Changing entrenched stereotypes about the sort of careers that are seen as the preserve of men could help employers to reap a range of business benefits. And changing attitudes is now becoming essential as firms struggle with the UK skills crisis.
A lack of female recruits across a whole range of traditionally male-dominated professions can probably be traced back to school days, when girls could be turned off particular subjects, or even whole careers.
Science, engineering and technology employers are now looking at new ways of becoming more diverse, after a recent conference highlighted a number of barriers facing women and people from ethnic minorities.
Delegates at Newcastle University’s GEM-SET – Gender and Ethnic Minority Issues in Science, Engineering & Technology conference were told that employers and academics are now visiting schools and colleges in a bid to get young girls interested in science, engineering and technology careers and create a ‘talent ladder’ for the future.
Professor Christopher Edwards, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, said the first step was dismissing the old stereotypes and attracting more female students to subjects where there is a gender bias.
“There’s an extraordinary series of stereotypes around science, and it’s important that we create a ladder of talent for the future,” he said.
Professor Steve Raynor, who heads a £6m project looking at the role of science in society, said the glass ceiling in science, engineering and technology careers was preventing women from getting to the top table.
“You often find the gender split at lower levels is pretty good, but this does not transfer to the management or strategic parts of the company,” he said.
The problems seem to start at school because subjects associated with these careers are considered to be male dominated.
Perversely, girls perform better than boys in these subjects at A-level, but a lack of positive role models and a poor perception of future careers start to erode the number of candidates.
However, there are also huge problems in the workplace, with more than 50,000 qualified female scientists not using their skills in the jobs market.
More worryingly, a lack of proactive HR policies seem to be hampering women once they start a career – although 24,000 women returned to work after having a child, only 8,000 went back to their science, engineering and technology careers.
“Women are perceived as a huge cost burden and there are many serious disadvantages facing them in the workplace,” said Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology.
She argues that there is a huge economic imperative to engage with women and, with an estimated shortfall of 300,000 science, engineering and technology recruits over the next few years, employers must start changing now.
Improved childcare measures, the promotion of positive female role models and a root-and-branch review of management systems are now essential if more female engineers, scientists and technicians are to be successfully integrated.
“Recruitment is a problem, we’re losing women from science and the ones that are there are failing to progress,” she says. “Employers in the scientific world need to promote good HR policies and cultural change.”
Elsewhere, the government is hoping that a new £10m scheme can help women of all ages to find new careers in sectors such as construction or logistics, which have often been seen as the sole preserve of men.
The two-year initiative is being run by five of the Sector Skills Councils, and is designed to help 10,000 women find new careers in areas where they are traditionally under-represented.