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24 July 2019

There's no shortage of female STEM graduates, so why do most never work in science?

Patrick White

PATRICK WHITE: Compared with their male peers, only small proportion of women STEM graduates actually go on to have careers in science.

Women scientists
Compared with their male peers, only small proportion of women STEM graduates actually go on to have careers in science.

This is part of a blog series on women in STEM, with contributions throughout July from speakers at the Women in Science and Engineering Conference 2019

Earlier this year I was invited to be a panellist at the 2019 Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Conference to discuss the results of a research project I’d completed with Professor Emma Smith on the career trajectories of STEM graduates. Our research showed that the vast majority of female graduates – in both STEM and other subjects – find high status employment by their late twenties or early thirties. However, only a small proportion actually go on to work in STEM careers compared with their male peers. 

So why do so few go on to work in highly-skilled STEM jobs? I examined this issue in a piece for Women in Science and Engineering, ahead of the 2019 WISE Conference. But hypothesising can only get us so far, the debate panel at the conference gave me the opportunity to talk to educators and employers in the STEM sector and to hear what they thought discouraged women from working in science.

Stuart Calvert from Network Rail argued that there was an unconscious bias in the way that employers communicated to prospective female employees, particularly in terms of how jobs are advertised. Roles are often described in terms of skills required by applicants, rather than what the job could offer an employee. Yewande Akinola, Principal Engineer at Laing O’Rourke, echoed these sentiments, arguing that the “human impact” - the way in which a job can improve people’s lives, of science careers was rarely emphasised in recruitment. And according to our research, women are attracted in large numbers to roles such as medicine or teaching, so this aspect of a role may be important to them. Although engineering impacts on our lives daily, this aspect of the career isn’t “sold” to graduates, which is then reflected in the lower proportion of female graduates who go on to work as engineers.

The problem, however, may start much earlier. Professor Josie Fraser, Deputy Vice Chancellor at the Open University, believes that the way the sciences are currently taught is often geared towards the interests of those who have traditionally taken STEM degrees: predominantly young male students. Paradoxically, getting women to study science may, in some cases, put them off pursuing a career in STEM.

The importance of thinking about “non-traditional” entrants to the STEM sector was also emphasised by Conrad Langworthy, who runs the Software Engineering Academy at Sky. His organisation is keen to look beyond the pool of recent science graduates and he views passion and interest as much more important than qualifications. He believes that women without science backgrounds can have successful careers in IT, and actively encourages Academy applications from “non-traditional” backgrounds.

So how do the experiences of those in education and industry match up to the patterns we found in the data? And how well do their explanations account for what we found?

The need to make STEM careers attractive to women seems to be crucial. Given our conclusion that there isn’t a shortage of women with science degrees, the policies and initiatives aimed at encouraging girls and women to study science don’t necessarily result in those women wanting to work in STEM. The health and education sectors have no problem attracting and retaining female graduates, so appealing to the “human impact” of STEM careers may be key to generating more interest in the sector – not only among women. To achieve this, the way in which science is taught may need to be transformed.

The need to attract “non-traditional” entrants to the sector also resonated, as one of our most surprising findings was that even among younger cohorts the majority of highly-skilled STEM workers are non-graduates. While university qualifications may be useful for employers during recruitment, they are not essential for employment in the sector, even at the highest levels. The focus on graduate qualifications in much of the policy literature is unhelpful, as it detracts from a much wider pool of talent that has as much to offer the sector.

Combining the thinking of the WISE panellists with the results of our research, the two clear messages for STEM employers are to sell jobs based on the human story and value of the role, and to look beyond recent science graduates to the wider potential workforce.

Dr Patrick White is the Associate Professor in the School of Media, Communication and Sociology at the University of Leicester.