Female software engineer with projected code

What can be done to encourage and retain more women into STEM?  

Female software engineer with projected code

8th November marks STEM Day, which aims to encourage more people into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries.

It’s a well-known and standing fact that women are underrepresented in STEM; women make up only 16% of engineering and technology graduates.

We asked female leaders of prominent tech companies to share what they think should be done to encourage women into and retain women in STEM:

Time for businesses to take charge

“Businesses and institutions need to change. There is no excuse in 2022 not to have balanced, diversified, and inclusive teams.” Liz Parnell, COO, EMEA, Rackspace Technology argues. “Teach unconscious bias as part of your company onboarding; and walk the talk every day with your policies, behaviours and level of transparency.”

Laura Malins, VP Product, Matillion agrees: “Greater transparency is important. Companies’ values need to be made clearer so women can identify an employer whose values mirror their own. That will give them the freedom and support needed to test out different areas of tech and find roles that provide them both with the right work-life balance, and the opportunity to add value to the business.”

“Businesses need to make a conscious effort to recruit employees from a diverse range of backgrounds.” Clare Loveridge, VP and General Manager EMEA, Arctic Wolf states. “This will allow businesses to attract more talent and develop more creative ways of thinking, contributing to the development of highly innovative solutions to the complex challenges facing leaders today.”

Siobhan Ryan, Sales Director Ireland and Scotland, UiPath remarks on how businesses can help their female workforce: “Businesses need to ensure women are inspired and able to contribute, participate and enjoy their roles. Mentoring programmes, community networks, and supported learning opportunities can help women to grow and succeed.”

Businesses need to carefully think about their approaches to diversity and inclusion strategies to make change, argues Pam Maynard, CEO, Avanade: “Fundamentally, there is an issue with the way some organisations approach DE&I, only paying it lip service to keep employees happy and avoid difficult conversations. It's time for change, and diversity needs to be tackled head on and from the very top.”

“Despite the sector having strong female leaders in the NHS, with the national CIO and CTO being women, we continue to overlook providing the right funding and support for women pursuing STEM careers in health at every level.” Katherine Church, Tech+ Director, Grayce offers an insight into closing the gender gap in health tech. “We need to increase the levels of VC and PE funding for Femtech and female founders so that women’s health issues and careers are properly addressed.”

Fostering opportunities 

“STEM Day comes as a needed reminder that we must continue to encourage girls and women to study STEM subjects and provide opportunities that will help them to develop skills in the space.” says EJ Cay, VP UKI, Genesys

Estella Reed, Head of People, Distributed argues that those not from STEM-oriented educational backgrounds should still be encouraged into STEM: “When government and businesses dismiss so-called “softer” or “mickey mouse” university courses and qualifications, they are limiting the diversity of their workforces and ability to access the best talent. Many of the best software engineers working in the industry, for example, come from arts and humanities backgrounds.”

Sue-Ellen Wright, Managing Director of Aerospace Defence and Security, Sopra Steria, agrees that diversity in recruitment is essential: “The challenge the tech industry faces is that, to increase creativity, it must improve diversity to further encourage a broader range of perspectives and ideas.”

“In a male-dominated industry, it is critical we continue to pursue diversity of thought, especially as we seek to apply the “digital” truths we have learned from the past thirty years or so.” Caroline Vignollet, SVP Research & Development, OneSpan gives her view on the importance of diversity in tech. “For example, as we explore new technologies and digital experiences, such as in web 3.0, we are doing so with all the available talent, understanding and approaches at our disposal.”

Accessibility is key, Jamie Lyon, Vice President of Strategy and Development, Lucid Software notes: “It's important for STEM-related educational and career development opportunities to be more accessible to women. These build a foundation of interest and technical skill sets for women wanting to enter the tech industry.”

Women need to be able to access the same educational opportunities as their male peers to succeed. “Recent research shows that men are over a third more likely to receive digital upskilling than their female counterparts.” Mairead O'Connor, Exec for Cloud Engineering, AND Digital  observes. “This needs to change.”

