INWED '22 profile: Prioritising diversity in STEM

This International Women in Engineering Day, it’s crucial that we champion women working in STEM whilst shining a light on the lack of diversity still pervasive within these fields, says Jen Openshaw, software engineer at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

While we’ve seen some positive progress, the number of women both studying and working in STEM remains worryingly low. In fact, estimates suggest that women make up only 28 per cent of the workforce

With the UK currently facing a significant digital skills divide, particularly in areas like cybersecurity, more needs to be done to ensure people from all backgrounds are entering STEM careers. This is not just about numbers. It’s been proven time and time again that diverse teams are more effective across the board, helping to create workplace cultures that foster success and, in turn, attract the best and brightest talent.

This not only involves focusing on girls and women entering STEM careers, but women already in the workforce. Currently, there is a missed opportunity when it comes to recognising people looking to retrain or restart their careers after having a child. 

Following my own career change, I’ve not only been hyper-aware of the sheer size of this opportunity, but also of the obstacles that stand in the way of women making these career leaps. So, how can employers tap into this untapped pool of talent?

Early barriers to entry

It is no secret that women working in STEM face many challenges throughout their careers. Limiting opportunities begin at an early age, stemming all the way back to their experiences with STEM subjects in school.

Recent data has shown that only 35 per cent of STEM learners in higher education are women, and when it comes to computer science, girls make up just 21 per cent of entries at GCSE, seeing a significant drop at A-Level. This has a knock-on effect on other women and girls looking to pursue careers in engineering. For instance, many may be put off by the lack of female students in their class, widening the gender gap in the long-run.

While action is being taken - through government schemes like CyberFirst Girls, for example - more needs to be done at an educational level to inspire more girls to pick and pursue STEM subjects at school and beyond.

The untapped talent pool

But there’s another talent pool that employers cannot afford to ignore: women already in the workforce. This includes those who have paused their careers to have children, or even people who have no previous work experience in STEM.

There are lots of women out there looking to re-enter the workforce. A 2020 study found that 85 per cent of stay-at-home mums wanted to do paid work. Then, in March this year, over 500 women attended a conference in Manchester hosted by Tech Returners, an organisation on a mission to empower experienced engineers back into software engineering, often after having children.

The same appetite exists for people with no previous experience in STEM. Several years ago, I made a big career leap like this. I studied history, got an NVQ in beauty therapy and then had a career at the National Trust - not the usual route into IT.

A part-time bootcamp course at Manchester Codes, however, meant that I was able to train as a software engineer at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. There are lots of other free resources online that offer help and training, including freeCodeCamp and Code First Girls.

What can employers do?

Yet, many barriers stand in the way of women making these big career changes. This would be difficult enough at any time, let alone when you are a parent faced with childcare costs. Cultural change is needed to make alternative routes into STEM feel within reach.

To help, employers can make a real step towards inclusivity by recruiting not only candidates with traditional university degrees, but also from boot camps and self-taught coders.

They can also offer more part-time, hybrid, or remote working options to support parents. Organisations need to be specific at the recruitment stage, advertising for part-time, flexible roles from the outset. In fact, flexible working should be normalised for all employees, whether they’ve got kids or not – something that has become more evident following the pandemic.

Finding and fostering talent across different backgrounds and communities is vital to the future of STEM. We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s important that we keep up the momentum - and a big part of this depends on creating inclusive cultures where flexibility is a top priority.