Diversity and inclusion gap

Who, what, how, when, why interview

How to close the diversity and inclusion gap within STEM industries

In a report of Pew Research Center on April 1, 2021, was mentioned that the representation of women varies widely across STEM occupations. Women make up a large majority of all workers in health-related jobs, but remain underrepresented in other job clusters, such as the physical sciences, computing and engineering.

“Many outdated recruitment practices are harming the growth of much needed diversity and inclusion within STEM”

Current trends in STEM degree attainment appear unlikely to substantially narrow these gaps, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal employment and education data. Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than other degree fields, and they continue to make up a lower share of STEM graduates relative to their share of the adult population. And while women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like engineering and computer science – areas where they are significantly underrepresented in the work force.

These findings come amid longstanding efforts to increase diversity in STEM and as the growth in STEM jobs is expected to outpace that of non-STEM jobs in the coming years. STEM occupations continue to rank higher on the pay scale, with the typical STEM worker earning more than those in other occupations.

I had the opportunity to interview Natalie Desty, founder of STEM RETURNERS, to know what she is doing to close the diversity and inclusion gap within STEM industries in the UK and Australia. STEM RETURNERS is a program to help employers recruit, develop and retain the best available talent, and to enable highly qualified and experienced candidates to re-start their career.  It aims to redress the gender imbalance within STEM, and work with employers to view CV gaps in a different way.  Operating within an incredibly skills short market, this scheme will allow employers to attract candidates from a new talent pool and give candidates a supported route back to their career.

Natalie, tell us a little a bit about your professional background before you found STEM Returners.

After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, I started a career in recruitment and worked for a large recruitment company for 12 years. After noticing an apparent lack of progress in diversity and inclusion within STEM industries and working with candidates struggling to return from a career break, I started STEM Returners to try and break down outdated practices and challenge recruitment bias.

Where this idea came from?

What struck me the most was how hard it was for people who have had a career break to re-enter their profession. Returners were facing insurmountable barriers when wanting to return to STEM roles. These talented, educated, and dedicated people – especially women and candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds – were being let down by outdated recruitment methods and bias that prevent them from getting an interview, let alone being offered the role. 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 benefit their employers.

So, I set up a small pilot returners program which saw a group of returners take part in a paid placement for 12 weeks. There was no guarantee of a job at the end of it – the scheme allows employers to see the talent these people have, and the returners get the opportunity to enhance their skills and get more experience in an inclusive environment. The pilot was a great success and from there it’s grown and grown, and we’ve now returned more than 180 people back to STEM industries.

How does the program work? Is it only for women or both women and men?

The program is based around a 12-week placement for candidates seeking to return. It offers professionals an inclusive environment to return to, whilst giving businesses the opportunity to trial these candidates ‘on the job’, instead of using outdated screening recruitment methods. It’s for both men and women of all ages and backgrounds.

What is the scope of STEM Returners, just UK?

At the moment most of our programs are with companies based in the UK but who are internationally renowned and there is no reason why we couldn’t implement programmes abroad. We have recently launched a franchise in Australia who are working on their first pilot programme with BAE Systems.

Can share with us some success stories?

We are so many it’s hard to choose but here are a few:

Ujala Mustafa had been out of the engineering industry for 10 years before taking part in the STEM Returners Program, which led to a permanent position at BAE Systems in Glasgow.

She graduated the University of Leeds with a MEng in Aeronautical and Aerospace Engineering and became the only female engineer on an emergency power plant project in Kuwait. She got married and had her first child, which was a difficult pregnancy. She now has three children quite close together because she wanted to go back to work and knew a big career gap could potentially hinder her progress. She moved back to the UK in 2014 and found it incredibly difficult to get back in into the engineering industry. She applied for more than 100 jobs but didn’t hear back from any of them. She completed one of our programs with BAE Systems in 2019 and has since been promoted and is now a senior engineer working in product change management.

Another lady - Cathy Cojeen obtained an engineering degree and was the only female employee at an engineering consultancy firm in South England. She then went into STEM education and for 21 years (1999 to 2020) she worked to inspire more young girls to get into science, math, and engineering. After having her own children, she was ready for a new challenge and wanted to get back into the engineering industry but felt she would not match the specifications on job adverts because every engineering job wanted 2-5 years’ experience and IT skills that she was not proficient in. She decided to go back to university and whilst saving for the course, she took part in a 12-week placement with Leonardo, UK, as a Project Engineer, which has now led to a permanent role.

What are the main reasons professionals on career breaks often don´t get another job opportunity easily?

The main reasons are outdated recruitment systems that are not built to include a diverse range of candidates and job adverts ask for too specific skills and do not consider transferable skills when employing someone. Recruitment bias is ever present in both the automated and manual process and so people with a gap on their CV are placed at the bottom of the pile and not even considered. And companies are reluctant to consider offering flexibility in their roles whether that’s making them part-time roles or catering for caring responsibilities.

And how should we as a society fix this problem? 

Really, it’s just about giving people an opportunity - don’t let a career break rule someone out and find ways to give candidates equal opportunities. Many outdated recruitment practices are harming the growth of much needed diversity and inclusion within STEM. We need to challenge unconscious bias and actively seek out diversity, which is proven to increase business success. Make sure job opportunities and career development are accessible to everyone and address inequalities in your internal systems.

Do you have some statistics about the negative impact and/or effect of not addressing this situation?

The Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that UK engineering employers need to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand and suggested that firms need to double its recruitment of graduates and apprentices to meet the shortfall.  The current UK engineering workforce shows a shocking lack of diversity - 92% are male and 94% white.

From our STEM Returners Index only 12% of UK STEM professionals on a career break are doing so out of personal choice.

Despite the very clear and desperate skills shortage in the UK, 61% of STEM professionals on a career break are finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult, compared to just 6% of respondents finding the process easy.

Those attempting to return to work are 51% female and 38% from black and minority ethnic groups, compared to 8% female and 6% BME working in industry.

27% of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to 8% of men, while 30% of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to childcare responsibilities compared to 6% of men.

73% of STEM professionals on a career break have applied for more than 6 jobs in the last 12 months, with over 20% applying for more than 70 jobs through standard recruitment channels such as jobs boards or company websites.

36% of returners have felt that bias in the recruitment process has been a barrier to them personally returning to their career.

How can people get involved in STEM Returners? 

We proactively contact companies to introduce them to the programs and how they might implement them, and companies find us as well and contact us - the majority of our partners have been businesses seeing what we are doing and coming to us, which is really great. If we have a returner with a particular set of skills or experience and not a suitable programme at that time, we proactively speak to companies on their behalf to try and find a placement. Companies can reach me on natalie.desty@stemreturners.com or visit our website www.stemreturners.com