Women in STEM in the UK
Updated: Jun 13
What is the STEM field and why do so many women struggle to enter it? This article offers a brief insight into these barriers and how STEM initiatives in the UK are working to overcome them.
What is STEM?
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Dr Judith Ramaley coined the term in 2001 as she disliked the more commonplace acronym, SMET. Although these fields are traditionally male-dominated, women have made important historical and contemporary contributions to them. However, their work is often overlooked, minimised or even erased from common knowledge.
For example, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) was ‘the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor.’ Consequently, the government passed a law in 1876 to allow women to work in the medical profession.
More recently, the work of Dame Anne McLaren (1927-2007) spurred on developments in in-vitro fertilisation and allowed the first test tube baby in the world to be born.
Women are also paving the way for future generations. In 2013, tech thought-leader Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon founded STEMettes to encourage women and girls aged 5-21 to build their own apps. In 2017, leading biophysicist Dr. Yolanda Ohene co-founded the Minorities in STEM Network to tackle bias within the industry and provide support for those affected by it.
Despite the work of these women, STEM is a long way away from achieving gender equality.
Above: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Dame Anne McLaren, Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon, Dr. Yolanda Ohene
Why is STEM important and why does it need more women?
STEM shapes our everyday lives: it produces the phones we use, the cars we drive, and having more women working in the sector means that opinions and ideas of all genders can shape the final product. As Caroline Criado Perez argues in her book Invisible Women, many things in society are designed for men. A male-dominated vision in STEM can lead to a world which overlooks and indirectly discriminates against women. In daily life, for example, this could look like not finding safety equipment that fits them or not having access to safe and sanitary hygiene facilities. The absence of a women-led perspective in STEM can unfairly put women’s and girls’ wellbeing at risk. If women are given a seat at the table and the opportunity to influence decisions, they can develop more gender-inclusive products for daily life and contribute to emerging fields such as artificial intelligence.
Working in STEM also helps women and girls to develop transferable skills, such as problem-solving capabilities and adaptability, which boost their employability in all sectors. Denying half of the global population access to digital skills and scientific developments leaves them behind and exacerbates existing inequalities.
There are also financial benefits to having women in the field. STEM degrees can offer high ‘earning returns,’ with medicine degrees giving women earnings of £250,000 on average over their lifetime, which amounts to around £100,000 for women obtaining degrees in maths, pharmacology and engineering.
What is the current situation in the UK STEM sector?
The gender gap may now show signs of closing, but we have a long way to go. In 2020, girls took an extra 632 core STEM A-Levels and were awarded ‘a greater number of science A-levels than boys for the second year running,’ despite the fact that fewer students were studying for A Levels that year. From 2010-2019 women’s and girls’ entry for STEM A-Levels increased by 31%, with female enrolment in STEM undergraduate courses also increasing by 50.1%. This meant that the proportion of women taking full-time STEM subjects at undergraduate level rose from 33.6% to 41.4%.
In the workplace, the gap between men and women is significantly larger. Less than a quarter of UK STEM professionals are women, meaning that the sector has a ‘lower share of female workers’ and disabled people than other industries. Within STEM, 65% of professionals are white men, 10% are white women and 13% are women from minoritised backgrounds. Whilst science and maths tend to be more ‘gender-balanced’, women are especially underrepresented in mid-level roles and in SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), regardless of their age.
What barriers to the STEM sector do women face?
Barriers are built during childhood. Girls and boys are raised differently due to social constructions of gender. For example, girls tend to get ‘static’ toys, whereas boys’ playthings are more interactive. This can negatively impact girls’ self-confidence. In school, negative stereotypes that depict STEM subjects as ‘nerdy’, ‘difficult’ or ‘just for boys’ may discourage girls from choosing them for GCSE or A-Level. Indeed, girls tend to opt for HEED subjects (Health, Economics, Education, Database).
Outdated teaching methods and curricula, and the disruption caused by COVID-19, will make it harder for girls to enter STEM university courses or pursue STEM careers. What’s more, girls in rural areas or from minoritised communities are less likely to have female STEM teachers or access to STEM initiatives with fewer resources being allocated to these communities. Consequently, girls may not feel they belong in STEM, as they haven’t seen people that have similar life experiences working in the field.
Such difficulties continue into and beyond higher education. The ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon means that most Masters students in science are women, but they leave the sector much faster than their male classmates. A Women in Technology Survey in 2019 found that 47% of women leave their roles compared to 17% of men. Moreover, the survey revealed that many women feel their ideas are dismissed by male colleagues and women may not enter the sector altogether due to unconscious hiring biases, male-targeted job adverts and fewer career progression opportunities. Hence, within the tech industry, there is evidence of a ‘leaky pipeline,’ with such a high quit rate allowing the industry to remain male-dominated.
78% of tech organisations admitted to having gender pay gaps, with women thought to earn up to 28% less than men within the same role. Consequently, just 30% of researchers around the world are women.
So, if girls defy social norms and choose STEM subjects in school, they may not do so at university, and future employers may struggle to retain them. One in five women currently working in STEM in the UK believes their gender is a barrier to promotion.
How do we get more women and girls into STEM?
According to the Women in STEM campaign, involving ‘employers, universities, colleges’ and parents is vital. Parents have the potential to influence the ‘child’s career choices’ or simply to provide them with moral support, insights into STEM subjects and mentoring.
Having access to role models is also important, especially those with similar lived experiences. This shows young girls they can do it too, and mentoring schemes give women the chance to pass on their knowledge to the younger generation. Schools and universities could establish such schemes and work with employers to build outreach programmes, as recommended by experts.
A UNICEF report has also recommended the implementation of gender-sensitive STEM education. This would take into account the barriers that girls face in STEM, particularly for students from minority communities, aim to pull apart gender biases and use real-world examples.
What policies does the UK have in place for women in STEM?
In 2021, the government ran a Women in STEM Week to raise awareness of inequalities within the sector. Education is a key area for UK government policy, including the entry of women into STEM apprenticeships. That same year, the government announced a £84 million programme ‘to improve the teaching of computing and drive up participation in computer science at GCSE and A-level, particularly amongst girls.’ In addition, the government stated its support for extracurricular STEM programmes, such as the Gender Balance in Computing programme and Improving Gender Balance in physics. More broadly, new T-Levels (‘a new, technical alternative to A Levels’) will offer STEM subjects such as Engineering and Manufacturing.
To mark International Women’s Day 2022, Minister for Women Baroness Stedman-Scott launched new employment initiatives. Although the main focus is to ‘improve pay transparency in the job application process’ and close the gender pay gap, the government also aims to support women returning to STEM careers. Hence, organisations will be encouraged ‘to recruit and retain talented staff [...] by providing training, development and employment support to those who have taken time out for caring.’
What other initiatives are available?
‘Women in STEM’ was established to combat gender stereotypes surrounding STEM subjects and promote diversity of opportunities within the sector. Similarly, the WISE campaign focuses on workplace inclusion, with the goal of increasing women’s representation within STEM to at least 30% by 2030.
Industry-specific groups also exist, such as Mums in Science and Women into Construction, in addition to regional networks, like the Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering (CAMAWiSE). Finally, the Speakezee platform has partnered with schools to put female STEM graduates in classrooms to speak about their experiences.
What can we do moving forward?
Multiple actors are working to close the UK’s STEM gender gap, but multiple and sustained efforts will be needed to ensure that women and girls have equal opportunities to prosper in this field.
For more resources on gender inequality, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka