Tackling the gender divide in STEM

Author - Arlen Pettitt

Date published:

In the UK, women account for only 24% of the core STEM workforce It’s no surprise to know that the number of women taking STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) roles is disproportionately low, but why? Lyndsey Britton-Lee of 50:50 Future explains.

The issue is a multi-faceted one. One of the biggest problems we come across at 50:50 Future is in recruitment and there are lots of practical strategies and practices we can put in place to ensure we attract a wider candidate pool – however, it’s not just down to recruitment it’s also about retention & building inclusive cultures. Despite many women obtaining STEM degrees, few continue to work in the field in which they qualified, which is where we start to see a ‘leaky pipeline’. Retention needs not only greater attention but also breaking down some of the entrenched biases in the industry. Sexual harassment and bullying have forced many women out of STEM and further barriers include bias during the hiring process, difficulties reintegrating following a career break, and women’s low confidence in their abilities despite their accomplishments, all of which can hinder career progression.

More emphasis needs to be placed on promoting STEM as a welcoming and inclusive sector, workplaces in this industry must view Diversity and Inclusion as a business critical strategy and run it through the veins of their organisation as they would any other core business strategy, such as sales. Many businesses don’t know where or how to start but even the smallest changes can make a big difference. At 50:50 Future we always recommend taking a holistic approach to your D&I strategy rather than one-off initiatives in silos across the business.

However, the problem starts way before the workplace in the way biases and gender stereotyping shape our children’s perception of the world and their place within it according to their gender. 

At an early age, boys are four times as likely to want to become engineers as girls

Research shows that gender stereotypes result in girls, by the age of six, avoiding subjects they view as requiring them to be “really, really smart”

The assumptions we make about boys and girls may be conscious or unconscious and can result in our young people being treated differently or offered different opportunities based on their gender. Gender stereotypes shape self-perception, attitudes to relationships and influence participation in the world of work. An understanding of gendered roles, for example, is evident as early as age four.

These misperceptions have a strong influence over what young people believe is for them or not and can be an extremely harmful barrier to their potential if they aren’t challenged effectively or regularly.

‘It feels like I have to like pink and play with dolls and I can’t like blue and play with cars.’ (Girl, 9-10)

‘I feel like people underestimate girls. When I tell people I study physics they think I’m joking because I don’t look like a person who would do that apparently. It annoys and frustrates me. It’s weird because girls can also be engineers.’ (Girl, 15-16)

Through my involvement with the Institute of Physics on Improving Gender Balance in secondary schools,  we have seen first-hand the harmful effect of these influences in specific subjects and interests for girls and for boys, which heavily impacts on theirlife choices and careers. This then leads to small numbers of women choosing STEM subjects and pursuing careers in this field as well as men in caring professions as a counter balance, for example.

We can help break down these barriers with our future workforce, by;

  • Reflecting on our own unconscious biases
  • Role modelling equality
  • Encourage children / young people to participate in a range of activities
  • Be a conscientious consumer
  • Don’t highlight gender in the way you talk when it’s not relevant
  • Be willing to question assumptions children make about gender

There is a lot of work still to be done and progress is slow even though the benefits of diverse teams are a no brainer! STEM is at the forefront of innovation and we are currently in an echo chamber – a team of like-minded engineers, mathematicians or scientists, all with the same backgrounds and who have faced similar challenges, will not be as effective as a team with diverse ways of thinking. A homogenous workforce creates homogenous solutions that are most likely only relevant to people within their social and cultural group.

85% of large global enterprises believe that workforce diversity is critical in driving innovation

Organisations with above average gender diversity and levels of employee engagement outperform companies with below average diversity and engagement by 46% to 58%

Companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation

To become more inclusive in your workplace you can start by;

  • Awareness & Education – a cohesive approach to D&I is invaluable in any organisation to get everyone confident about the subject and on the same page. It’s everyone’s responsibility to learn about others’ challenges and how we can become better allies.
  • Rewind, Review & Revise – take a fresh look at your policies, practices and recruitment process to see what you can do differently. Using inclusive language, imagery and formatting in your job ads, social media, marketing and website is a good starting point.
  • Authentic & Aligned – make sure your D&I agenda is owned at the top with a bottom up approach and is holistic across the whole organisation. Aligning your strategy to your values and embedding it into your cultural DNA will make it authentic and can really impact your organisational performance and bottom line.

Lyndsey Britton-Lee

Co-founder, 50:50 Future Ltd

If you would like some free guidance on how to become more inclusive you can book in time with our 50:50 consultants here.



Royal Academy of Engineering

Unlimited Potential | Report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood



Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

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