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Are we doing enough to sustain women in STEM careers?

We were outraged to learn the results of a recent study that revealed Australian women working within STEM industries were expected to leave their jobs in the next five years.

Safeera Sarjoo
15th February 2016
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The same study cited a lack of career advancement opportunities and work place culture as some of the reasons why women were ready to throw in the towel.

In addition to this, the following statistics show a very stark reality within the Australian STEM landscape.

Just over 50% of respondents said they had been directly discriminated against in their job, 78% of those were discriminated against because of their gender.

28.2% of women said that their workplace culture significantly impeded their career progression.

51.2% of women who worked part time said that their employment status stopped them from undertaking certain types of work.

Jacquelyn Guderley, co-founder of the Stemettes, a UK based organisation who works tirelessly to encourage and integrate girls into science, technology, engineering and math careers said, ‘Sadly, this article isn't surprising in many ways. The STEM industries have faced the same problem for years now and the situation isn't improving as quickly as it should be. More responsibility needs to be taken by companies across the spectrum - small businesses, SMEs and corporates - to ensure that women have equal access to STEM roles at all levels, and that once they are in, they are happy to stay there.’ 

In a previous article, we identified that more of a collaborative effort was needed between educators and employers to encourage women into STEM careers. Introducing children to these subjects at a young age would help them develop an interest that they could then carry through to secondary school, college and even university or apprenticeships. This is exactly what the Stemettes are doing.

‘At Stemettes we work on fuelling the pipeline, by inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers, so that companies no longer say "we would hire women but we can't find the talent" - we ensure girls that are passionate about STEM, stay passionate about STEM,’ said Jacquelyn Guderley, co-founder of the Stemettes. 

‘It is so hugely encouraging to see action being taken from the top to complement that; the Australian government pledging $13m to encourage women to start and stay in STEM careers. Unfortunately money will not change the world in this case. CEOs and Diversity & Inclusion departments need to take charge of improving working culture in STEM companies - on everything from the office being less of a "boys' club" to getting rid of the gender pay gap - so that women are entering and staying in STEM careers of their own volition.’

But is the UK taking enough action to ensure that the environment women are stepping into is one that is fair and full of opportunity? The idea that women who work part time are unable to undertake certain types of work is preposterous. Employers should be looking at innovative ways to accommodate varying circumstances without depriving women of responsibilities they are more than capable of achieving.

Working part time shouldn’t be viewed as a hindrance and neither should maternity leave. A staggering 70.3% of women said that taking maternity leave had been detrimental to their career, which is absolutely ludicrous. You would think that pregnancy and maternity leave discrimination would be a thing of the past by now.

‘It should not be the case that one of the biggest barriers to women staying in STEM careers is 'Workplace culture'. If we can affect other shifts in workplace culture (e.g. a culture of volunteering, of collaboration, of religious tolerance, of transparency), then we can certainly ensure that the workplace is a suitable environment for women to thrive in. At the moment many women aren't even being given the opportunity to thrive; they're simply driven out,’ Guderley explained. 

With this insight into the Australian STEM landscape, the last thing we need in the UK is women feeling as though they have been failed by their employers. But is it too late?

The 2014 WISE Campaign report gave us a glimmer into the current state of the UK STEM sectors and as of last year only 13% of all those working in STEM occupations are women, while one in ten STEM managers are female. Based on these statistics, there’s clearly a shortage issue that needs addressing in addition to forward thinking practices that will retain this demographic.

‘It's a big task but not an impossible one. We need male and female CEOs to stand forward and pledge to have 50% women in their company in the near future,’ Guderley said.

STEM employers who want to create a diverse workforce with females having the adequate support in order to progress to senior roles should have a framework in place to accommodate varying circumstances. Whether that’s part time statuses or maternity leave, women should feel as though they are an integral part to their work force – and more importantly to the sector - without their gender playing a role whatsoever.


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