Bias against race, age, and gender still preventing return to STEM industries

Recruitment bias against race, age and gender continues to prevent STEM professionals who have had a career break returning to employment, according to a new survey by STEM Returners.


The STEM Returners Index 2023, published during National Inclusion Week (September 25 – October 1, 2023), showed women trying to return to the engineering industry after a career break are more likely to experience recruitment bias than men.

The Index asked over 1,000 STEM professionals on a career break a range of questions to understand their experiences of trying to re-enter the STEM sector.

Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of women said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to nine per cent of men.

In the survey, professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds represented a large proportion (39 per cent) of candidates attempting to return to work in 2023. They were twice as likely as all other ethnic groups (34 per cent vs an average of 17 per cent) to feel they have experienced bias in a recruitment process related to race or ethnicity.

Men (29 per cent) and women (25 per cent) said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their age. Consequently, 30 per cent of returners say their personal confidence has been affected by the recruitment challenges they face, and their low confidence remains a barrier.

The latest results do, however, show some progress. In 2022, 29 per cent of women said they felt bias due to their gender (five per cent more than this year) and overall, 38 per cent of returners felt they had experienced bias in a recruitment process, compared to 33 per cent this year. In 2022, 65 per cent of participants said they found the process of getting back to work ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’, but this year it was just over half (51 per cent) of participants.

Natalie Desty, founder and director of STEM Returners, said that while progress should be celebrated, there was still a lot of work to be done, especially in helping returners who are residents in the UK and eligible to work, transfer their skills and experience they acquired internationally.

“For the first year since we launched the STEM Returners Index, we have seen that candidates are finding it slightly easier to return to work than they were this time last year. This is positive news but there are still too many people finding it an uphill battle,” Desty said in a statement. “There are skills gaps across the engineering, tech and green jobs sectors – these gaps are growing, and the UK needs a diverse, agile and innovative STEM workforce more than ever. This talented and committed group of professionals are ready to help fill those roles. But they are still facing recruitment bias against their race, age, gender, and a perceived lack of experience.

Desty continued: “Women and professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds still face a significant disadvantage when attempting to return. People from minority ethnic backgrounds were 50 per cent more likely than white British candidates to say they were finding the process of returning ‘very difficult’. This has to change. Additionally, we are seeing people who have moved to the UK from overseas are finding it difficult to transfer their international skills and experience to UK positions.

“Industry leaders need to do more to update recruitment practices and challenge unconscious bias to give returners a fair chance to rejoin the industry they are passionate about.”