Bias against age and gender prevents many talented STEM professionals from returning to the sector following a career break, research has found.
Thirty-eight per cent of returners had experienced some form of bias in the recruitment process, according to The STEM returners index for 2022.
Almost three-quarters (72%) of people who had taken a career break were finding it difficult to return to work, compared with 69% who responded to last year’s survey. More than a third said the pandemic had made it harder.
Many thought they had experienced bias in STEM recruitment because of their gender (experienced by 29% of women and 7% of men) and age (46% of men and 38% of women). More than half of over 55s said they had experienced bias, compared to 23% among younger age groups.
The survey of 1,000 people trying to return to the STEM sector found that the majority had been forced to take a career break because of childcare responsibilities. Women were five times more likely to take a career break for this reason than male colleagues.
Despite 39% of women wanting to return to work because their children were now at school, 40% still felt childcare responsibilities were a barrier to returning due to lack of flexibility offered by employers.
The report indicated that there was bias against non-diverse candidates in the STEM sector, with men and older workers finding it more difficult to return than last year.
Men are more than twice as likely to have been forced to take a career break due to redundancy (29% compared with 12% last year), and more likely to have applied for 70+ roles compared to last year (34% in 2022 vs 28%
However, the biggest barrier to returning to a job in the STEM sector was the lack of feedback they received from employers after applying for a role, with 50% of applicants receiving feedback never or hardly at all. Women were less likely to receive feedback than men (52% compared with 46%), while 57% with disabilities never or hardly ever got feedback, compared with 47% without a disability.
Natalie Desty, director of STEM Returners, an organisation that helps find STEM professionals find work after a career break, said: “We know that the engineering sector faces a significant skills shortage and yet this group of talented and dedicated individuals are still overlooked. This situation is being made even harder with more redundancies and more people wanting to return to work due to uncertainty about the economy and the rising cost of living leading to a wider pool of potential returners.
“There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills. But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, can refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.
“Industry leaders need to do more to update recruitment practices and challenge unconscious bias to help those who are finding it challenging to return to the sector and improve diversity and inclusion within their organisations.”