By Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners

New survey to assess the impact of a career break on returning to work in the STEM industry

When I started STEM Returners in 2017, it was to make positive, real changes in people’s lives and the organisations they work in. I could see how hard it was for people to return to work after a career break and how bias in the recruitment process, whether it was unconscious or not, was putting people who had a gap on their CVs at the bottom of the pile.

We are making good but slow progress. We’ve placed more than 475 returners in leading STEM organisations up and down the UK. Organisations such as BAE Systems, SSE, E.ON, Leonardo, Wates and Boeing have all successfully run our returner programmes and welcome inclusivity. This is very positive, but there is still work to do and with widening skills gaps right across STEM, there are many returners who can fill those roles but are still not being given the chance.

One of the ways we monitor the returner landscape is our annual survey, which is open to all STEM professionals who have had a gap in their career of any length, who are attempting to return to work, or who have recently returned to work.

The survey is anonymous and asks a range of questions including reasons for a career break and what challenges were faced when attempting to return to work. The results help us to further understand the barriers people face, track the progress UK STEM industries are making, and shine a light on the change needed to create fair opportunities for all.

Last year’s results showed the progress we’ve been making. In 2023, 24% of women said they felt bias due to their gender, 5% less than the year before. Overall, 33% of returners said they felt they had experienced bias in a recruitment process, compared to 38% in 2022 and just over half (51%) of participants said they found the process of getting back to work difficult or very difficult compared to 65% in 2022.

These small improvements are welcomed and show that with enough will and the right support, inclusion initiatives can work. But let’s not celebrate too soon. The 2023 Index still showed that professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds were twice as likely as all other ethnic groups (34% vs an average of 17%) to feel they have experienced bias in a recruitment process related to race or ethnicity. Both men (29%) and women (25%) said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their age. As a result, 30% of returners say their confidence has been affected by the recruitment challenges they face, and their low confidence remains a barrier.

We must continue to monitor the sector and gain more insight into the challenges people face when returning to work so we can work with individuals and organisations to change things. This is why I am proud to launch the fifth STEM Returners Index and I would encourage any STEM professional who has had a career break, of any length, to take part in the survey and tell us about their experiences.

Only by continuously analysing the landscape and having open and honest conversations will we ensure that inclusive initiatives are effective and productive. We must continue to work together, to make vital changes in recruitment practices, to help those who are finding it challenging to return to the sector.

The 2024 STEM Returners Index will be open until 30 June 2024.