woman wearing a white lab coat working on an engineering project, International Women in Engineering Day

Women trying to return to the engineering industry after a career break are more likely to experience recruitment bias than men, according to a survey by STEM Returners.

The survey, published on International Women in Engineering Day, showed 27% of women feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender, compared to 8% of men. Furthermore, 30% of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to childcare responsibilities compared to 6% of men.

STEM Returners, based in Hampshire, is an organisation which returns highly qualified and experienced STEM professionals after a career break by working with employers to facilitate paid short-term employment placements. More than 150 engineers have returned to work through the scheme.

Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners, said: “The UK engineering industry needs to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand – this is not news. But despite this very clear and desperate skills shortage, 61% of STEM professionals on a career break are finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult and women are bearing the brunt of this challenge.

“There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills. But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, are able to refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.

“STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled, talented females back into the industry.”

The STEM Returners Index, which was carried out in collaboration with the Women’s Engineering Society, surveyed a group of more than 750 STEM professionals on a career break who are attempting to return to work or who have recently returned to work.

More than half of respondents looking to return to work have been on a career break for less than two years and around 36% of returners felt that bias in the recruitment process was a barrier to them personally returning to their career.

The survey revealed that the pool of STEM professionals attempting to return to industry is significantly more diverse than the average STEM organisation. Over half of the survey respondents attempting to return to work were female and 38% were from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, compared to 8% female and 6% BME working in industry.

In the survey 22% of respondents said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their race or ethnicity, while 67% of BME respondents said they are finding it difficult or very difficult to return to work, compared to 57% white British respondents.

Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society said: “Sadly, while the results of this survey are concerning, they are not surprising. We have seen that worryingly, STEM professionals from under-represented ethnicities find it more difficult to return to work and additionally, women are six times more likely to state that a lack of flexibility in working hours to allow for childcare responsibilities is a barrier to return.

“Many of these professionals took a career break for reasons outside of their control, but now, due to changing circumstances, are ready to get back to work. They are a highly educated, highly experienced and highly diverse group of STEM professionals who should not be overlooked. STEM organisations, industry leaders and hiring managers need to take note and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance.”

Haley StoreyHaley Storey, from Hampshire, is now in an engineering role after being away from the industry for 17 years. Haley took part in one of STEM Returners programmes with BAE Systems based in Portsmouth. After completing a 12-week placement working on a Type 45 Destroyer, she has now joined the company permanently as a Project Engineer, helping to find engineering solutions during ship maintenance or upkeep periods.

“I left my role as a production manager in 2003 when I started my family,” Haley said. “I was self-employed after that but as my role wasn’t related to engineering, I couldn’t see a way to get back in when I wanted to restart my career.

“The STEM Returner scheme seemed to be directed at people just like me – someone who had previously been in a technical job but had been away for a period of time.

“My CV would probably not have made the first round of the recruitment process, but the scheme enabled me to work alongside an experienced engineer and I was able to learn from him and get to grips with the workings of a large organisation. 

“Career breaks should not put good people at the bottom of the list – we still have ability, knowledge and often transferable skills so it would be great for that to be recognised.”

Rebecca Pearce, BAE Systems Maritime Services, added: “Over the years we’ve recruited fantastic talent that we wouldn’t normally have had access to. We really want to celebrate the success and calibre of candidates we’ve recruited through the STEM Returner programme, and to recommend that more people use this method of recruitment.”

To read the full report, click here.

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