Comment: how closing the gender gap will drive innovation

Gender equality is desperately important in all industries, but particularly important in STEM. Jen Marsden, Director Design Engineering at SharkNinja offers some thoughts on the steps that can be taken to address industry’s gender gap

International Women’s Day is like an annual progress report on women’s rights, asking how far we have come. The answer each year is – not far enough.

This is especially true in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths). This year, for the first time, the number of women working in the sector topped 1 million, which is an incredible feat. Yet despite having met this impressive figure, women still make up just 24% of the total STEM workforce, whilst a mere 5% hold leadership positions in the sector. This isn’t a new problem. It’s an age old trend which begins in school, carries through to higher education, then pervades every single STEM profession.

Many people still associate scientific and mathematic fields as ‘male’ and the arts and humanities as ‘female

The foundation for a career in STEM should be laid in early life, but at every stage of the education system, more boys study STEM subjects than girls. There are several reasons for this. Although society is working hard to move away from gender stereotypes, an unconscious, implicit bias still remains, and many people still associate scientific and mathematic fields as ‘male’ and the arts and humanities as ‘female.’ Another issue is the distinct lack of female STEM role models depicted in the media – only 22% of students in a PWC survey could name a famous female working in technology. Is it any surprise then, that many girls are subliminally dissuaded from STEM subjects from a young age?

Also, there is a great absence of information, guidance and encouragement to enter STEM experienced by girls. According to PWC’s research, only 16% of women have had a career in technology suggested to them during higher education.  If nobody is putting STEM forward as a possible career path and there is no information available on the opportunities these subjects can offer, the continued gender imbalance of graduates in STEM is only to be expected.

Unfortunately, the discrepancies do not stop there. Although there are now one million women working in STEM in the UK, just 5% of leadership positions in technology are held by females. Of course International Women’s Day is a time for celebration, of all the amazing things women have achieved, but it is also a time to reflect on figures like this, which exemplify the huge amount of work which is still to be done.

Diversity and inclusion are key to driving innovation – and as innovation is what’s key to changing the world, this gender disparity is a big problem

Gender equality is, of course, desperately important in all industries, but it is particularly important in STEM. We know diversity and inclusion are key to driving innovation – and as innovation is what’s key to changing the world, this gender disparity is a big problem.  By ensuring a critical mass of female participation in maths and science disciplines every day, we can spearhead our ability to drive break-through innovation, faster, for the benefit of everyone.

So how can these imbalances be addressed, so the pipeline of talent entering STEM is an even gender split? Firstly, the industry should be working closely with the education system to teach children and students about technology from a young age, shining a light on its instrumental role in shaping the world we live in and highlighting how students can get involved in this exciting sector.

35 per cent of Sharkninja’s senior engineering roles are held by women. Image: Sharkninja.com

Secondly, the entry routes into these professions need to be diversified and for awareness of these to be greater. Alternative avenues firms should look to invest in might look like apprenticeships, work experience weeks, or shadowing schemes. Finally, there need to be processes in place so that female employees progress at the same rate as their male counterparts. Organisations must implement initiatives to support women to advance to more senior positions as well as gender targets at all levels. I am happy to say SharkNinja is making great progress in these areas, with 20% of the London engineering office being female and 35% of engineering leadership roles being held by females too.

To do our bit at tackling these issues more broadly, last year, myself and a small group of colleagues came together to initiate SharkNinja’s London We Lead programme. The We Lead initiative runs across both our Boston and UK offices, we have implemented a series of internal events aimed at raising awareness of these issues amongst all employees, creating a global support network for women across the business and providing education and entry avenues to students through joint ventures with universities and schools. This year, the team is planning on working with local schools to run ‘Experience Days’, with the intent being to give school children from many underrepresented groups exposure to an example of how STEM subjects can be used in everyday life.

We all have our part to play, not just on International Women’s Day, but every day. Whether that’s engaging with equality ventures our organisations run (or establishing these if they don’t yet exist), spreading awareness of the vast careers in STEM, or if you are a parent, teaching your children in the wealth of opportunities which exist. As technology becomes ever more intertwined in every part of our lives, we need women, as well as men, to take their rightful place in the shaping of our future.

Jen Marsden, is Director of Design Engineering at home applicance manufacturer SharkNinja