Business inequality, gender gap vector concept with man at advantage. Symbol of discrimination, different opportunity, unequal treatment. salary. Eps10 illustration.

How education can help close the gender gap in STEM

Business inequality, gender gap vector concept with man at advantage. Symbol of discrimination, different opportunity, unequal treatment. salary. Eps10 illustration.Georgina Harris, the Dean of the Faculty of STEM at Arden University, discusses why gender disparity in STEM is so strong and the importance of practical work in schools and exposure to the STEM industry at a young age.

The STEM gender gap prevails. Less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women and this under-representation occurs in every region in the world, from schools, right up to senior professionals. In schools, boys are traditionally more likely to choose STEM subjects and to move on to studying STEM degrees at university. In fact, according to recent UCAS data provided by HESA, only 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women.

Why the gap exists

The gender gap in STEM is not about ability, as research shows that on the whole women and girls outperform men and boys in engineering fields of study, but more about implicit bias and stereotypes. In the UK, many people associate science and maths fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female”. Such implicit bias is common, and it affects individuals’ attitudes not only to others, but what they themselves are capable of achieving.

In PwC’s Women in Tech report, they identified some of the main reasons why girls weren’t choosing STEM topics from their GCSEs onwards, including: being better or gaining better grades in humanities or other essay-based subjects; not finding STEM subjects as interesting; STEM subjects not being relevant to the career they plan to choose; and teachers not making STEM subjects appealing.

Added to this, 53% of girls asked in this survey also said their preferred career was a factor in their choice of A-Levels, compared to just 43% of boys, suggesting that despite thinking ahead, girls can’t envisage a career in STEM roles for themselves.

If you pair this with the fact that the STEM industry is male-dominated and therefore tends to perpetuate inflexible, exclusionary cultures that do not attract nor support women’s careers, the reasoning behind the gender gap becomes a little clearer.

Historically, the United Kingdom has produced some of the best engineers, scientists and inventors in the world. Consequently, the uptake of STEM subjects by international students looking to study here and learn the secrets of our success has increased whilst the take-up of these subjects by our home students has languished behind.

We are already in desperate need of STEM specialists at every level. Even if we ignore the expansion of the engineering and technology sector, we are now facing the worrying prospect of having insufficient engineers in development even to keep pace with those retiring from the industry each year. We know that talented individuals with these skillsets can find higher salaries and greater status in other countries and moreover these skillsets can be used in innumerable other well-paid careers such as business, programme management and finance. So how are we going to plug this ever-widening gap? 

How schools can close the gap

Schools have, for many years, been faced with the challenge of delivering education on a shoestring budget. Suitably talented specialist school educators are difficult to find in mathematics and the sciences. Not all schools have the funding to attract these scarce individuals nor to ensure that every young person receives career advice and guidance that covers the broad and rich range of opportunities that STEM affords. In addition, many schools in the UK have had to minimise the practical, experimental and manufacturing activities that would previously have encouraged students to consider the STEM subjects.

In my experience, learners gain so much from tackling a challenge that, as yet, has no solution; the opportunity to solve a puzzle before anyone else. For a real engineer or scientist, this is intoxicating; the excitement that keeps you working hard and that gives you that rush when you have your first success.

Schools are also locked in perpetual competition with neighbouring schools that drives school leaders to prioritise their league table outcomes over those of individual students. Young people who may improve their prospects by taking a mathematics or science qualification are frequently encouraged to take another subject in which they are more likely to get a top grade. This approach is dissuading young people from studying STEM subjects and disadvantaging those who do wish to choose STEM as a career.

The STEM industry needs more government support; this would involve schools getting better funding so that students can have the opportunity to step away from the desk and experience the wonders of a STEM career in practice. This experience would entice those who are wary of entering the field – especially young girls who see the dominant membership of STEM careers as male. Many students are surprised to learn how STEM applies to so many different industries; it fits into the latest, state-of-the-art running shoe design as much as it fits into the development of the latest disease curing drug. By exposing children to the wonderful possibilities that STEM affords, girls will begin to see that their aspirations to make the world a better place are possible through a career in STEM.

Moving into university

Embarking on a new career is a challenge for everyone. Young people build their confidence through experience at school, university and in industry. As schools have reduced the opportunity for pupils to engage with practicals to save costs, it is left to the university sector and their industry partners to support and nurture our new STEM recruits and give them the experience and constructive feedback that they need so that they too feel welcome and needed.

An essential ingredient of the successful Arden University model to date is the use of authentic assessments and engagement with companies in the development of our programmes and assessments. This gives our students two massive advantages: the opportunity to experience the highs and lows of design and development in the nurturing environment of university and the opportunity to “try” working on projects for several companies. The companies who work with us gain the opportunity to interview our students over the duration of the project and help us to identify areas of the curriculum that need to be strengthened. This also gives students the confidence to apply their learning in the working world, an important aspect when retaining new entrants in the field.

Ongoing projects like High Speed 2 (HS2) will take years to deliver and offer young people high profile and potentially stable employment in engineering and construction for many years to come. There is a real opportunity in projects such as these for new entrants to the industry to be mentored through apprenticeships in parallel with their academic studies. Similarly, the announcement of £5 billion of investment in “Project Gigabit” in the Government white paper “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” means another major infrastructure investment intended to ensure fair access to broadband across the UK which will generate employment in engineering, technology and computing. Not only are these projects great ways to encourage learners to engage with STEM but they also provide intrinsic societal benefit and generate tax returns to the public purse for further investments.

As an engineering and technology community, we need to work together to regenerate enthusiasm for our discipline by nurturing learners at every stage of their education. To meet the needs of our civilisation, we need creative, resilient, enthusiastic and engaged engineers, technologists and computing specialists who reflect the diverse society that they serve.


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How businesses can attract, retain and train top talent in 2022

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Article by Dilshad Sheikh, Dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University.

As we approach the second anniversary of the initial UK Covid-19 lockdown, businesses are considering how they can scale up and increase the firepower of their teams to enable them to continue to build back from the pandemic.

The rules of engagement in the market have shifted, somewhat, with vacancies on the increase and talent more able to carefully select their next opportunity.   Yet despite this, it is important that job seekers understand what businesses are looking for, the key skills and attitudes that are desired at interview and that they’re prepared to be questioned on this.

The digital skills gap

There is a significant emphasis on digital skills development at the moment, which is being supported by the government’s “levelling up” agenda. Employers and businesses are in the driving seat here, but jobseekers will need to be able to upskill to meet the requirements of business and the skills gaps that exist.

A key mistake often made by employers is placing sole focus on a candidate’s existing experience. While this is admittedly important, employers should also consider what potential the candidate has to ‘develop’ critical skills and competencies needed for the business and its growth plans.

In essence, this means the hiring process should look for what an employee has the capacity and ability to do in the future, above and beyond what they can already contribute. It’s also important not to hire someone like yourself. By doing this, you will add relatively little value to the organisation. Instead, you should consider how you can use the hiring process to acquire contrasting skillsets that can be beneficial to your organisation.

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Balancing technology and human interactions 

Many employers are now automating the selection of shortlisted candidates by using technology (AI) that can recognise key words (skills, experience and knowledge) aligned to the job description. AI can score the application and put candidates forward for shortlisting, however, caution should be taken when using this approach. A human eye should always be cast over the shortlisted applications to ensure they are the right fit for your organisation.

Ideally, all outwardly facing tasks should have human interactions at their heart if you want to retain your customers and your people while also providing a first-class experience. Technology solutions are themselves created by ‘people; and can only do what they are programmed/coded to do – and they are no substitute for a human touch in and of themselves.

Instead, businesses should consider how they can automate backroom tasks to lighten the load of existing staff without impacting on the experiences of your customer base or talent pipeline.

Supporting employees in the new normal

The last two years have been among the most turbulent in recent memory, meaning that mental health and wellbeing have moved even higher up the agenda for most organisations.

Many workers are keen for a hybrid model where they have the flexibility to work from home or at the office. Calls for this existed before the pandemic and have only grown since working from home has become the norm. If managed carefully in line with the needs of the business in question and their workforce, this can be a great way to maximise staff engagement, encourage autonomy and help employees to improve their work-life balance.

There are many routes businesses can take to ensure staff feel heard in the workplace. Anonymity is often key to getting real feedback on how your staff truly feel – and to this end staff engagement surveys are often used to collate responses which provide a ‘pulse’ check on how staff are feeling within an organisation. Feedback boxes, which should be anonymous, are a great way for staff to share their ideas on how the company can change and improve.