Muslim woman working from home, flexible workingI know from my own experience as well as what my female peers and former students tell me, that some young women who have completed further education in science, technology or engineering subjects find the work environment they enter as graduates to be very male dominated and in some cases quite intimidating.

This can lead to dissatisfaction at work, not progressing up the career ladder as they might and even career changes out of the industry.

Working from home, as the vast majority of people in all sectors including STEM have been doing on a global scale during lockdown, can mitigate against this. While the challenges of working from home – remote inductions for new starters, limited opportunities for team creativity e.g., brainstorms and bouncing ideas off other people, social isolation and never ending video conference calls – have been widely discussed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, working from home can actually be hugely beneficial for young women in STEM careers especially. Not only can it help to build their confidence during the early-career stage, it is also suitable for those who are more introverted and prefer to be an individual contributor at work rather than a team player.

I suspect that companies which allow and even encourage employees to work from home where possible in the long term will find that this is seen as an attractive incentive for young women establishing their careers in STEM. The importance of doing so is clear as the number of women currently working in STEM careers in the UK is depressingly low at less than 15% despite the fact that more women are studying technical subjects at higher education level.

At the mid-career stage, the flexibility of being able to work from home can be hugely attractive to those women who are juggling career and family, meaning that companies offering this are likely to retain more female employees than those that don’t. From my own industry experience, I know that many electronic engineering jobs and tasks, especially those in design and more specifically in IC design, as well as work in planning and conceptualisation phases can be done from home. I therefore cannot see any good reason for female and male employees engaged in these roles, or these tasks for part of a project, not to be able to work from home if that is their preference.

Of course, I appreciate that working from home does not work for everybody, for example those with young children being cared for by someone else in the home during the working day may find the close proximity distracting, and others prefer to break up their working day with a commute, change of scenery and more varied lunch options. The crucial factor is that companies develop flexible cultures and policies that cater to different staff needs and preferences and can evolve as individual circumstances change over time. During lockdown this has particularly meant more flexibility and tolerance for both female and male staff who have been balancing childcare and home-schooling responsibilities while working from home. This kind of support is crucial in encouraging more women into engineering careers and to stick with those careers.

For me personally, the main reason I switched from industry to become an educator was to gain a better work/life balance. I saw that in order for women to secure leadership roles in STEM companies a huge amount of time needed to be invested at work and out of hours, and that this was particularly challenging when working in a global organisation requiring meetings to be attended with multiple teams working across different time zones. Being able to do at least some of this from home would be hugely beneficial to women like I was at that point in my career and I think would result in fewer changing careers.

One challenge to working from home that I have heard from STEM companies regarding highly sensitive design work, is how to protect intellectual property outside of the office space and secure corporate VPN and cloud storage connection. Developing a “Work from home” policy that includes measures for protecting company information is one achievable solution, and one that I believe is well worth making given that the prize is more women entering and staying in the industry and contributing their attentiveness and tenacity which make them great assets.

Pooh LingAbout the author

Pooh Ling E is an Assistant Professor at NMITE (New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering). She graduated with 1st class honours as a Bachelor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Universiti Putra Malaysia in 2000. She then spent six years working in the electronics and semiconductor industry before completing a PhD in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Nottingham, followed by a further two years in industry. During this time Pooh Ling developed skills in NI LabVIEW, MATLAB, Product Development, Research and Development (R&D), IC (Integrated Circuit) testing, communication system testing and validation and has five years teaching experience prior to joining NMITE.

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