Young asian female chemists with senior caucasian chemist working together in lab, looking into microscope, Women in STEM

How to encourage women to begin a career in STEM

Young asian female chemists with senior caucasian chemist working together in lab, looking into microscope, Women in STEM

Article by Uma Rajah, CEO and Co-Founder, CapitalRise

Women are underrepresented in STEM jobs. Just over a quarter of women in work are employed in STEM sectors (Women in Tech).

Education has a key role to play in encouraging more girls to take up STEM subjects at school and in further education and go on to pursue careers in these fields.

Recent UCAS data has shown some positive changes – 35% of STEM students in higher education are female (STEM Women). But how can we increase these numbers further?

I’ve outlined a series of steps that can be taken by educational authorities and governing bodies to increase the number of girls and women applying for STEM subjects and STEM careers.

Fixing the problem at the source

There is no more effective way to increase the number of females taking STEM subjects than to target them during their school and university years. Persistent images of male mathematicians, engineers and scientists that are shown to children in their formative years create a preconception that these subjects are gatekept by males. Greater representation of female technology innovators, scientists, and mathematicians, for example, need to be addressed to show young female students that they too can pursue STEM subjects during school and university. We need these fields to appear more welcoming.

Increasing access to STEM work experience opportunities

Increasing access to opportunities in STEM through work experience, especially for young women, is crucial to ensuring the success of the UK economy. Every year there is an increase in the number of young women applying to undertake advanced and higher-level STEM apprenticeships (WISE Campaign), which is evidence that the demand is there. The government needs to address this by greatly increasing the number of apprenticeships available to everyone, and businesses could do a great deal more to provide work experience and exposure to careers in STEM. There is nothing better than experiencing these work environments first hand, especially at a time when you are starting to make educational decisions that will impact your later career choices. I was very lucky during school and university to have had a broad range of work experience – in my case in the manufacturing industry – and it really helped me to decide which career path to take.

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Champion female role models

More needs to be done by schools and the government to champion those women that are exceeding in Maths, Science, Engineering and Technology. Female STEM professionals should be invited into schools to talk to female students and show them, first-hand, why a career in STEM is so rewarding for women and why it is accessible for them.

As a student, I adored the sciences and planned to pursue medicine at university. Engineering was always a subject that fascinated me, however a distinct lack of resources, and even fewer images of female engineers, meant that I had never considered it as a career path. It was a course with WISE that opened my eyes to it, introducing me to female engineers who shared their day-to-day experiences with me and my classmates, and showed me the numerous specialisms that were a possibility for young women like me. This was a definite contributing factor to my decision to change my A levels from biology, chemistry and maths, to double maths and physics, in order to read engineering at university.

Mentoring

Research has shown that female mentors early in academia increase positive academic experiences and retention in STEM subjects in further education and in employment (PNAS). Female mentors may have faced challenges that males may not have done – such as being a minority and      having experienced some discrimination. It can be invaluable to be mentored by a person who has walked in the shoes you are likely to walk in, and by increasing the number of female mentors, STEM subjects can feel more welcoming and accessible to all .

I have worked in various STEM fields, starting my career as an engineer in the manufacturing industry. From there I moved to product management in technology businesses in the fintech sector, and I now work in property finance in my role as  CEO and co-founder of CapitalRise. Throughout my career, I have frequently been the only woman in the room. It started when I arrived at Cambridge University as a fresher, to find I was the only  female engineering student in my college. This continued into my career, where I would often be the only woman in my team, and I got used to managing all male teams, from the factory floor to the board room. To be honest, I always saw being different as something positive rather than negative, however, I would have greatly appreciated support from a female mentor or manager, particularly early on in my career.

Clear career progression

Research by WISE, the non-profit organisation that campaigns for gender equality in the sciences, found that nurturing attraction, retention and progression is key to creating more gender balance in STEM. For businesses, this can look like a number of things, such as being completely transparent in job adverts, setting out a clear plan for employees to progress in their career to get a seat at the top table, and including career progression in annual reviews. This is good industry practice and will help both men and women equally.

Final thoughts

The challenge of achieving gender balance extends farther than the world of STEM. I would like to see these ways of increasing girls in STEM applied to all young people. Whilst STEM careers are heavily male dominated, there are many disciplines that are heavily female dominated such as teaching, the care industry and human resources. As parents, employers and role models, it is our responsibility to show young people that any career is possible, regardless of gender, and equip them with the resources they need to pursue it.