Front view of diverse business people looking at camera while working together at conference room in a modern office

By Sarah Chapman, Chair, 3M EMEA Technical Women’s Leadership Forum, 3M

Having a diverse Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce is critical to drive success and solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges and should therefore be a business priority.

STEM is the foundation of all new scientific and technological insights – arguably the birthplace of all innovation. Scientific progress depends entirely on people identifying and learning about new things and studying existing concepts in original ways – having diverse people involved in this process draws upon different lenses, experiences, questions, passions and fundamentally achieves better  results.

The scarcity of STEM

The Institute of Engineering and Technology estimated the shortfall of STEM workers to be over 173,000, a shortage of skills that costs businesses in the UK £1.5 billion each year. Despite this deficit of workers and the clear need to attract people into the industry, women remain underrepresented in STEM. According to the WISE campaign, women make up just 26.6% of the core-STEM workforce. However, these percentages vary according to sector. For example, women IT professionals currently account for 21% of the technology workforce, while female engineers account for only 12.5%. The number of ideas and new ways of thinking that we are currently missing out on is vast.

Much of the problem is caused by the public’s perception of science, their misunderstanding of the industry and their stereotypical beliefs of the people that work in it. 3M’s State of Science Index found that 90% of the world believes that we need more people pursuing STEM careers. However, over a third of people globally, and a quarter in Britain, do not believe their lives would be that different if science didn’t exist! Despite it being the backbone to so much of the modern lifestyles we take for granted, people find it hard to relate STEM to everyday life.

Solving for the many, with the many

With businesses, and the wider world, facing constant, evolving and increasingly complex challenges, there is an ongoing need for innovation. These creative ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, regardless of race, age, gender identity, sexuality, or background. In fact, research from Cloverpop, decision intelligence platform, showed that more diverse teams make better decisions, are more innovative and are more productive. This is something I can personally relate to in my role, having led diverse, international teams of scientists and engineers.

Simply put, if we are going to solve the world’s most difficult issues, we need all the innovative thinking we can get. And if we are going to solve these problems for the many, then they simply cannot be solved by the few. In other words, we desperately need more representation in STEM.

Smashing stereotypes and building role models

Research from Microsoft showed that girls’ interest in STEM careers almost doubled when they had visible role models to aspire to.

However, one of the major barriers to establishing a diverse workforce in the STEM industry is the existence of occupational stereotypes. These perceptions around the typical people that work in certain industries are disruptive and demotivating and thus greatly limit the talent pool.

It is the responsibility of organisations to inspire young people’s interest in science and ensure that the STEM workforce is as diverse as the society it serves. British Science Week, the annual celebration of science hosted by the British Science Association, prompted a ground-breaking “Smashing Stereotypes” campaign profiling  scientists and engineers from 3M and other partner organisations to show the diversity of the STEM workforce and help banish the ‘lone-working, white, male genius stereotype.’

We need more diverse role models, and we need to share their stories more widely.

Diversity drives innovation, which has benefits for business, the economy and society as a whole. The next trailblazing idea could come from anyone from any background, in fact, when considering the plethora of talent currently being overlooked, maybe it is more likely to. By breaking stereotypes in the industry, shining a spotlight on mould-breaking role models, and encouraging more people from more diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM we can begin to tackle the skills shortage whilst also drawing ideas, creativity, and innovation from a significantly larger, and far more representative, talent pool.

About the author

Sarah ChapmanA technical manager at global science company 3M and corporation board member at Farnborough College of Technology, Sarah was described as a natural dancer growing up and initially pursued a career in ballet.  Injury and an inspirational chemistry teacher led to a change of direction and she went on to pursue a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).  Since graduating from the University of Southampton, with a first-class degree in Chemistry, and joining 3M as an application engineer, she has won multiple awards for her work as a STEM volunteer and diversity role model. She currently leads an international team of application engineers within the Industrial Tapes and Adhesives Division.  As a mum of young children, Sarah is a passionate champion and role model for flexible working.  She is a gold level #IamRemarkable trainer and speaks publicly on the importance of diversity to drive innovation.  Sarah chairs the 3M EMEA Technical Women’s Leadership Forum and is the STEM Champion for 3M North Europe.  Globally, 3M has pledged to create five million unique STEM and Skilled Trades learning experiences for underrepresented individuals by the end of 2025.