Post by Natalie Desty, founder and director – STEM Returners.
I was delighted to attend the 10-year anniversary of the Women’s Business Council, chaired by Fiona Dawson CBE, at the House of Lords recently.
The council has been working since 2012 to maximise women’s potential in the workplace and has since reached over 138,000 people through active engagement opportunities including companies, Government, industry representative bodies, students, entrepreneurs and NGOs.
In 2019, the Council relaunched to focus on industry sectors that have the most significant gender pay gaps and or underrepresentation of women, on a national level – STEM was one of the areas.
The work the council has been doing over the past 10 years is inspiring and has made positive strides. In the anniversary report, the council said the number of women now working in STEM has risen to 24.2% from just 11%. This is a significant jump and should be commended.
As someone who has worked in the STEM space for the past five years, I know how challenging it can be for women to progress up the career ladder, so it was great to be in the same room as like-minded people who share the same drive and passion to make inclusion a usual practice.
I was incredibly humbled when meeting people at the reception, that they had heard of STEM Returners and knew what we are trying to do. This validation means a lot to everyone at STEM Returners, and we are looking forward to taking these connections forward and establishing genuine partnerships that can effect real change.
While the event was celebratory, it was not self-congratulatory and there was a real sentiment of ‘there is more work to be done’. This is absolutely true. Speaking from the returner perspective, unconscious bias is still very prominent in the STEM industry, as demonstrated by our annual survey, the STEM Returners Index.
Nearly a third (29%) of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to 7% of men, and despite 39% of females wanting to return to work due to children now being of school age (vs 8% of males), 40% still feel childcare responsibilities are a barrier to returning due to lack of flexibility offered by employers.
Why is it that being a primary carer penalises you from also pursuing a career?
There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills, but through our work we have found that this just isn’t the case. Many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, are able to refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that actually benefit their employers.
STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled people back into the industry. We need more STEM organisations, industry leaders and hiring managers to take note and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance.
There are infinite opportunities for STEM leaders to do this and it was good to hear the attendees at the Women’s Business Council event discuss these. One of which was the government returners programme, which was launched on International Women’s Day this year, alongside an initiative to improve pay transparency in the job application process and help businesses who want to go even further in attracting women to their positions.
I am looking forward to continuing to work with them and the people I met at the Women’s Business Council event to make it easier for STEM professionals to return to the industry they love.