As today ends the nervous wait for A level results for thousands of young people across the UK, HR professionals and leaders in the tech industry are expressing concerns about a clear gender gap when it comes to students choosing STEM subjects at A level.
Despite much work being done within the industry to bridge the gender gap in STEM careers, today’s figures show the level of female students choosing STEM subjects has changed very little since 2017, with most subjects showing overwhelming levels of mostly male students:
2018 Female – 0.3%, Male – 2.5%
2017 Female – 0.2%, Male – 2%
2018 Female – 0.4%, Male – 1.1%
2017 Females – 0.5%, Male – 1.4%
2018 Female – 1.9%, Male – 8.1%
2017 Female – 1.7%, Male –7.7%
2018 Female – 8.6%, Male – 16.2%
2017 Female – 8.2%, Male –15.5%
2018 Female – 1%, Male – 3.2%
2017 Female – 1%, Male – 3.1%
We spoke to STEM leaders to see what they felt would make a difference to the low levels of women choosing STEM-related subjects and what they thought could be done to facilitate change.
The impact of skills shortages in STEM subjects
“Failure to plug the skills gap is estimated to cost the UK economy £63bn a year, according to the Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. The industry must work faster to tackle the low uptake of computing related subjects in schools to address the shortage, before it damages our ability to innovate. Independent bodies such as the WISE Campaign and its People Like Me Programme are finding creative ways to connect employers and schools to make a change.
Sarah Lewis, Director & UK Women in Tech Ambassador at Ivanti said:
“Tech in this country is booming, with the UK digital technology sector being worth nearly £184 billion, and turnover of companies within it growing by 4.5% between 2016 and 2017 (compared with the UK GDP which only grew by 1.7%). And yet in spite of this growth we find ourselves increasingly reliant on imported talent – about a fifth (180,000) of technology jobs in London are occupied by EU citizens. And, worryingly, we have already seen a 10% downturn in job applications from the continent, and that’s before Brexit has even happened. Women make up over 50% of our population, but only 17% of those working in technology in the UK are female.”
Call for more female role models in STEM careers
Tara O’Sullivan, CMO at Skillsoft, believes that the industry needs more female role models. She says:
“To be something, you need to see something. These results are reflective of the lack of female role models in technology and STEM as a whole. The field is male dominated. Young girls often feel like they don’t have a place in STEM, so they don’t choose these A-level subjects. To make a change, we need women who have climbed up the STEM ladder to showcase themselves and their career choice. They need to show young girls that working in STEM is cool and rewarding – and that women belong in the industry. Girls need to be inspired to choose IT and other STEM A-levels. With a lack of female role models in STEM, they are only being put off.”
Challenging Stereotypes at an earlier age
Gareth John, Managing Director of Estate Agent Software company AgentPro said Universites and employers cannot achieve a diverse workforce if STEM careers are not promoted before girls choose their study subjects:
“Companies like AgentPro work very hard to recruit a balance of male and female software developers, as a diverse team tends to produce better ideas. However, we can only work with the qualified applicants we receive. Most STEM careers need a certain level of education, so we need to encourage girls to think of tech careers as a viable option before they choose their subject options – rather than expecting Universities and employers to solve the problem.”
Joanna Hu, senior data scientist at Exabeam, also called for schools and parents to do more to challenge the stereotypes:
“It’s disappointing to see we are still struggling to balance the STEM divide. Young women should not be afraid of pursuing careers in the tech industry – it’s challenging, exciting and offers tremendous opportunities. The world is changing fast, and we need to change with it. Out-dated stereotypes mean many young women will be missing out on the chance to develop skills in areas they are really passionate about. This needs to change. Schools, parents and universities all need to do more to ensure young women have the support and encouragement to confidently pursue training and careers in STEM fields.”
Victoria Shepherd, Service Excellence Manager at Arqiva believes that even small measures like After School Clubs could make a difference to the way STEM fields are perceived:
“In the engineering industry, the UK has the lowest percentage of female employees in the whole of Europe, coming in at just 11% of the total workforce. Given the ongoing struggle for skills, it is crucial that STEM industries start finding ways to make career paths such as engineering attractive for women.
“Despite the ongoing consumerisation of technology, there is still a perception that the STEM subjects are both boring and more suited to boys.
“I’d love to see schools pushing more alternative career routes/vocational subjects – even if just via after-school clubs – but until this happens the onus needs to fall on businesses to reach out to this audience, and demonstrate that modern day engineering is exciting, innovative and, most importantly, gender inclusive.”
Changing the image of STEM careers
Michelle Roberts, Director at IT managed service provider, Ensono, said that tech needs to lose it’s ‘nerdy’ image:
“When tackling this issue, it is crucial to start from the ground up. School years can have the biggest impact on young women’s choices, with many girls unaware of the career options at their disposal and the common belief that science and technology is for boys. It’s also about changing the perception of STEM careers themselves, which stereotypes often portray as ‘nerdy’ or lonely occupations. STEM demands creativity, imagination, and inventiveness – the very same qualities that attract girls to liberal arts subjects. Unfortunately, this message isn’t commonly acknowledged, and most young girls are still unaware of the skills that they can bring to the STEM table.”
