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What Are The Challenges That Women Face In Starting A Career In STEM?

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It’s 2020 and thankfully we’ve come a long way in equal employment rights and smashing that glass ceiling. But why do we still have a shortage of women entering STEM fields? Here we take a look.

First off, what is STEM?

STEM simply stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Having various qualifications in these subjects can open the door to a huge range of career choices, but traditionally it’s typically been boys/men that go into them.

However, over the decades women too have taken crucial roles in the development and manufacture of STEM technologies. Indeed, despite the huge contribution that many women have made, it’s only relatively recently that they’ve been fully recognised by both the scientific community and society as a whole. But luckily this is now changing, and public awareness around the vital work that women in STEM occupations do has increased exponentially.

Due to this increased awareness, as well as other general shifts in attitudes, school-age girls as well as women are being strongly encouraged to study STEM subjects with their future career paths in mind. It’s been a great success, with the number of women studying STEM subjects and going into STEM-related careers being higher than ever before. But even in modern Britain, barriers still exist for many women, and it’s important these are understood and addressed.

What specific challenges do women face in starting a career in STEM and how might they be alleviated?

Clearly men and women will always face challenges in their career, regardless of whether they work in STEM-related fields or something entirely different. However, the challenges that women particularly face in science, technology and engineering are quite specific. They include:

Regional disparities

Disparities still exist when comparing different regions of the UK. For example, consider a city like Birmingham. There are several outstanding universities and colleges here that have produced some serious STEM talent. And yet, a large number of STEM industries are still focussing on London and the home counties areas. Women from Birmingham who may not be able to afford a move to London straight after graduating (or who have other commitments) could be barred from taking up jobs that would be ideal for them.

It’s a boy thing

Sadly there are still many people who view careers in science or technology fields as being somehow more masculine. Without always meaning to (after all, most discrimination is subconscious) parents and teachers often underestimate the maths abilities of girls right from as young as preschool. This can particularly be the case in certain cultures that are more male-dominated, making STEM less attractive to women and minorities. It damages a girl’s confidence too.

In turning the tide on this, it’s essential that parents and teacher provide girls with hands-on STEM experiences and introduce them to inspirational female role models early on. These early experiences will help build confidence in STEM subjects, eroding the belief that STEM is only for boys. Additionally, the process of designing, building, testing, re-adjusting and retesting can help girls understand that ‘failure’ is part of life, and perseverance brings rewards.

Equal opportunities to study

It is important to realise that just because there are more women in an organisation or group than before, it doesn’t mean that all opportunities are now equally spread. It’s true that many STEM jobs require a university degree, but there’s still a large number that those with no previous skills in the field can learn. For instance, people can be taught to code, without having any knowledge of anything else.

There’s more work to do in representing women at university events too for instance, and in thinking of creative ways to make STEM fields attractive to school leavers.

Issues around motherhood

Unfortunately there is still some controversy surrounding motherhood and the workplace, and the STEM fields are no exception. Even now, many women who choose a family as well as a career are questioned about how committed to their career they really are. There is a natural assumption that mothers will want to work part-time or not at all, and of course this may not be the case.

Although all decisions around parenthood are highly personal, they still somehow often manage to follow women into the workplace. Maternity concerns can also easily turn into other barriers for women, for example having to tackle stereotyping, a sense of inequality and even feelings of guilt for working full stop. Things are changing here, but it’s taking time.

In general, why is it important to have gender equality in STEM?

This one’s pretty simple - when you have a diverse mix of people in a field you have a range of viewpoints and skills coming together. This diversity of thought brings better results, therefore equally including all genders in STEM is ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

How businesses can offer their support

Companies that are typically in male-dominated fields can play a key role in encouraging and supporting women. Managers and directors should encourage their staff to call out overt discrimination, and encourage open, honest communication on the subject. Flexible working to help those with families is also worth considering. The burden also shouldn’t be solely on women to speak up, but respect works both ways. Positive discrimination is of course also a non-starter, however a company culture that not only respects what women can bring to the STEM table but actually celebrates it is likely to benefit most in the long term.

Get in touch

At Myriad Associates we are experts in R&D tax relief, and strongly believe that a research and development culture, and a diverse workforce, is what truly drives business success.

If your company has undergone scientific or technological activities lately, it could well be eligible for government-backed tax relief towards the costs. This is still the case if the project failed or if the company made a loss. Why not take a look at our R&D Tax Credits page for more information, or call the team on 0207 118 6045. There’s also our contact form if you’d prefer to jot down a message and we’ll get right back to you.


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