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Smashing Stereotypes to Address the Gender Gap in STEM
Sarah Chapman, Technical Manager & North Europe STEM Champion, 3M
The gender skills gap is no longer just a diversity issue but is now a crisis that leaves us vulnerable in both the near- and longer-term future. Today, just over one-third of STEM students in higher education in the UK (35%) are women. This number further declines when you look at the data across the most rapidly growing STEM fields such as engineering, technology and computer sciences where only 19% of the graduates are female. In an economy crying out for workers with these skills, this is unacceptable.
However, the latest 3M State of Science Index research shows that, in the UK, 88% of people believe women are a source of untapped STEM potential. Getting more women and girls into STEM is crucial if we are to address the challenges of today, and those of the future, whether it’s the climate crisis, the need for sustainable and equitable development, or the fourth industrial revolution.
The root of the problem
In 2021, a report from The Institute of Engineering and Technology revealed that the UK’s STEM industry faced a shortfall of 173,000 workers and costs businesses £1.5 billion each year, according to The Institute of Engineering and Technology. Despite the obvious need to inspire an influx of talent into the industry, women remain underrepresented with research from the WISE Campaign highlighting that they make up just 26.9% of the core-STEM workforce.
A key cause of this problem is the stereotypical perception of the sort of people that work in STEM. 3M’s latest State of Science Index research uncovered that over a third (37%) of people were put off pursuing a STEM career due to bias, self-doubt, and lack of representation. Clearly, the industry faces major misconceptions and there must be a shift in attitudes if we are to address this.
Initiatives have come to the fore to tackle these outdated perceptions, but stereotypes are stubborn by nature and require an ongoing effort, from all players in the industry, to dismantle.
In recognition of this, British Science Week kickstarted its “Smashing Stereotypes” campaign which spotlights diversity in STEM workforces by profiling scientists and engineers to share more about their stories. Through initiatives like this, that raise the profile of women in STEM, organisations can champion the stance that STEM careers are available for anyone, regardless of their gender.
Inspiring the future workforce
Girls’ interest in STEM increased almost twofold when they had role models to aspire to, according to Microsoft research. Ultimately, the voices of female role models, that are making a difference in the STEM space, must be amplified. Diversity of thought and experience can drive innovation and enhance problem solving. So, by advocating relatable role models, we can both encourage discovery whilst simultaneously creating a diverse pipeline of STEM talent to tackle the growing skills gap.
For the UK to sustain its place at the pinnacle of global digital transformation, addressing the gender gap in STEM must be an absolute priority. Considering its ability to inspire innovation, diversity has benefits for business and society. To facilitate this, organisations must lead the charge to showcase the realities and opportunities of a modern STEM career to young women. Without the best STEM workforce in place, we risk being underprepared for the road ahead.