Encouraging women to take up STEM roles

While still low, the proportion of women taking up STEM roles is increasing.

Diversity is a big challenge for all industries, but at least the message is getting across and actions are being taken.

In particular, girls in education have not been taking up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses in the same numbers as boys have. This had led to a disparity in the workforces amongst industries that have a large number of STEM roles – including the rail industry.

Rail is also seen, unfairly perhaps, as a dirty, manual job which has a highly ‘blokey’ attitude. Women and girls have felt unwelcome. They get turned off by having to wear bulky all-enveloping personal protective equipment (PPE) that was designed for men and, when out on a rail site, miles from civilisation, where are the women-friendly toilets?

All this changing, of course. PPE manufacturers now make women’s sizes and styles, and portable facilities are now becoming an essential part of the kit that is taken to work sites.

There are also many non-manual jobs available in rail. Designers, planners, schedulers, buyers, accountants, train drivers – even company managing directors – all very rarely don PPE, if ever.

Women on the Thameslink programme.

Other industries

This situation is not unique to rail, other industries are just as badly affected.

For example, Lookers Group, the new and used car and van retailer, has been doing research into, not only its own business, but its customers’ as well.

In 2017, females made up only 23 per cent of the STEM workforce, although this is increasing. In 2019 however, some of the biggest names and most influential figures in the industry were females, including Kate Bouman, the person who engineered the first image of a black hole.

The Lookers research confirmed that the STEM sector is one which is dominated by men. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs see the ratio of women compared to men extremely low. However, things are improving and, over the past four decades, there has been more women enter STEM than in any other field.

Not all women on the railways wear orange.

Breaking the taboo

It’s unfortunate, but everyone has them – biases. They are a natural part of how people think.

Laura Segal, AAUW.

Laura Segal, senior vice president for the American Association of University Women, said: “Teachers and parents provide explicit and implicit messages starting in early childhood that boys and men are ‘better’ at math, and the gaps in the professions reinforce the opportunities, culture and lack of role models that perpetuate male dominance”.

However, since 2012, the number of initiatives from schools, universities and recruitment agencies in the UK to try to get females to pursue STEM-related careers has increasedEarlier research had concluded that female students avoided STEM courses due of the lack of female role models with whom they could identify. Perhaps, the research suggested, If girls were taught about female role models such as Marie Curie, who discovered the effects of radiation, they’d be more inclined to pursue a career in the field.

In a bid to battle this bias, exam boards introduced famous women in industry to their syllabuses. They included English chemist Rosalind Franklin, who was central to the understanding of DNA. This has since been taught across the nation. This has been linked to this year’s A-level results, which saw female students studying STEM courses (50.3%) outnumber male students (49.7%).

LNER head of engineering Linda Wain.

Funding

Several government and private funders took up the cause.  For example, the EU-funded Gender Action programme was set up “to facilitate networking and exchange among more and less experienced countries to develop knowledge and build capacities, competences and know-how for gender equality and mainstreaming in research and innovation (R&I) among a variety of European and national stakeholders”.

Gender 4 STEM aims to tackle the low representation of girls in STEM education and subsequently women in STEM careers, by creating an e-learning platform called the Gender4STEM Teaching Assistant, where educational and awareness-raising materials can be uploaded for use by secondary-level teachers (of pupils aged 11 to 18).

In the UK, cross-bench peer Martha Lane Fox founded the responsible tech organisation doteveryone.org.uk, while Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE created Stemettes to inspire the next generation of females and non-binary people STEM fields by showing them the diversity of people already in STEM via a series of cohort programmes, impactful events and inspirational content platforms.

Network Rail apprentices at the company’s Westwood training centre, Coventry.

Apprenticeships

A report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers revealed that a lack of skilled STEM workers in the UK was costing up to £1.5 billion a year. While apprenticeships have an equal gender balance, only nine per cent of STEM apprentices in 2019 were women. This is a disappointing statistic and one which the government is aiming to fix by helping women become more informed about apprenticeships to help them access STEM-related careers.

Following this research, Lookers launched its female apprenticeship in 2018, with the aim of doubling how many women they have on their schemes and to provide a positive environment to encourage women into the STEM sector.

In the rail industry, Network Rail announced its ‘20 by 20’ target, to increase the take-up of female employees across the business to 20 per cent by 2020. Its strategic business plan for Control Period 6 (2019-2024) is to increase the number of women in its business by 50 per cent by the end of the Control Period and to have gender balanced recruitment of apprentices and graduates.

In 2018, 16 per cent of Network Rail’s 38,000 workforce were women. By the second half of 2019, that had grown to 19 per cent of 42,000. So it is clear that positive steps are being taken.

However, there is still a huge amount of work to be done before the industry shifts its stereotype.

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