Supporting women into STEM roles

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

By Sheila Flavell CBE, above, Chief Operating Officer, FDM Group

Talent shortage is currently being cited as one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of emerging technologies, holding back business growth and economic recovery. As the nation attempts to recover from recent economic uncertainty, utilising technology and developing the accompanying digital skills is vital.

Government research shows that the UK’s technology sector currently prides itself on holding the number one spot as Europe’s leading ecosystem, while holding third place globally. While this highlights the nations strengths, this cannot mask the digital skills gap, and it is important that both the government and businesses act to ensure the gap is closed.

Recent government workforce data highlights a positive increase in the percentage of women that make up the total STEM workforce, rising by 0.3 per cent between December 2021 to June 2022, however, they still only make up 26.9 per cent. Improving diversity in STEM isn’t an overnight task but more must be done to continue the process across the business world.

The barriers women face

Evidence shows that women hold equal skill and aptitude to their male counterparts that will allow them to be successful in a tech career and this goes for women leaving education all the way to those who are looking to return to the workforce.

Often, graduates leaving education feel unprepared or that they lack guidance when attempting to start their careers and the technology industry can present a daunting option for females when looking at the underrepresentation within the sector.

Common perceived stereotypes, a fear of a lack of support and minimal female role models to promote the multitude of avenues that the tech industry has to offer means that the pathway into a tech career is not always clear, and this can be off putting.

Young women between the ages of 16 and 24 are the fastest growing working group highlighting the opportunity that is available and the technology sector must work to capitalise on these untapped pools of talent.

Furthermore, research highlights that 76 per cent of professional women are looking to return to the workplace after taking a career break for reasons such as having children and childcare responsibilities. Females who are wanting to return to the professional world will usually hold years’ worth of knowledge and skills that can either be retrained or upskilled to fit a role in technology.

These women can be seamlessly integrated into existing teams having already learnt the dynamics of working in the professional world.

There is clear potential within untapped female talent, which is currently going to waste, from school leavers all the way up to mothers who want to re-start their professional career. Organisations must therefore look to addressing the common barriers females face to ease the transition into the industry.

The gender pay gap

The gender pay gap remains a significant problem within society as research shows median pay for all employees was 14.9 per cent less for women than men and organisations must do more to ensure that all of their employees are being paid equally.

Often, organisations put forward salary history questions to gauge how much to pay their new joiner, however, this puts those who have been underpaid by previous jobs at risk of facing unconscious bias from future recruiters, preventing pay rises and often career progression.

This is very common for women who are either already being underpaid or are looking to return to the workforce, often facing biases such as the career gap penalty which can see women being hired into lower skilled roles or simply being overlooked. As women are employed into less well-paid roles than men, the gender pay gap increases. On top of this, women are often prevented from working as they would like to due to lack of affordable childcare which presents itself as an additional barrier.

Businesses should look to investing in initiatives and re-thinking processes to ensure that women have an equal playing field when it comes to looking for work and trying to succeed in the industry. For example, FDM Group had a -4 per cent mean gender pay gap in 2022 through a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Investment in initiatives that support women in tech have cultivated an environment with the resources and mentors needed to progress and develop into role models for the industry.

What can organisations do? 

The onus is on both businesses and government to ensure that women are given guidance to understand the opportunities that are available to them while offering support to females entering the tech industry, from recruitment process through to career progression.

At an educational level, women should be given greater guidance into STEM subjects and exposed to the opportunities that a career in technology holds, for example the multitude of career paths available to them.

When women look to join the technology industry, or re-join, organisations should be prepared to make this transition unbiased and supportive to break down the stereotypes that currently exist within the sector.

Organisations can implement initiatives that cater for women who have childcare responsibilities, for example FDM Group offer training courses for women that start at 9:30am and finish at 4:30pm, providing additional time to those who have children in education.

Mentoring programmes can also be created that offer females the opportunity to learn from their those around them and provide strong female roles models that younger women can take inspiration from.

The opportunity in females 

Research from Forbes shows that having a diverse workforce can boost profitability and that inclusive companies are likely to be more innovative. It is not just in the interest of females to include diversity and inclusion initiatives, but also in the interest of organisational success.

There has also been a shift in what matters to an individual when choosing an organisation and Gen Z are now prioritising companies who place value on diversity and inclusion, as 83 per cent consider a company’s commitment to inclusive policies when looking for a job.

Women are an untapped pool of individuals who hold the power to fill the digital skill gap however initiatives are needed to offer them support and equal opportunity, allowing them to succeed.

By utilising the plethora of skills women offer, the nation will be able to harness the power of technology and businesses will be set up for growth, armed with a digitally talented workforce.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024