Diverse team

As anyone working in STEM knows, we still have huge challenges with underrepresentation of women in any tech or science-related career – writes Rachel Youngman is deputy CEO at the Institute of Physics and chair of the board at women’s charity Hibiscus.

But how do we encourage more girls and those from minority groups into studying STEM? And why should we?

For me and my colleagues at the Institute of Physics (IOP) the benefits are myriad. From a wider pool of underrepresented groups we collect a richer and more diverse range of talents and abilities. We extend the potential of any science or tech-based business by drawing upon skills that are much in demand.

Boosting gender equality in STEM

Increasing diversity doesn’t just mean saying to people, ‘study science’. We need to show, not tell, and we need to change public perceptions of what studying STEM means to individuals, and our lives, so it is in society where our campaigning starts. This is why I spearheaded the IOP’s Limit Less campaign, the institution’s first ever campaign in its 149 year history. Limit Less is focused on encouraging more young people from all backgrounds to study physics. As part of that, we are demonstrating the range of physics careers and opportunities which can be reached academically and through apprenticeships.

It’s also not enough to just show career opportunities if we are not also creating inclusive environments within schools or the workplace. There is widespread recognition in science and engineering, and particularly in physics, that there is a gender diversity problem. We still hear about the harassment or bullying of women in STEM. The IOP was told about a recent case in a physics class when girls were openly referred to as “team fake tan”. That should not be the language of a modern, diverse society.

Encouraging diversity of thought, experiences and background is not only a moral – and legal – obligation, it also brings huge value to an organisation. Change needs to come as a movement and it needs to come from the top down. You can’t keep putting the responsibility onto those who are the minority. We need leadership commitment to fix the broken systems, processes and policies that perpetuate the status quo.

Developing ESG frameworks

The businesses as well as charities and NGOs I work with on environment, social and governance (ESG) frameworks, and targets within this framework, are recognising the value to their own operations and the higher performance of their work. Introducing and incorporating diversity and inclusion practices are a common-sense way of achieving them.

All employers have a responsible role in society to meet net zero by reducing their business’s own carbon emissions. The diversity of thought and experiences is particularly important in STEM because it is so central to solving the world’s greatest challenges, such as the new and future tech that can support a fairer and more progressive world. By building a more diverse workforce you increase thinking about the ethical and responsible decisions as you address environmental, social, and governance issues.

IOP is a charity, and our emerging ESG framework will help us towards that target with transparency. Reaching net zero is complex and costly, particularly when looking at suppliers, because those carbon emissions are outside our direct control. Organisations need to be clear and honest about the opportunities but also the challenges.  They need to make responsible decisions by understanding the value placed by current but also future employees on being part of an ethical and sustainable organisation.

ESG targets make your business more appealing to a wider potential workforce

To understand more about the future generation of employees, members and supporters, we recently commissioned research of students from 160 universities which showed that when ranking their expectations of graduate employers, ‘sustainability and ethics’ received an average score of 6.1 out of eight – more important than ‘status and prestige’ and ‘high starting salary’ which were scored 4.4 and 5.5, respectively.

If you look at the IPSOS survey of September 2020, 86% of people wanted to see a more equitable and sustainable world after the pandemic. Achieving ESG targets makes your business more appealing to a wider potential workforce.

The Business Imperative for Social Justice Today in June 2020 showed that 80% of consumers say companies need to recognise their role in systemic racial inequality, and there is plenty of good evidence – such as McKinsey – showing that diversity and inclusion leads to high performing teams and innovation.

So, it is evident that diversity and inclusion is imperative to achieve ESG targets, and achieving ESG targets is simply good business sense. In the private sector, Boards and CEOs are already seeing the lines between business and society blurring and having a direct impact on growth and profit. And at the IOP we are already seeing the benefits brought by widening the spectrum. Not just in productivity but in human terms, because at the heart of all this are people.

We cannot achieve any of the above without people and we know that diversity and an inclusive culture makes for better physics research and innovation and a better organisation to drive the change we want to achieve.

Addressing ESG through D&I

The Limit Less campaign has already achieved extraordinary success, not least by using the media and other influencers of young people to spin the perceptions of the work that physicists do on their head. The campaign is pulling out at their roots the barriers, myths and stereotypes that prevent young people who are currently underrepresented in physics from studying the subject. It is doing that by approaching the change in society and building a movement of organisations that can carry the campaign messages further than we can alone. You can be part of that call-to-action.

I would advise all CEOs and managers to develop trusted methods of analysis and presentation that allows all voices in the workforce to be heard whilst building trust with groups in society about how they are treated. Make sure that through dialogue and content you can demonstrate the value diversity and innovation brings to sustainability for environmental and social impact, and to contribute to your organisation’s long-term health.

What I see at IOP and in the businesses I consult with is a strong link between diversity and successful sustainability. That link isn’t showing any signs of weakening.


About the author

Rachel Youngman is deputy CEO at the Institute of Physics and chair of the board at women’s charity Hibiscus. For more than three decades she has consulted with businesses, charities and NGOs on sustainability, and is a circuit speaker on diversity and inclusion in business.