Important strides have been made to improve inclusion in the workplace and much of that has rightly focused on diversity. More and more companies are striving to increase the representation of women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and people with disabilities in their workforce. This should be commended.
But when does inclusion become exclusion?
What we are seeing
For the past five years, we have been working with STEM industry leaders, to run returner programmes for professionals who have had a career break or wish to transfer their skills.
More than 270 returners from different demographics, backgrounds and cultures are now in permanent positions, making valuable contributions to their employers. These returners would have otherwise been excluded from shortlisting stage due to outdated HR processes and unconscious bias.
But with many businesses focusing on improving diversity, the importance of inclusion, and what inclusion means, has got lost somewhat.
Instead of allowing many different types of people to do something, in this case be considered for a role, and treating them fairly and equally, some recruiters are starting to tell us they will only consider a returner from certain demographics, usually women or people from minority ethnic backgrounds; or setting a minimum time that a returner must have had out of industry before they can be considered to join the scheme.
But this defies what inclusion really is. So, this National Inclusion Week, a reminder of who a returner is and importantly, what they can contribute, is needed.
Who is a returner?
A returner is a person who has not been employed in their STEM profession for any length of time. We work with everyone who is struggling through standard recruitment channels and for whatever reason not being successful. This could be the 2019 graduate with a neuro diverse brain set who doesn’t perform well in assessment centres, parents who have taken a break to care for young children, a skilled and experienced refugee looking to restart their career in the UK, or it could be a candidate looking to return from redundancy after a 30-year career.
The returner landscape has changed over the past few years due to the pandemic, but we don’t require a minimum length of time for someone to be considered a returner – just that they either aren’t working, working below their capability or looking to transfer their skills and are genuinely struggling through standard channels, despite trying very hard to return to an industry where their skills are needed.
Returners are highly educated, experienced professionals – out of the 1,000 people who answered our 2022 STEM Returners Index survey, 72% have a degree, masters or doctorate, 64% were previously a manager or in a professional role, and 58% had more than 5 years of experience in their field before taking a career break.
Many returners do not take a career break through personal choice. Just 14% of our survey’s respondents said it was their decision to take a break.
The largest reason for career break is childcare responsibilities. In fact, women are five times more likely to take a career break for childcare reasons than their male colleagues.
However, men are more than twice as likely to have been forced to take a career break due to redundancy (29% vs 12%). They are also more likely than females (43% of men vs 33% of women) to say they have experienced personal bias in a recruitment process, according to our survey.
How can we improve?
To truly improve inclusion, we need to look within our own cultures and processes and ask if we are honestly allowing many different types of people to do something and treating them fairly and equally.
Inclusion is an overarching culture encompassing diversity, equality, and many other aspects of our working lives. Trying to include a certain demographic over and above another, isn’t inclusion.
If we embrace inclusion for what it really is, we are much more likely to see greater diversity in our workforces, diversity of thought and experience, fair treatment of everyone and greater equality of opportunities as outcomes.
But this requires difficult conversations at all levels of an organisation and a re-evaluation of internal ED&I targets and actions. And it requires us to challenge the industry to create an equitable sector where everyone can belong.
When a business tells us that they want to specifically hire women or people from an ethnic minority background, we remind them that to create an inclusive workplace, it’s important to remember that a returner can be anyone, a woman or a man, from any walk of life, from any culture, from any country, who all deserve to be included in their recruitment process.
Focusing on inclusion does not prevent us from thinking about, discussing, or acting on diversity and equality – quite the opposite. An inclusive culture empowers employees to think differently and share their experiences and perspectives, which in turn is a key driver for innovation, development and engagement. By embracing inclusion for it is; the act of allowing many different types of people to do something and treating them fairly and equally, we all stand to benefit.