It’s no secret that there remains a significant gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) industries.

Dr Shirley Knowles, ProgressWomen make up only 24% of those in the sector, despite progress in recent years. As Dr Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress points out, not only are women put off joining the sector, they “are often paid less and don’t get the same level of recognition as their male counterparts,” once in it.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science serves as a timely reminder that making STEM industries a more welcoming place for women requires significant effort from individuals  and organisations. With that in mind, we spoke to women working in science and technology to get their tips on supporting women in the sector.

From small acorns… 

Studies have shown that gender stereotyping starts young, with less girls taking STEM subjects at GCSE and A level. In order to get more women into the sector, organisations have to develop and support initiatives that will address this, and encourage more girls to consider this path.

Nicola Aitken, Ascent“Studies have shown that gender stereotyping starts as early as primary school age where books and language begin to shape how girls and boys “should” think, look, and behave,” highlights Nicola Aitken, Microsoft Business Manager at Ascent. “They pick up cues from the language they hear, the images they see and the expectations placed on them. Their family and friends, the media and familiar settings such as their playgroup will all influence how children interpret gender. This has to change.”

“A few years ago I supported a local (to me) primary school (alongside other parents) to raise funds to build a science lab, known as The Discovery Hub. As a result all children within the school – and other schools in the area – had direct and easy access to science and technology. To my mind, it all starts at the grass roots level with our children.”

Samantha Thorne, Head of People at Node4, agrees with the importance of supporting young girls, highlighting initiatives at Node4. “An ongoing shortage of tech talent in the UK makes bridging the gender skills gap an absolute priority and reaching out to girls and women about the opportunities available to them is a critical part of our talent strategy. Our engagement with local schools and colleges provides work experience and placement opportunities to GCSE and Computer Science students, recognising the role our industry has to play in keeping girls and women engaged in STEM subjects, helping them to imagine the possibilities and career paths available to them, and realise their potential.”

Aitken concludes: “The full impact of initiatives like International Day of Women and Girls in Science may take some years to be felt. But, as they say, from small acorns mighty oaks grow.”

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Challenging recruitment bias

Other than investing in the youth, one of the most important things an organisation can do to improve their gender balance is to review their recruitment process. Many organisations may be inadvertently putting women off with their recruitment processes, or find that those recruiting have hidden biases that are leading them to hire more men.

Caroline Seymour Zerto“Employers should make sure that they understand gender-balance data in their company,” Caroline Seymour VP, Product Marketing at Zerto suggests. “Create gender-neutral job descriptions, ensure women are part of the interviewing team, ensure that interview rounds include diverse candidates, conduct regular pay equity reviews to attract and retain candidates, offer mentorship and advancement programs and lastly regularly evaluate hiring and promotion processes to eliminate bias.”

Hugh Scantlebury, Aqilla_HROpening up recruitment also means broadening the scope of recruitment outside of the traditional focus on academics and CVs, adds Hugh Scantlebury, Founder and CEO at Aqilla. “It’s not just about academic success. We also need to champion women who have a natural affinity for science-based subjects, but don’t have formal academic qualifications — and support them in their prospective careers. There’s more than one path to success in this sector, and we need to make sure that we’re open to them all.”

Developing female leaders

Investing in and supporting women once they are in the sector is just as important as getting them through the door. Thorne explains that at Node4 they “have a focus on the retention and development of women already working within our organisation, through participation in leadership programmes and ensuring our policies, benefits and culture continue to support women’s full participation in the workplace.

“Releasing that potential gives businesses a huge competitive advantage when it comes to addressing the digital skills gaps and delivering real innovation – Tech is only ever as effective as the perspectives and insights that inform its development; we are committed to doing everything we can to influence real cultural change in this area, such that girls and women don’t just take a seat at the table but are credible contributors and influencers in the creation of solutions and approaches that deliver exceptional service to our customers, and lead innovative technological advances in support of the next phase of our development.”

Getting more women into leadership roles has the added benefit of providing visible role models for younger girls – further encouraging them into STEM. Scantlebury points to the recent visibility of women like Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert who led the AstraZeneca research and development programme. “With inspiring women like Dame Sarah to look up to, we can expect – and hope – to see this skills base continue to grow in the UK from GCSE up to graduate and postgraduate level.”

Aitken adds that, “as growing numbers of women demonstrate they can be successful in science and engineering, more role models will be created, and sexist stereotypes about women’s ability and interest in this wide-ranging field will erode. I wholeheartedly look forward to that.”

“Let’s think about Rosalind Franklin or Katherine Johnson or Mae C. Jemison – look at the impact they have had on the world,” concludes Dr Knowles. “It shouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think there are even more women like them out there, ready to be acknowledged, rewarded, and invested in. That’s why this day is so important – to help us remember.”