Diversity in STEM: why breaking barriers should be a top priority

Jen Openshaw explores the gender gap in STEM

Encouraging women and girls to follow careers in STEM is becoming increasingly important. Faced with an ever-growing digital skills shortage, particularly in cybersecurity, steps need to be taken to encourage women from all backgrounds to enter these fields.

While gains in female representation have been made in recent years, STEM industries continue to be perceived as male domains. The number of women studying and working in STEM remains worryingly low, making up only 28% of the workforce.

To help bridge this gap, support must be provided at an educational level to encourage women and girls to participate in STEM subjects without the constraints often imposed by gender stereotypes. For example, mentorship and skills development are key.

We must also consider women already in the workforce. Currently, there is a missed opportunity for retraining or restarting their careers after having a child. In turn, this untapped potential is having a detrimental impact on the wider STEM industries.

Research shows that gender-diverse teams are, on average, more productive and, therefore, more profitable. However, women face several obstacles when looking to make a career leap into STEM. Following my career change, I understand the need to break down these barriers and create an environment where everyone can thrive.

So, how can employers help make this happen?

Provide educational support

The root of STEM success often begins with education. Starting as early as nursery school, the learning opportunities available to women and men are unbalanced.

Recent data has shown that only 35% of STEM learners in higher education are women. When it comes to computer science, girls make up just 21% of entries at GCSE, and this participation drops significantly at A-Level. Consequently, a lack of female peers or role models will have a knock-on effect on others looking to pursue STEM careers.

While action is being taken – through government schemes like CyberFirst Girls, for example – more can be done early to inspire girls to pursue STEM subjects at school and beyond. This includes mentorship, skills development and networking opportunities.

Consider untapped potential

Another untapped pool of talent is women already in the workforce, including women without prior experience in STEM and those who paused their careers to have children.

A 2020 study found that 85% of stay-at-home mums wanted to do paid work. Then, in March this year, over 500 women attended a career conference in Manchester hosted by Tech Returners, whose mission is to empower experienced engineers back into software engineering, often after spending time having children.

Women with no prior education or experience in STEM are also looking to get involved and have various soft and hard skills to offer. Several years ago, I made a big career leap like this myself, and I’ve never looked back. I studied history, got an NVQ in beauty therapy and then had a career at the National Trust – definitely not the usual route into IT.

Completing a part-time bootcamp course at Manchester Codes, however, meant that I could train as a software engineer at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. Many other online free resources offer help and training, including freeCodeCamp and Code First Girls.

Drive cultural change

Diverse and collaborative workforces bring innovation, perspective, and inspiration to STEM industries. Failure to tap into all pools of talent will lead to missed opportunities for advancement and pervasive bias that is often hard to eliminate.

To avoid this, employers must promote inclusivity by recruiting not only candidates with traditional university degrees, but also from boot camps and self-taught coders. This involves implementing a cultural change to ensure alternative routes into STEM feel within reach.

Employers can also make a difference by offering a range of part-time, hybrid, or remote working options to support all parents. Flexible working should be normalised for all employees, whether they’ve got kids or not – something that has become more evident following the pandemic and a significant shift in priorities for many people.

Ultimately, diversity should be at the heart of every STEM organisation and not just an afterthought. We are moving in the right direction towards closing the STEM diversity gap, but it’s important that we keep the momentum going – and a big part of this involves providing educational support, widening the talent net, and driving an inclusive culture.

Jen Openshaw is also a Software Engineer at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence.

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