Woman software developer working at computer

How businesses can attract more women to STEM (and get them to stay)

Recently we heard someone say that it is impossible for businesses to address the lack of women in STEM.

We disagree. And here’s why…..

When you look at the figures it is clear that there is a problem. The TrustRadius 2021 Women in Tech Report found that 72% of women in tech believe they are outnumbered by men 2-to-1 or more, and 26% report being outnumbered by 5-to-1 or more. And this has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Women in tech are nearly twice as likely as men to have lost their jobs or been furloughed. Whilst this does look bleak, there is hope. There are now over a million women in core-STEM – an increase of over 350,000 in the last ten years.

Whilst this is promising, women still only represent around 24% of the STEM workforce. Clearly more needs to be done to attract, retain and nurture women in STEM.

We believe this isn’t about making a few small changes; it’s the cumulative effect of all of these changes and more, that leads to the huge cultural shift that is needed. At Nuffield we are committed to finding new ways to create an environment in which women can thrive. Whilst we currently have a 50:50 gender split across our technical team, we recognise that we are on a learning journey and, like many, we have a long way to go to #BreakTheBias. Here’s 5 steps that we have taken so far:

1. Flexible working

This is absolutely key. 64% of women say that flexible scheduling would help support women in tech.

When recruiting for a new role, we advertise the job with a minimum number of hours, rather than automatically making every vacancy full time. If the role just can’t be done in less than full time hours, we are open to looking at a job share instead. Many women find it impossible to rejoin work after having children. A typical school day is 8.45am to 3:30pm. The workday runs from 9am-5pm. This, alongside the extortionate cost of childcare in the UK just doesn’t add up. Women also take on the lion share of care of aging relatives.

Whilst the focus on flexible working is often mainly on working mums- after all, 75% of part time workers are women, we believe that flexible working should be encouraged and normalised for all. According to the Women’s Budget Group, women currently do 60% more unpaid work than men. Targeting flexible working initiatives primarily towards women reinforces the idea that unpaid work is women’s responsibility. This targeting can be subtle and unconscious. For example, Google image search “working parent” and the majority of pictures show women. To try to combat this and promote flexible working for all, we carefully think about which flexible working arrangements we can offer in every role and publish these in job advertisements.

Female scientist in a lab coat looking through a microscope

One area we, and many other businesses need to go further is maternity, paternity and parental leave. 55% of women believe offering equal maternity and paternity leave would support women in tech. Whilst the UK has provision for shared parental leave, this is woefully complex and under utilised. Perhaps in the future we should be looking to the Scandinavian model for ideas. In Sweden and Norway, a part of parental leave is non-transferable for fathers, and lost if not taken. 9 in 10 fathers in Sweden now take up this leave. This would mean that the challenges faced by women who take time out of their careers to have children are more evenly split between parents.

2. Look for recruits in different places

When recruiting for roles, the obvious steps are to post job adverts on the company website, Indeed, and perhaps LinkedIn. If that yields limited success, many contact a recruiter to help out. However, posting in the same places each time will reach the same audience over and over.

At Nuffield, we want to try to broaden this audience, and reach a more diverse crowd. We are constantly looking for new places to advertise jobs, including mum’s groups on Facebook, women’s networking associations and asking our team for ideas on how we can reach different groups. Organisations such as Women In Tech and She Can Code have job boards, and these are a great place to start.

Woman engineer typing on a laptop next to machinery

However to really tip the scales we need to start earlier, from a younger age. This is why we need to start working more with schools and colleges. Girls need more visible female role models in STEM to inspire them to want to continue with STEM subjects and pursue STEM career paths.

3. Remove gender bias from the recruitment process

Still on the topic of recruitment, job descriptions often hold unconscious biases. For example, only 35% of STEM undergraduates are women, and only 19% of computer science undergraduates are women. When writing job requirements, we ask ourselves whether we really require degrees in male-dominated subjects. We apply this logic to job history too. Recruiters sometimes write off candidates who are returning from a career break as as not having recent relevant experience, particularly in the world of tech where change is rapid. Many women are unable or unwilling to return to work post children due to the enormous cost of childcare or a desire to focus on young families. Rather than prioritising recent work, we hire for aptitude and potential, and accept that there may be a period of development whilst new team members adjust to returning to work.

There are many great reasons to always have more than one interviewer meeting potential job candidates, but one of the biggest reasons is to reduce unconscious bias in the process. As humans, we are all prone to favouring others who are similar to ourselves. Therefore, a more diverse interview panel reduces this bias and results in better hiring decisions. This is why we make sure that we have at least one woman on every interview panel.

4. Mentoring and promoting women into leadership roles

A recent study by Accenture and Girls Who Code found that 50% of women who start careers in tech leave by the age of 35. What’s causing this mass exodus? A lack of family friendly policies could be one big factor, and we believe that another element is a lack of opportunity. 78% of women say tech companies should promote more women into leadership positions and 72% believe mentoring would help support women in tech. Mentoring programs are an obvious choice for large organisations, but often overlooked by small and medium sized organisations who may not have a diverse group of internal mentors to choose from. However, there are many community groups who can provide mentors, specialising in almost anything. We strongly believe in the power of mentoring and our female leaders are proud to be part of the Dorset Business Mentors scheme.

2 female engineers standing in front of a wind farm

5. Call out exclusion and make sure everyone is heard

It can be easy to fall into patterns of behaviours, for example, are there some people who do most of the talking in meetings? Do some fall into the role of listening or taking notes? Are some people talked over more in meetings? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, is there a gender split here? Whilst it is not always possible or desirable for everyone to speak in every situation, it is really important to make sure that there is a balance of voices. We work hard to show everyone that their opinion matters, and we want to hear from them. We look out for signs of exclusion, like not recognising the origin of an idea, or not noticing the roles everyone played in a success, and do our best to address this. We don’t always get it right, and so we encourage an open and honest dialogue with our team so that each member feels comfortable to call it out when things go wrong.

We know we are not there yet. We have many lessons to learn. We want Nuffield Technologies to be a place that women want to work, where women feel supported, and where women can thrive. We are committed to the changes that we have already made, and to continuing on this path to recognise and advance the essential role that women play in STEM.

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