Blog: Women in STEM-based Business – barriers and enablers to progression

Of the core STEM workforce about 25% are women but only 13% of managers are women – and the numbers are much lower in engineering and technology-based business – according to WISE. So, as part of DIDFEST 2019, our latest IP&P event on 4th April explored how to overcome barriers and to enable the progression of women in science and technology focused business with a panel of senior women experienced in digital, transport, construction, engineering and other sectors:

The discussion from the panel and a very engaged audience was wide ranging and drew out the following critical points:

–          From and early age there are unconscious societal messages steering girls away from science and engineering and a lack of female role models. Broadening language, e.g. talking about technology rather than engineering, or talking about manufacture of products that appeal to girls, could broaden the appeal.  We also need to encouraging greater awareness of unconscious bias and engage parents and others who influence early thinking in the rewards that STEM careers can bring.

–          Stepping up to leadership positions can be daunting for women when they are already in a minority, and there is a tendency for women to push themselves forward less. Women may also be motivated differently. Business leaders, whether men or women, can help by mentoring and encouraging women in a way that is consciously sensitive to these factors.

–          Being the first women in a role can be motivating – ironically it may be easier for these women who are recognised as pioneers than for those who follow, but are still in a minority. The women that follow may need to be incentivised and supported differently.

–          Work-life balance tends to be more of an issue because women, rightly or wrongly, still tend to carry out more caring responsibilities, and there is a perception that flexible working is not appropriate for senior roles. But technology and legislation are making flexible working easier and more normal. In business and in society we need to have a more open and confident approach to flexible working for men and women to encourage career progression in balance with home life.

–          An inclusive culture with a focus on equity rather than equality, where people are recognised first for their skills and aptitudes rather than their years of service, can help to increase all forms of diversity.

–          Targets for numbers of women can help to keep the issue in mind, particularly in larger organisations, but quotas/ positive discrimination may cause resentment or can back-fire if women are less respected because they are assumed to have been promoted because they are female rather than on merit.

–          Other countries do not have such a low proportion of women in STEM business, but these countries may have a generally more positive perception of STEM careers. We can learn from other countries’ approaches.

–          Lack of women progressing in STEM careers is everybody’s challenge, not just an issue for women – so it was disappointing that only about 20% of our audience were men. There are compelling business reasons to seek gender balance at all levels of businesses, including having a bigger talent pool, at a time of a shortage of STEM skills, and the creativity that comes from diversity.

We all left the excellent discussion thinking about how we could overcome our unconscious biases and think more inclusively, how we could inspire girls or offer support to women in our workplace in overcoming barriers to progression. We agreed it was a complex challenge to increase the number of women progressing in STEM based business, but one we all have a role in overcoming.

(Author: Pam Waddell: Director, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands)