At school in the UK, most of us are lucky enough to have teachers who are encouraging and empower you to pursue your passions. For some, it’s being nudged in the direction of art or music. For me, it was the beginning of my journey in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). My physics and maths teachers were both female and fantastic role models; intelligent, confident and enthusiastic when talking about all things science related.
I had a large group of friends in my STEM classes. I didn’t see a gender imbalance and never felt like someone’s characteristics or identity were an issue that could get in the way of their enthusiasm to learn. This positive experience at a crucial age played a massive role in giving me the push I needed to pursue science in higher education. My unconditional offer came in, and off I went to university.
What I didn’t know is that these experiences would be worlds apart. Gaining a place at a Scottish university, I was surprised to find that as a White, Scottish female, I was a minority. I looked around the lecture theatre and did not see myself anywhere. My physics course was dominated by men – mostly Asian and European – both in terms of my course mates and lecturers.
This new environment was a culture shock, and the gendered change in my behaviour followed. In tutorials I was too intimidated to speak up to older male tutors. When working as part of a group with my peers, my point of view and opinions were often disregarded. I developed an apologetic approach to giving my input which embedded a whole bunch of self doubt. I over-worked and over-studied to prove myself, whilst my male counterparts shrugged off their mistakes and boasted about their ability to ‘just wing it’. All in all, my mental health and academic performance were both negatively impacted.
It wasn’t just my coursemates that lacked gender diversity. In my four years of study, I was taught by a woman for just four weeks, after which she left to bring up her two young children at home. Even the flexibility that part time teaching offered did not allow her to be a full time care provider.
This is not an isolated case. Studies have shown that women in academia drop out of PhDs at higher rates due to long working hours and a distinct lack of accommodation for those with children. Given that women – despite being educated and employed at higher rates than ever – are more likely to take on childcare duties than men, the academic workplace fails to acknowledge the stark reality of many women’s lives.
However, this is not a problem unique to academia. A 2018 McKinsey report found that gender-based progress has been stalled in the workplace in recent years – regardless of sector. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic;
In 2020, McKinsey reported that women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s jobs: women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses as of May 2020.
Unequal pay and representation, sexual harassment and bullying are problems that still persist. With women facing these barriers at work, it should come as no surprise that many are faced with a lack of opportunity to progress in the workplace. At best, their careers remain stagnant. At worst, they are forced to exit their position due to the hostility they face.
The lack of women lecturers I had at university is reflective of the problem of historic biases faced by women, Global Ethnic Majorities, the disabled or indeed any combination of these intersectional identities. It is evident that – without clear strategies for change – many workplaces will remain critically exclusive; pushing away their employees who do not fit the straight-white-male model. This will lead to a lack of diverse thought across all sectors.
A taste of inclusion
Whilst some of my peers stayed on for masters and PhDs, I couldn’t escape academia quick enough. I was ready for a new environment and fresh challenge. My first job was at a leading all-boys independent boarding school, teaching physics to students aged 13 to 18. Working as a physics teacher at this school gave me first hand experience of working in an inclusive environment.
The head of our physics department was a young male and was not only passionate about his subject and pupils, but prioritised an inclusive and collaborative culture within the staff team. As a recent graduate my ideas were listened to; I was encouraged to share opinions, allowed freedom to try new things and given informative and meaningful feedback on my lessons. After four years of feeling out of my league, this was slowly helping me silence my inner critic and build the confidence I needed in order to do a job that I knew I was qualified for.
I’m just Melanie, from a small Scottish town, no one in my family went to university, and here I am, sitting talking about Hubble’s constant with a group of Oxbridge graduate teachers, as a young female teacher. But guess what? I felt every part their equal.
This amplified my quality of work and excitement to engage and try new original ideas in the classroom. It is little wonder that my ability to work more creatively and innovatively was encouraged by this diverse environment. Countless studies have proven the benefits to performance, including McKinsey’s Diversity Wins study that found companies with the most diverse executive teams continue to outperform non-diverse companies in terms of profitability.
The next stage of my journey took me to another letter of the STEM acronym – technology. Working for Spktral, I have the opportunity to combine my love for educating others with my desire to help organisations instil a fair, diverse and inclusive culture in their workplace. I also get to do a fair amount of maths and data geekery – my happy place!
Once we have processed our clients data and uploaded it into our software, I work closely with clients to explain what their diversity data is telling them about the representation of different people within their organisation. We call these insight discovery sessions and most start with the client focusing on a single number. E.g. 12% median gender pay gap. But by the end of our session, our clients leave being able to tell the stories behind their data, and feel empowered to action changes and make a real difference. That gives me the same buzz I got in the classroom when a pupil had a lightbulb moment… there really is no better feeling! Get in touch to hear more about our software and services.
I can’t even imagine how much better my university experience would have been if it had been anything like my school experience; diverse, fulfilling and with a culture of welcoming women and girls. The difference was, at school, there were always role models, as well as mentorship to be gained from the inspiring women in STEM around me. There is still vast underrepresentation across STEM academia and workplaces; I’m definitely not the first nor the last woman to feel isolated in the field.
However, there are steps that can be taken to empower women and girls in STEM, and it starts with a cultural overhaul within organisations. For many years now, charities and other initiatives have been working tirelessly to boost representation within STEM. I firmly believe the only way to stop this pipeline from leaking is inclusion. We need more women to have good experiences to share and inspire younger generations to ‘stick it out’.
Crucially, we don’t want to push more girls in for the sake of it. Instead, we need to listen, support and nurture the ones who already are and the rest will happen naturally. Just like organisations with their pay gaps, don’t just try to fix the number, focus on fixing the root causes.
Young women are looking for evidence before they commit to a career in STEM. A 2020 survey found that almost two thirds of female STEM students expect to read an employer’s gender pay gap report before accepting a job. Almost three-quarters (74%) said they would consider it either extremely or very important that an employer had diversity initiatives in place while they were researching roles. Clearly, pay gap reporting matters. Women want to know in advance if the environment they will be working in will appreciate them and nurture their talents. Let this begin with reporting and explaining the stories behind data – because when you do, diverse talent will follow.
Moreover, once the steps towards diversity and inclusion begin to be taken, the cycle of change will be kickstarted. When more women feel welcomed into STEM careers, there will be more women to teach and inspire the next generation.
UCAS data shows that year-on-year, STEM subjects have seen only a small increase of around 1,000 female students, with barely any change to percentage representation. To combat this issue, it is essential to maintain a focus on diversity and inclusion within STEM-related organisations. This will help to inspire the future generation of talent and ultimately benefit businesses.
It must also be noted that, as a white woman, my experiences within STEM have been positive compared to many others with additional intersecting identities. The Royal Society found that in both undergraduate and postgraduate study, Black male STEM qualifiers achieve the lowest percentage when comparing ethnicity and sex. Also, when Black women do progress in the STEM sector, they are often forced to exit their position due to having a lack of role models and dealing with negative stereotyping. It is clear that additional work has to be done to make STEM considerably more accessible for those who are underrepresented and discriminated against.
The talent pipeline for women and Global Ethnic Majority individuals in STEM is leaky. Diversity and inclusion measures should be the first step towards filling in the gaps.
I am privileged to have had those positive experiences at high school and as a teacher. This inspired me to drive myself forward in the STEM environment. I am passionate about ensuring everyone has the same access to these experiences, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, disability, social class or any combination of these intersecting identities. There should be no barriers preventing an individual to pursue, progress or perform in their dream career.
To find out more about how we can support your organisation to make better people decisions with your diversity data, get in touch.