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Bridging the gender gap – starting with STEM

We’ve made a massive progress in workplace equality in recent years, but why is it that women are still so poorly represented in sectors like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)? Can businesses do anything to encourage more women to enter highly skilled STEM careers?

Stemming the tide – rising numbers but falling percentages

First the good news. The UK is on track to reach one million women working in STEM roles by 2020. The figures produced by WISE (the campaign for gender balance in STEM) show that 900,000 women are currently working in STEM and a further 200,000 are expected to gain relevant qualifications and enter the workforce within the next two years. So numbers are rising the overall numbers are rising.

On top of that, many businesses across industries are making a concerted effort to empower women. In particular, the number of tech-related roles has risen massively, and with it increasing numbers of women in IT careers. However, that is not the complete picture.

The bad news is not enough women are training up to make an impact on their overall percentage of the workforce. While the number of women graduating in core STEM subjects slowly grows [up from 22,020 in 2015/2016 to 22 340 in 2016/2017] the more rapid growth in numbers of men graduating in these STEM subject areas means the percentage of female graduates has dropped from 25% to 24%.

In recent years the largest area of job growth across all sectors is tech related, and yet the overall numbers of women have remained incredibly low. Laura Stebbing, co-founder of accelerate-HER states that “only 25% of tech employees and only 5% of tech leaders are female,” and a report published on the Statistics on Women in Engineering notes only 14.4% of the UK STEM industry are womenWhy is it then that the numbers are so shockingly low?

Girls just aren’t good at maths, are they?

Sadly, the main deterrents seem to be the same: the perception of male-dominated cultures, low awareness of the jobs available and the lack of opportunities for promotion.

It starts with the lack of encouragement at school. The cultural stereotype that boys are better in STEM subjects starts early on in life. Recent studies show that girls as young as 6, believe that brilliance is more likely attributed to boys. It is this saddening lack of self-confidence, not skills or intelligence, that leads to discrepancies in gender performance in STEM subjects. Moreover, without a nurturing and encouraging environment, young girls feel they fit in better in subjects that have more of their own gender, overlooking opportunities that STEM fields can provide.

STEM needs girls

There is a massive need for appropriate role models, as you can’t be what you can’t see. Empowering women starts with empowering girls. If we tackle the stereotypes girls are exposed to early enough, educate them about career options, create meaningful work experience opportunities, we are likely to affect their career aspirations and future level of achievement. With the skills shortage costing STEM sector £1.5bn a year, this is the only way forward.

More and more companies are getting involved in school programs. They also provide retraining and further development programs for their existing employees, helping women feed into the senior leadership roles.

This move will hopefully lead to building the future pipeline of skills and bridging the gender pay gap.

Maxwell Davies believes in empowering women and providing girls with strong role models. Do you have any local groups or programmes that help empower young girls? If so we’d like to hear from you.

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