The gender imbalance in STEM
Monday, February 10, 2020
The UK economy would benefit from an extra £2.6 billion each year if we increase the number of women working in tech to fill the prevalent IT skills shortage. Improved communication skills, innovative ideas and boosted morale were named as the core benefits most likely to come from hiring more women in the workforce, according to a report from Nominet.
The gender imbalance in technology doesn’t just represent a missed opportunity for women and society, but also for businesses. There’s a growing body of evidence – supported by everyday experience in organisations across the country – that having a more diverse workforce, including an equitable gender balance, makes for a better business.
The business world is starting to act on this fact, from start-ups to tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Intel and Google, who have pledged to improve the future of women in IT.
When a curious mind is given resources and opportunities to learn, research, test, teach, and invent, the possibilities are limitless. So are the examples of women changing lives through technology - just like Martha Benavente - building solar lanterns that bring light to her Guatemalan town, those girls coding a drone controlled by text messaging that will dispense medicine in rural areas or Youyou Tu – a pharmaceutical chemist who won the Nobel Prize for research on anti-malarial compounds that improve the health of millions.
Too often, women and girls face adversities that hinder their education, training and entry into the STEM workforce. The lack of women in STEM comes from the lack of awareness shown to girls in school and the encouragement to study STEM further at university. There are a few stereotypes that can discourage girls from taking STEM subjects at school; the stereotype that people who work in STEM are nerdy or socially awkward, and the negative stereotype about their intellectual abilities.
Beyond access, perceptions of STEM fields influence women and girls’ participation. For too long, gender biases and stereotypes have steered women and girls away from science-related fields. Only about 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education and even fewer pursue Doctoral degrees or hold leadership positions.
Today, just 28 per cent of researchers worldwide are women, and numerous studies have found that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers.
The lack of women in STEM roles is, at least in part, a result from the lack of girls studying STEM related subjects and wanting to pursue a career in the field. However, women already working in STEM are also facing several challenges.
Women who are in a STEM-related career are likely to experience sexual harassment at work. Indeed, 78% of women who work in a mostly male-dominated workplace felt this discrimination. Many also believe that their gender makes it hard for them to succeed at work and receive promotions.
To counter these statistics, employers must incorporate gender-sensitive policies for recruitment, promotion and pay scales, provide flexible schedules and family leave and have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. With inclusive workplaces serving as empowering environments, women scientists can focus on what’s important: unlocking their full potential as innovators for a better tomorrow.
If organisations want to recruit and retain more women in STEM careers, they should consider the following:
1. Equal and fair career opportunities
49% of women working in predominantly male environments have stated that they have been passed over when promotions have been offered to someone less qualified than them of the opposite sex. They also feel they haven’t been given any opportunity to step up from the position they are currently in and wonder if they have to leave their employer to be promoted.
We still need to provide a wide range of career options in IT, as Dave Gibbs, STEM computing and technology specialist at the National STEM Learning Centre and Network said: “People and project management are areas in the sector where women succeed now – they just aren’t highly visible or obvious paths in tech companies, which are still regarded by many as different to other companies.”
The tech industry needs to brush up on the way it assesses and rewards staff to further improve career progression, as Gillian Arnold, chair of BCSWomen, said: “Effective monitoring is key. When we are monitoring then we can build business cases and take action. In terms of the future of women in IT, the next 10 years is all centred around whether we can attract women and keep them in IT.”
2. Creating flexibility
Women understand that it is not necessarily easy to maintain a work-life balance, however they do want more flexibility to manage a work-life dynamic. Women are still dedicated to their jobs but might need to spend more time with their family, especially if they have young children.
While many companies offer employees some flexibility to ease work-life friction, such as the ability to work part-time or work remotely, fewer employers address the unique challenges that working parents face. Mothers retuning from extended leave benefit from programmes designed to ease transitions, adequate facilities and scheduling for breastfeeding and other maternal and child health needs, and on-site child care. And because the STEM fields change rapidly with scientific developments and technological innovations, women returning to work or entering the workforce need upskilling/re-skilling opportunities to stay on top of the latest advancements.
Returnships have been around for years. They are best described as internships whereby the salary is reflective of the high-level professional experience the returner has. Returnships give women the opportunity to return back to their careers after a break and build their skills to put them in a position where they can go back into their senior roles rather than having to start again from the bottom. This is beneficial because it’s a way to work on closing the gender pay gap in tech. The more returnship programmes available for women in tech, the more opportunities there will be for women returning to work in a higher salary role.
Equal pay is the right for men and women to be paid the same when doing the same, or equivalent, work. It has been an aspect of UK sex discrimination law for over 40 years, and the law is now incorporated into the Equality Act 2010. However, a significant pay difference between male and female employees still exists.
Men in high-tech companies earn 25% more than women, compared to the gap in the UK overall of 18%. Additionally, men receive 20% more in terms of bonuses (Mercer).
If businesses embrace salary transparency, they can give employees the tools to understand and ask for their market worth. Making this information available empowers women and underrepresented groups to gain an objective understanding of what they should be paid for a role.
Embracing pay transparency also levels the playing field for pay negotiations. Far from the old stereotype of women asking for a lower salary when offered a role than their male counterparts when, UK Tech News data shows that women today are almost as comfortable as men asking for increases from an initial salary offer (69% for women and 71% for men).
Unfortunately, a gap remains in how often men and women receive those raises: 7% more men than women reported successfully negotiating higher wages. If businesses are transparent about how much a role is worth, it becomes much harder to justify withholding that higher paycheck.
4. Last but not least: a culture change
US research, submitting identical CVs but with either a man or a woman’s name, depressingly confirmed that there is a bias in academia towards recruiting men across the board, even amongst women. That is a real challenge – suggesting that we need deep culture change to build a viable future for women in IT and other STEM fields.
Gillian Arnold, chair of BCSWomen, said: “There are some mindsets which need changing, so the more unconscious bias training which can be done, the more we can break down institutional barriers to the acceptance and progression of women in IT.”
HOW TO GET INTO TECH
Check our sister company’s website, The Growth Company: Education and Skills, they offer apprenticeships ranging from Design Engineer to IT Assistant through Data Analyst.
The future for women in tech and other STEM sectors depends on those industries’ ability to inspire young women to study science and technology throughout their school careers, and then go on to apprenticeships and degrees in these subjects.
The work does not end here. The STEM sectors must continue to encourage women to apply to the industry and then retain the female demographic. 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.
The future of science and technology depends on it.