Great strides have been taken to address the STEM Gap in recent years. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of women in the STEM workforce tripled, and in 2020 the number of women holding board positions in STEM companies jumped by 18.
This progress isn’t just restricted to the c-suite. In the UK alone, there was a 31% rise in girls taking STEM subjects at A-level between 2010 and 2019. Likewise, between 2011 and 2020, there was a 50% increase in the number of young women securing places on STEM undergraduate courses.
Considering STEM fields have historically been dominated by men, this shift has been a welcome step forward. Young women have equal potential to achieve great things within these fields if they are given the right opportunities and guidance.
However, whilst progress has been made to open up the sector, a significant disparity does still exist. Today, women account for just 3% of STEM industry CEOs, 19% of STEM company board members, and only 28% of the STEM workforce.
Unfortunately, this under-representation is persistent worldwide and largely comes from the opinions, and micro influences children are exposed to from a young age. Gender-biased language, in particular, can have a profound impact on introducing stereotypical expectations, and 7 in 10 women believe that the gender stereotyping they experienced as children had an impact on their career choices. This will continue to prevail until entrenched taboos are overhauled and the discourse around women in STEM is tackled.
The stark reality is that girls are frequently tracked away from STEM subjects during their education, so much so that they account for just 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK. By often opting out of STEM subjects from a young age, girls are restricting access and opportunities to pursue higher education, or even a career, in this sector at a later date.
What’s more, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have access to relevant networks, resources, or training, which can hamper their work readiness or interview skills. Once again, this bias is disproportionately weighted against girls because there are fewer relatable role models to look up to in the field.
A lot of young women are, as a result, still unsure about the breadth of careers in STEM, what skills they need to achieve success in these fields, and the financial security that many STEM careers offer. Many also lack connections that can shed light on these pressure points and open doors to opportunities.
So, what can be done to address the barriers young women still face and encourage more girls to embrace these fields?
Well, breaking into STEM often comes down to education, network and mindset. Young women will have a better playing field by encouraging skills-based learning, community-based work experience, and access to networking.
Society must also work together to challenge the widely accepted stereotype of the type of ‘typical’ person who works in STEM. Parents and teachers can play a key role here by ensuring young people are exposed to diverse STEM roles and are made to feel accepted as part of this field, regardless of their background. Championing more inclusive cultural norms will also be vital. Access to fun, practical, early-age learning activities that promote inclusive language and gender expectations can encourage young girls to believe that a future in STEM is accessible.
From a more practical perspective, scholarships, occupational mentorships, and part-time apprenticeships are valuable in illuminating the opportunities out there and could therefore go a long way in addressing the STEM gender imbalance. However, for these programmes to have a notable impact, issues of social mobility also need to be addressed to ensure consistency of access for all.
Initiatives including the recent International Day of Women and Girls in Science have undoubtedly helped increase awareness on a global scale, creating opportunities for young women to explore, question, and consider what success in STEM could look like.
At the end of the day, access to education is a human right, and this extends to science, technology, engineering and math subjects. Whilst girls’ involvement in STEM has accelerated over the last fifty years, recently, these gains have petered out – with the percentage of women in the STEM workforce only increasing by 2% between 1990 and 2020. Therefore, it is crucial that women are given equal opportunities from a young age to embrace a career in these fields if they so wish to.
To achieve this, we need to see a significant adjustment to the bias previously shown, together with early access to relatable role models, greater access to networks, skills, support and meaningful opportunities, to make it an attractive and attainable field for young women. Ultimately, supporting more women to STEM careers can only be good for driving social mobility and talent diversity. This will, in turn, lead to greater innovation and leaps forward for society—a win-win for all.
By Sharon Davies, CEO of Young Enterprise, a national social mobility charity that motivates young people to succeed in the changing world of work by equipping them with the work skills, knowledge, and confidence they need.