconnect between skills and business needs, we must prioritise diversity and gender balance. In schools, girls often stop taking STEM subjects after their GCSEs. More women drop out of STEM after university and the leaky pipeline continues as women climb up the career ladder.
At present, women make up just 24% of the UK STEM workforce. Not only is this a waste of talent, it is hurting economic progress..
It makes business sense to step up efforts to attract, retain and promote more women. So, what is being done?
Raising the profile
With employers crying out for science and tech graduates, there are numerous benefits for women who pursue STEM careers. Not only are employment rates higher for STEM graduates, research by Hay Group shows they earn almost 20% more than their peers.
Salary aside, STEM jobs can be highly satisfying as they provide the chance to make a positive contribution to society. According to a 2013 survey by the Royal Academy of Engineering, 98% of female engineers find their job rewarding. Yet, despite the favourable prospects, women are steering clear of STEM subjects and careers.
In a bid to tackle the skills shortage and address the diversity gap, a new STEM awards scheme has been launched by Grapevine Event Management and Jamjar PR. Endorsed by the Welsh government, the very first Wales STEM Awards will take place on 12 November at Cardiff City Hall. The aim of the scheme is to raise the profile of the industry and shine a light on the array of opportunities available within the sector in order to inspire and attract a new generation of STEM workers.
“Wales boasts a wealth of STEM-based organisations that could provide ample employment opportunities for school leavers, graduates and professionals however we need to create greater awareness of these opportunities,” explained Gemma Gwilym, communications manager at Jamjar PR.
There are 15 categories including ‘Educational Programme of the Year’, ‘Company of the Year’ and ‘STEM Woman of the Year’. Studies by Girlguiding UK have revealed that role models are crucial to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and tech.
“By celebrating the achievements of women who are driving innovation in STEM across Wales, we will give young women someone to relate and aspire to,” said Gwilym.
Setting up networks
Females who progress from higher education into the STEM workforce face various barriers which prevent career progression including isolation, workplace bias and lack of flexible working. Women’s networks can be an effective way of helping women deal with these issues.
In September 2019, the Wales Women in STEM Network was launched by The University of South Wales with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. The goal is to increase female participation in STEM by providing opportunities for women to share ideas, ask questions, network and find mentors. It also provides resources for schools, universities and employers.
A key feature of the network is its website (www.waleswomenstem.org) which pulls together all the initiatives and support available for women in STEM in Wales.
“Wales has plenty to offer by way of support but our research demonstrated that this support wasn’t coordinated and it was often difficult for people to engage with,” said Dr Louise Bright, founder of Wales Women in STEM.
The website also features a collaborative platform – an online space for women to connect with each other and offer advice, support and guidance.
The platform is essentially a soft form of mentoring,” explained Dr Bright. “We found the main thing that women wanted from the network was peer support but the term mentoring can be intimidating.”
There are also a range of sectoral groups such as Women in Cyber Wales for those in cyber security and Digital Women Wales for women working in IT and tech.
Reaching girls and young women
A key way to increase the supply of STEM workers is by focusing on the start of the pipeline. Despite the fact that girls regularly outperform boys in STEM subjects at GCSE and A levels, relatively few go to study these subjects post 16.
Research by ScienceGrrl Campaign revealed that fundamental issues holding girls back include stereotypical ideas about gender roles, lack of encouragement from teachers and parents and a misperception of what STEM careers entail.
According to the Welsh Government’s 2016 STEM delivery plan, there are a range of initiatives in place to increase the number of girls pursuing science at school and university level. Government priorities include developing an inspiring and engaging curriculum, providing training for teachers who teach STEM subjects and improving career guidance.
Outside of the classroom, there are also initiatives in place to encourage girls to embrace science and tech. Cardiff-based science and discovery centre Techniquest has recently started offering free coding workshops for girls aged between 11 and 17 years old.
“Girls are often put off by tech careers because they don’t know how to code or think it’s too difficult,” said Kelsey Barcenilla, engagement offer at Techniquest. “We want to show girls that they can do it and provide them with a pathway to go on and study STEM in higher education.”
Breaking barriers through tech
Gemma Hallett, founder of youth career app MiFuture, has a unique approach to getting girls into STEM jobs. The MiFuture app works in much the same way as the dating app Tinder, with a ‘swipe’ function that pairs young people with potential jobs or apprenticeships.
When creating MiFuture, Hallett was determined to design a gender neutral app to encourage diversity, particularly in STEM. A major issue preventing girls from entering science and tech careers is the lack of support from teachers and parents. A study by the Institute of Technology found that 93% of parents wouldn’t support their daughter to pursue a career in engineering. Boys are also more likely to have a career in engineering or tech suggested to them by career advisers.
“With the app, the algorithm does the matching. It doesn’t have to come from teachers or parents – we bypass all of that by putting the opportunities straight into girls’ hands. This is how we’re going to tackle the STEM issue in Wales,” said Hallett.
MiFuture has already seen success in this regard. Hallett explained how Newport manufacturing company Wafer Fab was struggling to recruit any girls on their engineering apprenticeship programme. When they advertised it on MiFuture, the first person to apply was a girl from South Wales.
“It was a hell of a moment for us – what a barrier we must have broken down there,” said Hallett.
What can employers do?
Women with a STEM degree are less likely to remain in a STEM career than their male counterparts and they are even less likely to progress to leadership roles.
A major issue is the inflexible working environment. An inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee found that once women have children, their difficulty in balancing a career with family responsibilities causes them to leave STEM careers.
Indeed, Dr Bright from Wales Women in STEM left her research job because she wanted to have a family but didn’t think it would be possible to juggle the two.
“That’s what inspired me to help other women in STEM. It got me thinking, how many other women are being lost to science because they can’t see a way forward?”
According to Helen Wollaston, chief executive of WISE, the key element to attracting and retaining more women is to embed diversity and inclusion at the heart of an organisation’s culture.
“This needs to be led from the very top,” she said.
Here are some practical steps that employers can take:
- Write job advertisements in a manner that attracts more diverse applicants
- Embrace flexible working for men and women
- Develop ‘keep in touch’ strategies when employees are on maternity leave
- Organise unconscious bias training for HR staff and line managers
- Provide coaching, training and mentoring
- Offer quality part-time jobs
Want to improve gender diversity in your business?
For specific advice on how to attract, retain and support women in the STEM workforce, visit the WISE campaign website, www.wisecampaign.org.uk
They offer a 10 step programme to help companies improve gender balance and they also provide a variety of training sessions including a recruitment bootcamp, leadership workshops and unconscious bias training.