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Diversifying the STEM Talent Pool

two girls working in laboratory in lab coats

Encouraging diversity in any industry begins with representation. The phrase ‘You can’t be, what you can’t see’ encapsulates the idea that to attract a diverse cohort, employers need to demonstrate their commitment to supporting the careers of those from minority ethnic groups, women, the disabled community, economically disadvantaged candidates, neurodiverse people, and other disadvantaged social groups. There’s a global lack of representation across the STEM industries, which arguably restricts the growth and innovation potential of the whole sector. In the most basic terms - if all of your employees share the same privileges, the perspectives and life experiences, the people contributing to your business are neither going to represent those of the wider British workforce, nor entice a diverse range of applicants. In this way, much more needs to be done to convey the fact that STEM roles are for everyone. Providing a platform for diverse leaders to share their experiences is just one way that our partner, Agent Academy, have highlighted that businesses can grow their STEM talent pool.

The 2019 governmental report into ‘Understanding and overcoming the challenges of targeting students from underrepresented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds’ cites a lack of role models as a key factor in industry underrepresentation. Not only does this do a disservice to our young people, but it prohibits talented individuals from pursuing careers they’d likely find great success in. A second report from November 2020 called ‘The State of the Sector: Diversity and representation in STEM industries in the UK’ shows that although the science and maths workforce is more closely balanced in terms of ethnic minorities and gender representation, it is more underrepresented in terms of the employment of disabled people compared to other STEM disciplines. (But it should be noted that disabled people are underrepresented across all STEM industries.)

STEM Education

STEM subjects have historically been harder for children and young people to access, particularly among girls and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. For instance, according to Black British Professionals in STEM (BBSTEM), just 6.2% of the UK’s domicile students enrolled onto STEM-related subjects at UK universities are Black. We need more than just visible role models - we need deeper engagement and encouragement for children and young people from diverse backgrounds, to start to increase uptake in STEM subjects across the board. 

It’s also worth considering that our education system doesn’t work for everyone, especially neurodiverse people. Those who leave school without qualifications, whose employment and training prospects are often affected, should not automatically be castigated from STEM industries. Instead, we need to facilitate the children and young people who don’t fit the educational mould to pursue careers in STEM. Often NEETs (young people not employed in education, employment, or training) are suited to learning through interaction and doing. The typical pedagogical approach in Britain requires students to sit still and listen for hours everyday, but as there is no universal learning style - this one-size-fits-all approach is flawed. In addition to this, STEM subjects are highly reliant on real world experiments - to test hypotheses and so on - so teaching approaches should reflect this, too. 

But we do know that change is happening. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of women accepted into full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 49%. In the same decade, the number of UK-based 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds accepted into full time undergraduate STEM courses increased by 79% - growing from 7,265 students in 2010, to 13,040 students in 2020. These new results suggest that young people are benefiting from increased support in these subjects, with potential access barriers based on gender, race and class gradually lessening.  

Women in STEM

Although it’s promising to see that a greater number of women are pursuing digital and tech-focused roles than ever before, only 5% of STEM leadership positions are held by women in the UK. It’s a staggeringly low percentage, and clearly indicates that much more is required to facilitate women working in senior roles, as well as entry level jobs.

Whilst we can see that a positive shift is happening - the latest WISE workforce data shows an overall increase in the number of women in core STEM roles at 26.9% in June 2022 (up from 26.6% in December 2021) - there is still a long way to go.

One issue employers need to explore is how to retain the talent already within STEM industries. Forbes found that once women enter the STEM field, they leave at a 45% higher rate than their male counterparts, citing lack of career growth, poor management, and pay gaps as reasons for leaving. In fact, research by Tech Returners suggested that 79% of women on a career break from tech received no support on returning, and 60% of women returning to tech cited work/life balance as the biggest barrier to returning. 

Employers might be working hard to attract STEM talent to their businesses, but with the average retention in tech roles lasting no more than 2 years, perhaps their focus should shift onto what makes them a great place to work for employees, at every stage of their careers. In this way, inclusivity goes beyond attracting diverse talent - it’s about retention as well. 

Employers clearly need to establish more inclusive work policies, like flexible working, to ensure that policies and procedures are developed in collaboration with the lived experiences of those they are supposed to support. Factors like cultural practices and caring responsibilities should be taken into account by employers, to support the whole spectrum of needs within their workforce.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

International Day of Women and Girls in Science (IDWGIS) falls on 11th February this year, bringing with it the opportunity to shed light on the gender imbalance which persists across STEM industries. Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women. In cutting edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals (22%) are women. Women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics. Which is to say, awareness initiatives like IDWGIS are clearly still vital in the work of diversifying STEM industries. Recent forecasts have even suggested that increasing the number of women working in STEM sectors can increase the UK’s labour value by at least £2 billion - an incentive that’s particularly resonant given the drive to power up the UK’s economy. 

Why Increasing Business Visibility is Important

Being visible and helping young people understand your business’ mission and values is really important to attracting diverse young talent. Young people won't look for your company if they don't know you exist! They may be hesitant to work for you if they don't understand what they’ll be doing or where their skill set fits. 

You can increase visibility of your business to young people in your local area through engaging with schools, colleges and universities. Offering work placements will help young people develop the industry skills necessary for a successful career in STEM, and when they come to enter the workforce they’re highly likely to consider a job at the company which gave them their first shot. 

As Generation Z starts to enter the workforce, applicants are increasingly looking for work that is purpose-driven, working for employers with matching values and a focus on sustainability. It’s important for employers to offer clear development pathways, training opportunities and honest, flexible work/life balance policies, in order to attract and retain talent. 

Combating Underrepresentation in STEM

Within the context of the STEM industries, ensuring businesses have a network of mentors and role models who are representative of the wider demographic of the UK, can help to attract, support, and guide others with similar lived experiences. Dedicating time and resources to making this happen will undoubtedly make positive change within any business.

Whilst there are clear incentives for diversifying the STEM talent pool - not least the moral imperative to give every person the opportunity to succeed, irrespective of race, gender, religion, class, and so on - the solutions remain complex. At Bruntwood SciTech, we know the value and importance of diversity and inclusion - and ensuring our young people see futures for themselves in STEM is a huge part of changing the make-up of its talent pool. Supporting education initiatives, increasing business visibility, and putting in place practices to retain diverse talent are some basic first steps to diversifying the UK’s STEM industry. 

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