In recent years, there has been no lack of media coverage lamenting the lack of women in STEM – and rightly so. In 2019, the UK celebrated a landmark moment, with more than one million women working in core STEM roles for the first time. Yet when put into context, this figure continues to cause concern.
Women in STEM today
These inequalities are worrying when you consider two things; the exponential growth and significance of science and technology to the global economy, and the role they play in shaping modern life.
In 2021, 42% of UK tech companies reported an increase in revenue, investment increased by 2.3x and there was a 50% rise in tech job vacancies compared to 2020 figures. Put simply, there is huge opportunity and money to be earnt in STEM, but at present, women simply aren’t benefitting from the sector’s growth.
This is an age-old trend characterised by women missing out on the economic gains and opportunities offered by the most successful industries of the time. This is frankly unjust, and it must not be allowed to continue. The importance of science and technology to global, societal development cannot be understated. Due to the unforeseen circumstances of the past two years, the importance of digital and scientific innovation has been thrown into the spotlight and STEM industries will continue to be vital to the post-pandemic recovery.
Yet to shape solutions that work for as many people as possible, it is crucial the STEM sector reflects wider society, with its diversity of thought, experience and backgrounds.
The issues in their way
The pivotal role played by women in the scientific response to the unprecedented situation we have faced for the past two years, like Sarah Gilbert and Azra Ghani, gives a sense of how much more we could achieve if women were to make up more than a quarter of the overall STEM workforce.
Getting women into tech careers has never been more important, but at every stage of the education system, more boys study STEM subjects than girls. Teachers believe traditional gender stereotypes about subjects such as computer science and design and technology are what’s putting girls off from pursuing them at school and into higher education. Last year, the number of female students choosing to sit GCSE computing fell once more, with female candidate numbers dropping from 16,919 in 2020 to 16,549, despite the overall number of students sitting the exam seeing a year-on-year increase. With just 19% of computer science undergraduates being female in 2021, this offers a clear example of the impact of early gender imbalances.
Even for women who buck the trend and gain the necessary skills and qualifications, the tech world can be an intimidating place. Women-led SME’s contribute £85 billion to the UK economy yet only 1% of female companies get financial investment. Many report receiving more pushback on their pitches, or questions about technology being directed to their male counterparts.
What’s more, with just 10% of leadership positions in UK STEM currently held by women, clearly, there are issues with progression which need to be addressed. Unless this is done, young women will continue to be put off from entering the industry, and so the cycle will continue.
So how can these inequities be addressed so that the pipeline of STEM talent is representative of the world we live in? Firstly, the education system needs to stress the importance of technology to children from a young age, shining a light on its instrumental role and highlighting the plethora of opportunities in the sector.
The routes to change
The entry routes into professions must also be diversified, so they are accessible to all. Corporates must work hand in hand with educators to offer the likes of apprenticeships, work experience and shadowing schemes.
Secondly, firms must ensure gender equality so that female employees can progress at the same rate as their male counterparts. Women must be supported in their advancement to senior positions through access to high-profile work and they should be given profiling raising opportunities through events or public speaking, and be able to develop leadership skills through mentoring.
Finally, the action of education institutions and corporates alike must be supported by a wider culture of change. There have been promising moves here; last year, Amanda Soloway, the UK’s first dedicated female science minister announced a “Women in Innovation” programme to award up to 10 of the UK’s “most promising female innovators” £50,000 grants and mentoring and coaching support. This is a great start, but the level of commitment needs to be stepped up.
Ultimately, the responsibility to improve the gender imbalance in STEM lies with us all. Inspiring women to be innovators is imperative to the future of our world. Now, businesses, educators and governments must work together to build on the advancements made to date, to ensure the tech renaissance of the 21st century is beneficial to all.
Lauren McMullan is Vice President & General Manager, London Engineering and Global Business Partner, Engineering at SharkNinja.