All STEM professions are hugely dominated by men, with STEM Women reporting just 24% of the core workforce was female in the UK in 2019.
This, however, cannot be said for the overall picture. As of June 2020, according to Catalyst, 72% of women were in work, compared to 80% of men.
If the number of women in work is not the cause, then what is?
It ranges from how young girls see STEM subjects and careers to what work environments in STEM fields can be like for young women entering the workforce, making many change their course of action early on.
Many studies, including one published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology have been carried out which show that there is a stereotype attached to some STEM roles; the ‘man in a lab’ being one of them.
This is internalised from a young age by both boys and girls, and while it can be encouraging for the former, it can become a subconscious barrier for the latter. Young girls may start to feel that Science and Maths subjects are not for them and as such could lose interest. Or, despite the interest, they feel that it is not a career option once they get to university level.
At the other end of the education life-cycle, the experience of women starting their STEM careers is another big deterrent for them to continue to pursue it in the long-term. A higher share of women in STEM roles report gender-based discrimination within workplaces as well as hiring processes, compared to women working in non-STEM roles.
Along with this, women who are in workplaces where men outnumber women are much more likely to have experienced gender-based discrimination. As such, this is a vicious cycle that hinders any attempts at changes to the proportion of women in this field.
If women’s experiences do not improve, they will continue to leave their roles, discouraging younger girls from entering the field, with the proportion of men staying stable and as a result changes to work environments in areas such as Engineering, Technology, and Maths not happening rapidly, if at all.
In taking a top-down approach, here is how schools, the state and businesses can address this problem:
Engage with early years school children
Introduce young girls to STEM programmes so they can engage practically, as early as primary school is key. One programme introduced by WISE called ‘People Like Me’ translates skills which pupils describe themselves as having into careers. Such initiatives can encourage young girls, otherwise unsure that they have what it takes to be successful.
Celebrating Women in STEM
Highlighting women in STEM using options from school boards to textbooks is key to avoiding girls internalising stereotypes that could hinder their engagement with STEM careers. Along with this, programmes such as STEMettes is a great example of a social enterprise initiative highlighting women working in the area to inspire the young female generation. Similar initiatives need to be encouraged by the state and engaged with by schools.
Subsidising Degrees with Low Female Uptake
Women make up 18% of bachelor’s degrees for Computer Science. Where the difference is so stark, universities and the state can consider creating subsidies and scholarships aimed at women to incentivise such degrees for them which will help address the gender-gap.
Bias Training and Mentorship in Businesses
Within workplaces it is important that bias against women is recognised and countered through training and workshops. In addition to this, mentorship schemes where women who have stayed on in STEM roles act as mentors for those coming through could be of great help in countering feelings of isolation within the workplace.
Female Hiring Programmes by Business
STEM focused businesses should engage in introducing policies that will help them consistently recruit more women. For example, introducing feasible targets for how many women should be hired/retained each year and assigning a manager to this policy. This can be a way for businesses to hold themselves accountable and take action that brings results.
One aspect that is often ignored when speaking about women in STEM roles is the proportion of women who have either not pursued a career in STEM after getting a degree in the area or have left work due to the issues mentioned above. As such, it is important that companies and the government look to incentivise them to seek employment in STEM roles through initiatives such as subsidies.
After all, it is easier to utilise existing resources than creating new ones.
By Sehar Sami, Xander Associate