For Poornima Ramaswamy, Chief Transformation Officer, Qlik, this education should include data and digital skills: “We must ensure girls are taught relevant data and digital skills at an early age to prepare them for the increasingly data-centric world we now live in. Our research found business leaders and employees alike predict that data literacy will be the most in-demand skill by 2030.”

The importance of self-confidence

Najla Aissaoui, Talent Acquisition & HR manager, Venari Security states: “For girls and women looking at a career in STEM, never underestimate your power and skills. Don’t be afraid to try and fail, just make sure to learn from your failures.”

Pantea Razzaghi, Head of Design, Automata encourages women to not bow down to pressure: “For women in STEM, it can feel like there’s added pressure to succeed and even outperform, as the industry is still very much male-dominated. However, often we are our biggest critics. My advice for young women early into their science and engineering journey will be to not dwell on mistakes for too long. Mistakes are a critical part of scientific discovery – that’s how innovation works.”

“My sincere advice; don’t listen too much to what others have to say about you or your ability to thrive in this sector.” Renske Galema, Area VP, North EMEA at CyberArk concludes. “Follow your own mind and find the fun in continuous learning.”

Women on a desktop

Gender gap in STEM subjects remains high

Women on a desktop

Sarah Gilchriest from tech startup Circus Street on STEM Day and the crucial role businesses can play in getting more women into tech.

Despite receiving a lot of attention in recent years, the gender gap in STEM subjects remains high. Only around 35% of graduates are women - a figure that has remained largely unchanged for the past five years. When you break it down to subjects such as computer science and engineering and technology the statistics are even worse - 16% of graduates are women. STEM Day is the perfect time for us to reflect on why there is such underrepresentation and consider how we can do more to redress the balance. What is clear is that the current approach isn’t working.

The lack of women taking on STEM subjects is cited as the number one reason there is such a gender imbalance in the UK’s tech industry. Only one in four people who work in the startup scene are women, with the number of female tech CEOs and founders depressingly low. There is an element of chicken and egg. How can young women and other underrepresented groups see themselves pursuing careers in tech or engineering if these industries look overwhelmingly male and white? On the other hand, how can we address diversity issues if there aren’t enough qualified people?

The reality is that we all make incredibly important career choices, usually without realising it, at a very young age when we choose what subjects to study in school. In fact, the factors that influence our choices are often engrained at an even earlier age. I’ve recently had first-hand experience of this when I talked to my 13-year-old daughter about what career she might like to have. She has already made many sweeping judgments about what she does and doesn’t want to do. In all likelihood she will change her mind as she learns more, however, many young people stick to their guns or simply do not learn enough in time to challenge their own decisions. Consequently, a lot of people end up set on certain career paths in their teenage years. By the time we realise what we actually want to do it can seem too late or difficult to change course.

However, blaming the education system isn’t going to solve the problem nor is it the full story. There is actually a lot more businesses can do to improve diversity and consequently encourage women and other underrepresented groups to study STEM subjects with a view to working in the tech industry. A major way this can be achieved is through a nationwide upskilling scheme.

Upskilling offers people a second chance to develop their career in the direction they want without the cost and impracticality of going back into full time education.

People can be guilty of thinking of upskilling as simply learning a new trade. It’s not just that - it’s about giving people the skill sets, mindsets and behaviours that they need to develop a huge range of skills applicable to different circumstances. It’s a continuous and nuanced process. We aren’t necessarily talking about training legions of fully-fledged data scientists, for example, we’re saying that we need to give everybody basic data skills so they can apply this knowledge to their own professional circumstances. These individuals may go on to learn coding, marketing or IT skills that combine to make them a highly skilled worker in their field.

