Tackling the shortfall of highly skilled workers is an increasingly important concern for safeguarding the future of British industry. Recent research from the CBI found that nearly 40 per cent of companies looking for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals are struggling to recruit and around half believe the situation will just get worse. If the UK wishes to be global leader in these fields, a significant investment must be made to increase the talent pool.
Thankfully this has not gone unnoticed within the political sphere, and it was reassuring to see all three of the main political parties promising proactive measures to plug the skills gap, through investment in education and apprenticeships. However, these proposals will continue to fall short of producing enough talent to support British industry if the severe underrepresentation of women within these areas continues.
Women continue to remain a largely untapped resource in the STEM sectors. Whilst making up 46 per cent of the British labour market, the Office for National Statistics found that women currently only represent a pitiful 13 per cent of the STEM workforce. Without increasing the number of women training for careers in this sector, British industry will continue to be under-resourced and forced to seek staff from abroad which is an expensive and a politically contentious issue.
The STEM gender myth
It isn’t just a matter of ‘these subjects aren’t for girls’. The uptake and performance of British girls in STEM subjects is falling behind in the global market. A recent report from the OECD has revealed that Britain has one of the worst records in science performance for girls in the world, with boys in the UK outperforming girls by 13 percentage points in international tests. But even where their performance is equal or surpasses their male peers, a lack of confidence continues to inhibit many girls from pursuing rewarding, high-paid careers in science and technology.
The myth that STEM topics are for boys seems to remain prevalent among both young people and their parents. Research has shown that this lack in confidence affects many girls from as young as 10 or 11, and this gender divide continues at home where parents are more likely to push boys towards careers in science and technology.
If Britain maintains a low representation of women within the STEM workforce, it will never have the human resources to plug the skills gap. It is therefore essential to build long-term strategic plan endorsed and executed by government, industry and schools to support girls in developing skills and confidence in STEM subjects from an early age and educating girls of the benefits of seeking careers in these sectors.
Diversity pays off
The demand for skilled workers means the advantages of getting more women into STEM careers is undisputable. For example, earlier this year Engineering UK commissioned research that showed how by hiring 182,000 skilled workers per year by 2020, the UK GDP could increase by £27bn. Currently, the UK only employs 55,000 such workers.
Currently, companies across the STEM industries are failing to find the talent at home and are forced to look overseas with potentially expensive recruitment programmes to fill positions. The government’s official immigration advisers have also highlighted how visa rules that block them from hiring skilled workers from outside Europe are a significant disadvantage to Britain’s technology start-ups.
With an ever increasing demand for STEM skills, if 50 per cent of the British population remains alienated from these careers, there will be damaging effects to British industry.
Bridging the divide
If the STEM industries want to reap the benefits of increasing female representation within these sectors, there is also work that must be done by businesses internally to ensure that they are operating in and promoting an environment which appeals to women.
The Ellen Pao case in the US recently re-sparked off conversation around working conditions for women in the technology sector. Ellen Pao took her previous employer, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, to court earlier this year, suing them for alleged gender discrimination and professional retaliation after she reported a colleague for sexual harassment.
Whilst all four claims that Pao leveled against Kleiner Perkins had a not guilty verdict, this case has provided the industry with a call to action not just to rectify any issues within their own organisations, but to promote themselves and the industry as an environment where women are welcomed, supported and wanted. Apprenticeships can be a great way of doing this, showing the real benefits of working in this industry rather than just what is written about in the press.
Businesses must also be ready to leverage their technological capabilities and offer these benefits to their employees. The opportunity to work flexibility is increasingly becoming a driver for women when choosing their career, especially those that plan to have a family or with caring responsibilities. The technology sector in particular should be at the forefront of promoting how the use of technology can break down traditional work barriers, enabling a more flexible, productive workforce.
This is business
Too often initiatives that aim to tackle the gender divide are seen solely as the pursuit of hitting quotas, rather than in the pursuit of business advantage. But the benefits are clear and the future of Britain’s STEM industry is at stake. Our industries will never prosper as they could if we continue to look to only 50 per cent of the population to fill jobs.
Britain already has the credentials and the potential to become a global leader in technology. But only by investing in our future female workforce are we guaranteed the necessary skills and diversity of ideas for success.
Plugging the skills gap is the key to our industry’s future success but it won’t happen on its own. It needs the government and industry to invest time and money into a long term plan to increase women’s representation in these sectors. For if we don’t act now, it could take generations for the UK to achieve its full potential.
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