stem students in lab

The Telegraph Open Series: Why don't more females choose STEM careers?

The number of girls studying science subjects is equal to that of boys, but when it comes to choosing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers, the number drops off dramatically. Just 13% of the STEM workforce is female.

Speaking in the GSK Open Series conversations, Nikki Yates, head of UK pharmaceuticals at GSK, and Vivienne Parry, TV science presenter and author, identify a number of factors for the shortfall, from a lack of confidence among women to a STEM image problem, where stock photographs of women in lab coats fail to convey the diversity of careers and the creativity they involve. Both Ms Yates and Ms Parry have a passion for science that has helped them excel in their chosen careers, and they want more women to follow in their footsteps.

stem careers

The good news is that prospects for this look increasingly positive with organisations beginning to focus on creating environments that encourage women in STEM. This is coupled with the more assertive girls in Generation Y who are employing their own ambition and drive to succeed in what are traditionally male-dominated sectors.

However, from the most formative years, STEM has to be “brought alive” according to Ms Yates. At school to university, young people need to understand the “real-world” and “everyday” application of science first, in order for them to experience first-hand the most exciting aspects of a career in these areas and how it can change our lives for the better.

“Science is sold to you as a box of broccoli – it’s good for you – when actually it’s a box of delights and it’s incredibly creative,” she says. “For me science is always such a wonder, you opened one door and 49 other doors opened in front of you. It is the creativity, the ideas and the enthusiasm of people that you meet and, for women, it is the collaborative nature of science. I think it’s a fantastic area for women to go into.” Ms Parry goes on to cite the Reach Out scheme where hundreds of children were able to try out the 50 or so disciplines at work in the NHS as a way of bringing this excitement and “real world” application to life.

Ms Yate’s passion for biology, as well as her determination, led her into a STEM career. Its ability to improve the quality and longevity of life continues to inspire her, she said.

But while women need their own motivation, business leaders have a role to play to create an organisational culture that allows women to progress up the STEM career ladder. Only one in 10 STEM managers are female, according to recent report published by WISE, which promotes women in science. Just two STEM companies were ranked in the top 10 FTSE 100 companies with the highest percentages of women on their boards in 2015.

According to Ms Yates, men, in particular, should be the agents of positive change. “If men are supportive and understand what needs to happen to be supportive of their female workforce, that’s an amazingly powerful shadow to cast in the organisation,” she said.

Better and cheaper childcare, return-to-work packages that are discussed even before women go on maternity leave, training to bring women back up to speed and agile working should all be the norm, according to Ms Yates. “Do the leaders understand what needs to happen to be a supportive environment, optimise the workforce and the gender diversity in their workforce?” she asked. “We need to understand that women can’t just come back and be operating at 100% again, they need some support to do that.”

Both women reject the idea of female quotas in STEM – Ms Parry said she could not think of anything worse than “getting into a job and then having all your colleagues round you think you only got that job because of a quota.” But she does advocate 50/50 shortlists, with equal numbers of male and female candidates, in recruitment and promotions.

Her current hero is Dame Sally Davies the chief medical officer who helped set up the National Institute for Health Research, which awards millions of pounds of research funding. Dame Sally was so concerned by the lack of women academics receiving grants that she risked the wrath of higher education by insisting that universities could only apply if they had gained Athena Swan, a charter for diversity, particularly with regards to women.

Ms Yates said 50/50 shortlists could be something she would consider in areas of the business where women were in short supply, such as engineering, manufacturing and mass technology. Positive action would ensure women who might lack confidence but were well able to do the job were at least in the running.

“We’re investing so much money into these [female] scientists and yet they’re not delivering, not because of their own fault but because we’re not enabling them to deliver their potential,” said Ms Parry. “If half of the population are not delivering the scientific solutions to the world’s challenges, then the whole world misses out.”

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