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Workplace culture still holds back women

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The following article was published in the Yorkshire Post.

We are beginning to see a new focus on manufacturing, engineering, science and technology in the economy. It is precisely these areas that we need to develop if the country is to remain among the stronger economies in the world. But currently we lose too much talent and too many ideas when qualified women scientists, technologists and engineers leave for work in other fields.

Of course, it’s not just women lost in these sectors of the economy. We have to encourage everyone with the ability and desire to train to become skilled and develop their talents. But there are particular issues about the numbers of women who join these professions and then become disillusioned and leave.

Their loss is a huge waste precisely when the shortage of skilled workers is holding back research and manufacturing.

The cost to our economy is significant, both in the time and expense of training, but also in the loss of untapped potential. As the world economy gets ever more competitive it is in the areas of science, engineering and technology that the UK has to develop and lead.

Currently, around 70% of women with relevant qualifications leave their profession, not to return. In 2008, there were 620,000 female science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates of working age in the UK, but only a third, 185,000, were employed in these occupations. In 2010 nearly 100,000 female STEM graduates were either unemployed or economically inactive.

In too many workplaces we have a culture where women experience sexist remarks and even outright bullying. Workplaces that leave many skilled women feeling so isolated that they leave the profession for which they have studied and trained.

It’s a long standing problem. There are numerous issues entangled at the root of why this is so, some structural, many deep-seated and embedded in workplace culture. Some of these issues affect boys too science, engineering and technology fails to attract and keep sufficient interest across both genders.

The business case for doing more to ensure trained women feel valued at work is obvious. Adopting some of the measures put in place in other industries, and found to be successful in retaining women, and attracting back those on a career break, would be a start. It’s no longer rocket science flexible working, better managed career breaks for maternity leave for instance.

A Sheffield engineering company which took on their first female apprentice didn’t have any showers and pondered what to do. They discussed it with the new recruit and agreed that her first project would be to build the shower. Problem solved.

Part of the longer term solution is attracting more young people into these professions. But how can you dream of being an engineer if you don’t know what one is? It’s a problem for both genders but is most acute for girls due to the traditional image of engineering, combined with the paucity of role models.

This must mean ensuring that these issues are addressed early enough in schools. Children learn early just what a “woman’s job” and a “man’s job” are and make their choices accordingly.

Once set on a particular educational path it can be hard to change and complete a new set of subjects. Also offering work experience that gives girls and boys a chance to see some of the amazing things engineers do. A number of local businesses are keen to pursue this option if only schools could see the value for their pupils. It’s not just the chance of employment but well paid employment mechanical engineers were the highest paid of any Sheffield University graduates last year.

Employers, schools and pupils should listen to the enthusiasm of young women who have made it in these professions. I am struck by their desire to take on a challenging career that could give job satisfaction. We would do well to not only learn the lessons of how to appeal to young women but harness this enthusiasm. They are taking on the job of being role models and spreading greater understanding about just what engineering is.

Change is slow but there are successful initiatives, we have to increase their use more systematically and help spread good practice. But the stubborn issue of workplace culture needs new thinking and new ideas. Without changing the culture at work, the basic problems will persist and we will continue squandering the talents of half the population.

 

Meg edited a collection of essays on this topic which is available here:

http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/file/Women%20in%20SET.pdf 


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