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STEM industry must employ women equally to men

More female role models and better female BAME representation at all levels is crucial if the STEM sector is to halt the exodus of women from its ranks.

Last November, professional women’s network, Forward Ladies, published its second annual Women in STEM survey. Entitled, ‘Bridging the Gender Gap’, it made for concerning reading.

The report found that women still face unfair challenges in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector — and, worse, a lack of progress has been made over the last decade to improve the situation. It should be no surprise, then, that the industry is seeing an alarming number of women leaving their STEM careers.

In response, the STEM industry must recognise the factors that women say they look for when selecting an employer, including job security and stability, a flexible work schedule and an inclusive culture, and competitive earnings and benefits.

No minority representation in senior management

Another striking point to emerge from this year’s report was that, of the 1,653 women surveyed, none from Black, African/Caribbean or Black British ethnicities were occupying senior management or board level roles. “That’s shocking,” says Griselda Togobo, CEO of Forward Ladies. “Because, the expectation is that if you work hard and perform well, you’ll progress in the same way as everyone else.” Only 17% of women earning more than £150k were from BAME (Black, Asian or other Minority Ethnicity) backgrounds.

There aren’t enough BAME or women role models for young people in STEM

This is a root problem, however, because STEM is resolutely failing to keep — and attract — BAME candidates in any significant number. “Generally, people tend to gravitate towards careers where they see people like themselves progressing and achieving,” reasons Togobo. “So we need more visible female role models and real people going into schools to inspire the next generation.” That may be easier said than done in an industry where women of all ethnicities make up just 14.4% of the STEM workforce.

Of course, even if female role models started pouring into schools to bang the drum for the STEM sector, the problem can’t be solved overnight. “That’s exactly right,” agrees Togobo. “Which is why the industry needs to be consistent. No more short-term, tick-a-box ‘we’ve done this now – let’s move on’ attitudes. It’s only a persistent focus that will change those statistics over a prolonged period of time. The sector needs to wake up and tap into a talent pool that includes women, BAME representation, and people with disabilities. Everybody who can contribute should be allowed to contribute. A more holistic view is needed.”

Five stages on the road to diversity

The ‘Bridging the Gender Gap’ report identified five stages that STEM companies and their leadership may go through on the road to diversity. The first is denial, where they demonstrate out-of-touch behaviour and a lack of understanding about the importance of diversity. The second stage is seeing a lack of diversity as inevitable and approaching any improvements as a cosmetic exercise. The third stage is actively trying to change their culture with various initiatives, but doing so in an uncoordinated — and therefore ultimately ineffective — way.

By stage four, companies have made progress but still have work to do. “Stage five is Utopia,” says Togobo. “No companies within our survey had reached that stage.”

Awareness filtering through gradually

Yet it’s not all bad news. Togobo notes that “there is a strong desire among many people, male and female, working in the sector, to see this imbalance addressed and the barriers removed.”

Men are a big part of the solution

Men are key to this, she says. “I don’t like to paint a picture of men being a problem. I see them as the solution, because all the men I meet are very positive, engaged and want to help. They just don’t know how. Yet if they see other men saying things that are inappropriate or are making others feel excluded, they need to call it out for what it is. If they only did that, it would massively change the culture for a lot of women at work.

“I think awareness is coming to everyone gradually and I see a lot of hope. Certainly, for my children I believe the future is bright.”

A copy of the report is available to download from

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