Closing the gender gap for women in STEM

  • 18/11/2020
  • 05:42
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2020 has become a milestone year for those campaigning for greater gender balance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics employment. In 2019, WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering) celebrated hitting their 2020 target of reaching one million women working in core-STEM roles in the UK. However, despite the huge progress made over the past decade, women are still highly underrepresented in the technology and engineering workforce – making up only 24% overall.

The STEM issue in the UK - Education

In the UK, despite making up half of the workforce, only 25% of all jobs in STEM industries are held by women. In engineering, that figure is only 12%. Furthermore, the ‘’UK’s future pipeline of technology talent is also heavily skewed towards men, with women accounting for just 15.8% of the UK’s current generation of engineering and technology undergraduates.’’

Here lies one of the major hurdles towards reducing gender disparity in STEM roles in the UK. What makes studying STEM subjects so much more attractive to men? It’s certainly not about ability, as girls nearly always outperform boys in engineering fields of study. “In all Stem A-levels, except chemistry, more girls get A*-C grades than boys, and this pattern continues at degree level. Almost 80% of female engineering students will get a first or an upper second-class degree, compared with 74.6% of male students.’’

The STEM pipeline starts at a young age, and in short, not enough girls are interested in, or encouraged to choose STEM subjects. Overall, 83% of males are studying STEM subjects at school, compared to 64% of females, similar divergence emerges at university, where over half (52%) of males are studying a STEM subject, compared to only 30% of females.

Why is there disparity in women moving into STEM roles?

In PWC’s ‘Women in Tech’ 2017 report, they identified some of the main reasons' girls weren’t choosing STEM topics from their GCSEs onwards:

  • being better or gaining better grades in humanities or other essay-based subjects
  • not finding STEM subjects as interesting
  • STEM subjects not being relevant to the career they plan to choose
  • teachers not making STEM subjects appealing
  • the need to get the highest possible grades, as this influences both university entrance and future career options

53% of girls asked in their survey also said their preferred career was a factor in their choice of A-Levels, compared to just 43% of boys. This suggests that girls are thinking ahead –but can’t envisage a career in STEM roles for themselves.

So clearly more needs to be done at every stage of the education pipeline to open young women’s eyes to the exciting prospects that can emerge from studying STEM subjects.

Another major issue is the lack of role models to aspire to. When the respondents in the PWC survey were asked to name someone that inspired them to follow a career in the tech industry, 83% of female respondents were unable to name someone, compared to 59% of male respondents.

“I work a lot with women who talk about how stressful and challenging the experience of being the only woman in a work setting is,” says Gayatri Shenai, a partner in McKinsey Digital and founder of our annual Women in Technology and Operations conference. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The lack of role models and indeed visible women working in important STEM roles is certainly a factor to be considered. The PWC report later added that 70% of girls surveyed said they would feel more confident pursuing STEM careers if they knew men and women were equally employed in these professions.

Case study 1 – Gentech

Genetech, the biotechnology company, has a great track record of gender balance. 54% of its employees are women, 41% of its executives are women, and 51% of its mid-level managers are women. How do they do it? The company has a six-point plan for gender balance that includes merit- and performance-based systems to ensure equity, career and work flexibility to retain employees, as well as visible senior leadership support.

Case study 2 – LinkedIn

42.9% of employees are currently female, with 21.8% of tech employees and 39.1% of employees in leadership roles. The company has also partnered with different organisations to widen the pipeline of future employees, with an emphasis on intersectionality. LinkedIn has worked with Melinda Gates and Pivotal Ventures to promote STEM education to young women of colour.

The next steps

So how can STEM organisations go about reducing this gender disparity? Broadening recruitment efforts by devoting extra resources into sourcing diverse candidates from day one is a good starting point. PWC suggest that ‘’Technology organisations could set themselves gender targets and a programme of initiatives to support women to advance to more senior positions. This could include reverse mentoring, return to work schemes to get women into technology roles following career breaks and sponsorship programmes for high performing females.’’

However, as we have highlighted, the main problem starts at the education level. From an organisational perspective, companies in the tech industry should partner with schools to develop modules that can be used to teach students about careers in tech. They could develop programmes showing young women how technology is making the world a better place, before they reach the age where they start to decide their GCSEs and A-Levels.

Furthermore, STEM companies could also increase the visibility of female role models. Perhaps as part of your organisation's website you could give testimonials from your female employees and celebrate women who have made a difference in your industry. Involving more women in the recruitment process is another important step that could be taken.

The rapid technological progression we’re witnessing today is having a huge influence on the future of humankind. The gender disparity therefore means that currently men are playing a much bigger role in shaping our lives compared to women. In a PWC report, 50% of the females interviewed said the most important factor when choosing their future career is “feeling like the work I do makes the world a better place/has a wider impact”. The corresponding figure for men was only 31%. Perhaps then making this link between the importance of STEM jobs shaping the future is the key to approaching this gender disparity, and inspiring women into roles in these sectors?