In essence, through upskilling, individuals can replicate the core skills businesses look for from STEM graduates. If we applied upskilling nationwide via businesses we would give everybody an opportunity to develop into the careers they want. It will inevitably mean more women and other underrepresented groups will be able to get into the tech industry. If young students see people that look and sound like them in the tech industry they will be more likely to consider it a real option and choose subjects to meet that ambition.

Sarah GilchriestAbout the author

Sarah Gilchriest is Global COO of Circus Street. For the past seven years she has helped to lead the international expansion of Circus Street. She originally joined as a marketing consultant in 2016 and in the time since has overseen Circus Street expand five times larger to support a range of global companies including Nike, Adidas, Hershey’s, P&G and Coca Cola.

If you would like to find out more about Sarah you follow her on twitter and LinkedIn.

Lydia German and Tao Digital team

‘If she can see it, she can be it’: Why female role models are crucial in STEM

Lydia German and Tao Digital team
Image source: Tao Digital Marketing

Just 0.1% of creative digital agency owners are women, according to a 2019 study by The Drum. Female role models are crucial to increasing this number.

In this piece, Lydia German, Marketing and Outreach Team Leader at Tao Digital Marketing, discusses why.

Whenever I discuss the topic of having female role models in STEM, there’s always a vivid image that comes to mind: me, aged 11, deciding I no longer want to go to after-school IT club as I felt it was too much of a boy’s hobby, being the only girl who stayed behind for it.

Had things gone differently, would I have gone down a slightly more technical route? Maybe. I believe those early years of secondary school are a crucial period where students really start to think about their future ahead of picking their GCSE subjects and thinking ahead to college and apprenticeships.

In my previous roles in the digital tech industry, and currently as Marketing and Outreach Team Leader at Tao Digital, I’ve been fortunate enough to work under some brilliant women - a female CEO at my previous company and two incredible managers at Tao Digital. These women lead by example and have shown me the opportunities out there for women in STEM.

I’m lucky that in both roles I’ve been able to pass the baton on and mentor women who are just entering the industry, or are a few years away from it. I also love working amongst brilliant women within the team, and I found mentoring our work experience student, Summer, to be incredibly rewarding (pictured below on her last day with us!).

Summer's last day at TAO
Image source: Tao Digital Marketing

The driving force for me is that I wish I’d been able to see someone from my background, a fellow woman from Bolton, becoming a mover and shaker in the tech industry - maybe I’d have gone down a more tech-focused path. Instead, I entered the industry from the more creative route of digital PR.

Although my work isn’t as technical as many other women working in STEM, through my PR work, I’ve been able to work with and interview incredible women from a variety of industries, from insurance through to retail, law and the plumbing industry, and give them a platform to get in front of more women. In the words of feminist author Naomi Wolf: ‘General culture takes a male point of view on what’s newsworthy, so that the football is on the front page whilst a change in childcare law is buried in a paragraph inside.’ In my opinion, hearing more women’s voices, interviewed by women, is key to tackling this.

One of my favourite stories to have worked on recently is for our recruitment client, Four Recruitment. The agency’s owner, Claire Sofield, opened up about her personal fertility as part of National Fertility Week. In the piece, Claire speaks about her challenges with raising her daughter alone via IVF treatment and how she hopes that being honest and open with her workforce will encourage a safe environment for her employees who may be looking to have children in the near future.

I truly believe we need more forward-thinking female agency owners, like Claire, in the technology sector in order to support women in STEM at every stage of their career. A 2019 study by The Drum suggests that only 0.1% of creative agencies are owned by women. I wonder whether this would change if those protective measures were in place so that women aren’t frightened to take fertility or maternity leave?

Witnessing women in such positions and implementing these HR practices is incredibly empowering. To quote Naomi Wolf again: ‘Low female self esteem… has a financial value to all of society.’ Whether that’s through thinking we are unworthy of highly paid roles or feeling like we have to be people pleasers in order to climb the ranks, we need to know that our worth lies beyond our image and instead, focus on making moves in our industries and working together to better the world. Seeing other women in STEM doing this is how we achieve it.