Women in STEM: The Gap Between Learning and Earning

By Sam Smith Vice President, Global Practice Lead, Life Sciences & Healthcare, KellyOCG

How can we help female STEM graduates feel at home in Life Sciences? 

More women than ever before are choosing to study STEM subjects. In the UK, between 2017 and 2018, 35% of STEM students were female. However, a STEM education doesn’t always translate to a STEM career. Just 22% of STEM workers in 2018 were women and this number drops to 12% when we narrow it down to male-dominated subjects like engineering. So, what’s happening? Where are these highly educated women disappearing to? And how can we help more women to bridge the gap between learning and earning in STEM to promote greater gender diversity across Life Sciences?

 I take a closer look at this issue and the ways we can work together to attract more women to STEM roles, below.

 

Invisible Bias

Invisible bias can make it more difficult for women to succeed in STEM. From a poor approach to flexibility and parental leave to assumptions around what a ‘real’ programmer or chemist looks like. This was demonstrated on the interstellar stage in 2019, when the first all-female spacewalk was postponed due to a lack of medium spacesuits on the International Space Station. There was no purposeful attempt to exclude women, it was simply expected that the people undertaking this type of work would be men. We need to highlight and remove these invisible barriers across STEM industries, including Life Sciences, to create a level playing field for everyone.

 

Less Women = Less Women

Women can be sucked into a self-perpetuating cycle of poor representation. A male-dominated workplace or learning environment can be disheartening. Women may feel unable to identify with the people they see around them. A US study found that the fewer women who entered a doctoral programme in a STEM subject, the less likely any of the female students were to complete the course. It’s important for women to not only have role models in the wider STEM arena but to see women actively succeeding in their chosen field and workplace.

 

Early Talent Programmes Must Go Further

STEM programmes in schools are great. They can go a long way to sparking a life-long interest in STEM for girls. But a single afternoon building rocket ships out of Lego is not going to fundamentally change the way girls view a potential career path. We have to take further steps to link the STEM skills taught in schools with future jobs in the minds of young women and girls. We have to show the value in pursuing life-changing careers in sectors like Life Sciences. Early STEM programmes must outline pathways to success that resonate beyond the classroom.  

 

STEM Culture Needs to Evolve

We don’t need to just bridge the gap between learning and earning, we need to make it easier for women to remain in STEM fields over the long term. A staggering 40% of female engineering students go on to quit or never enter the profession in the first place. This is down to a variety of reasons, but culture can play a large part. Women who enter STEM courses may face expectations from their peers and professors that go on to shape their view of the industry as a whole. A qualitative study, reported on in the Harvard Business Review, showed that women in engineering face much greater levels of self-doubt then men. They also face expectations that they will take on menial or ‘admin’ roles because of their gender. The ‘boys club’ mentality is alive and kicking in some quarters and this can be tough to overcome. At an organisational and leadership level, this cultural challenge has to be addressed.  

I’m lucky enough to have met some amazing women who are trailblazers in the world of STEM and Life Sciences, but we still have a way to go to make the sector a truly welcoming space for women from every background. By shining a light on the issues we face and challenging bias and equality in every industry, we can begin to create a smoother path for every girl who dreams of achieving big things in STEM.