Comment: Inclusion schemes fall short, but hope is on the horizon

Many inclusion initiatives fall short of having a positive impact on the organisations and individuals they are trying to help, says Natalie Desty, founder and director of STEM Returners.


When I set up STEM Returners in 2017, it was to do something tangible, to actually return diverse and lost skills to an industry that needs them. I had seen how hard it was for people with a gap on their CV to return industry. They were being penalised for taking care of a loved one, or trying something new, or being made redundant. I wanted to create clear opportunities for the people who still had so much to give to their chosen field.  

I’m pleased to say that small strides have been made to improve the career prospects for returners, as well as improve inclusion in the workplace more widely. But there is still as much frustration as there was in 2017, that many inclusion initiatives fall short of having a positive impact on the organisations and individuals they are trying to help and result in real change.  

Recently Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, expressed this same frustration when she said diversity initiatives can be ineffective and counterproductive after the Inclusion at Work report said that employers need help to develop equality, diversity and inclusion policies that have the desired effect and offer value for money.  

The report is right, employers do need help. But they also need a will to ensure positive change comes into effect.  

ED&I understanding is vital to make cultural change in organisations that unknowingly create barriers to individuals joining, returning and progressing their careers on an equitable playing field. The theory and knowledge are the foundations to creating workplaces which are rich in diversity, and where everyone feels of value. However, they are just that, foundations. The building – the meaningful impact, that actually has a positive effect on people’s lives - must come from action. But they don’t function without the other. For example, there is great value in setting up Employee Relations Groups, but if these do not have executive sponsors, budgets, measurable targets/outcomes, they will struggle to make waves/meaningful impact. 

Small improvements shouldn’t be ignored 

Our annual survey of more than 1000 returners has shown small progress for returners. In the 2022 STEM Returners Index, 29 per cent of women said they felt bias due to their gender, five per cent more than the 2023 results. Overall, 33 per cent of returners said they felt they had experienced bias in a recruitment process in 2023, compared to 38 per cent in 2022 and just over half (51 per cent) of participants in 2023 said they found the process of getting back to work difficult or very difficult compared to 65 per cent in 2022.  

These small improvements are welcomed and show that with enough will and the right support, inclusion initiatives can work. But let’s not celebrate too soon. The 2023 Index still showed that professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds were twice as likely as all other ethnic groups (34 per cent vs average of 17 per cent) to feel they have experienced bias in a recruitment process related to race or ethnicity. Both men (29 per cent) and women (25 per cent) said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their age. As a result, 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.  

Now we need to push forward 

The small improvements we saw in the 2023 Index and the awareness that Ms Badenoch’s comments has brought to the discussion mean this is an opportune moment to push forward and drive real change. 

It is clear there is still work to do and we are ready for the challenge, and thankfully leading organisations across different STEM fields are too. In the last few months, we’ve launched sector-wide returners programmes in the aero and auto space, and the underwater sector, that provide more opportunity for individuals to return to industry.  

Seeing multiple organisations come together for the same programme, who share in our commitment to increase equity in STEM and improve the way people who are on a career break return to work, is reassuring. Once, they might have seen each other as competitors in the past but now it is evidence that with the right support and enough will, schemes can be effective and productive. Only by working together, will we make vital changes in recruitment practices, to help those who are finding it challenging to return to the sector. 

The STEM Returners Index 2024 is open until 30 June 2024. The survey is anonymous and asks a range of questions including reasons for a career break and what challenges were faced when attempting to return to work. The results will enable STEM Returners to further understand the barriers people face, track the progress UK STEM industries are making, and shine a light on the change needed to create fair opportunities for all. 


Natalie Desty, founder and director of STEM Returners