Her view was echoed by Award winning black female engineer and author Kerrine Bryan.
Kerrine has already smashed many glass ceilings to become respected in her field. She was shortlisted in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 for notable women in business and, in 2015, she won the Precious Award for outstanding woman in STEM. Kerrine is a volunteer mentor for the Institute of Engineering & Technology (IET) and is an avid STEM Ambassador. It was while she was undertaking talks at various schools across the country for children about engineering and what her job entails that she became inspired to set up her independent publishing house, Butterfly Books.
“There are many misconceptions about the profession that starts from a really early age. Many people – including parents, teachers, and therefore children – often think of engineering as a hands-on, manually difficult and dirty job for older white men. I quickly came to realise that if youngsters don’t see people who look like them doing a certain job, then they are less likely to go for it. That might seem like a crude simplification of a larger problem, but it’s certainly a contributing factor to the engineering sector’s diversity issue.”
Change is coming – at Higher Education level
The good news is, however, that changes are happening at University level, despite the disappointing diversity in STEM subjects at A level.
Exasol, provider of a high-performance analytic database, analysed the UCAS data which has just been released, looking in particular at numbers entering STEM degrees, Exasol found that the proportion of women entering STEM subjects has increased slightly from 42.0% in 2013 to 43.4% in 2018, but more importantly that the number of women entering Computing has increased five-fold in five years from 245 in 2013 to 1211 in 2018.
Perhaps even more crucially, overall talent shortages in STEM careers are set to fall, as researchers found:
- More young people than ever are studying STEM subjects, up by 8.9% over five years, and 36.8% in ten years
- The most popular STEM subject, Maths, has increased its examination numbers by 10.9% in five years, and 51% in ten years
- Computing entries have seen the biggest change of the STEM subjects – an increase of 173% in five years – entries in 2018 are almost three times the number in 2013 – up from 3,758 to 10,286
Changing STEM higher education course entry requirements
Of course, none of the above will change the fact that, at this moment, far fewer female students have studied STEM subjects than male students at A level, but some universities believe this need not be an issue.
NMiTE (the new specialist engineering university being created in Hereford) is aiming for a 50/50 male/female intake when it opens to students in Sept 2019.
CEO and Engineering professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon said that changing the entry requirements to STEM courses could make a massive difference:
“Not enough young women study physics or maths, or if they do they choose to do degrees in other subjects such as medicine, because of the perception of our profession. Removing these entry requirements for engineering is a quick win. The reality is that the maths and physics required during training can be tailored to our course.
“NMITE is a pioneering establishment that will change engineering tuition in the UK and, hopefully, the world for the better. Recruiting more women into engineering will be vital to fill the shortage of UK engineers. We have to accept that the efforts that we have made so far have not been enough to dramatically change the number of women entering engineering disciplines.
“Our goal is to have a gender balance and taking away the requirement to have maths and physics A levels will help to attract talented female candidates to engineering.”
The role of apprenticeships
Samantha Burrows, HR Manager at Protolabs says that apprenticeships have played a part in helping them successfully attract more female talent than many within their industry:
“As a leading global digital manufacturer, we need a continuous pipeline of talent to remain competitive. What’s more, we make it one of our main priorities to seek out the best female talent and potential in STEM when sourcing our colleagues. We hit above the industry average for having women in our workforce, with a notable fifteen percent of our staff body being women.
Protolabs is beginning to use a variety of methods to recruit a wealth of diverse new talent, adding measures to ensure graduate hires have high potential and can continually develop their skills. Previously Protolabs hired only entry-level recruits with undergraduate degrees, today apprenticeship programmes are being used more frequently as an alternative route to find and grow talent.”
Hope for the future
STEM employers are all facing recruitment challenges and it is clear from speaking to employers than they are passionate about diversity.
Within the industry, the dark days when a man would turn up to a construction site, software development suite or laboratory, speak to the woman in charge and ask to speak to her boss are thankfully over.
However, the stereotypes outside the industry, from society, from parents and from teachers, clearly need to be challenged.
Perhaps the most hopeful factor for the industry is the strong, successful women above who have taken time to contribute to the STEM debate today. It is stories like theirs which can inspire the next generation – and hopefully inspire parents and teachers to visualise a future without boundaries in science, technology, engineering and mechanics. I will leave the last word to Chartered Civil Engineer and Seismic Team Leader at Mott MacDonald, Barnali Ghosh:
“While it is heartening to see that the intake for STEM subjects is continuing to increase among A-level students, it is equally frustrating to see the gender imbalance in these choices. Clearly, we need greater focus on female role models and celebrate their outstanding contributions to science at all levels to motivate more girls to embrace STEM subjects. Engineering must also be promoted as an exciting career choice for girls by everyone involved in the sector, as well as the media.”