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February 14, 2023updated 29 Jun 2023 1:25pm

Will the government’s latest women in STEM initiative pay off?

The STEM returners scheme will offer retraining, but won't address the structural problems stopping women accessing tech jobs.

By Sophia Waterfield

The UK government has launched another initiative to help people re-enter the workforce and tackle the barriers facing women trying to get into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.

The government wants to help more women return to the workforce (Photo: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

The Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, announced that the scheme would be backed by £150,000 of government funding. It will be run by Women Returners and STEM Returners, targeting women who have taken lengthy career breaks with training to help ensure their skills are up-to-date.

Women still make up a minority of the STEM workforce, occupying 29.4% of roles. This is despite the uptake of STEM A-levels by girls in England between 2009 and 2020 increasing by almost 30%, and 50.1% of students taking STEM undergraduate courses between 2011 and 2020 being female.

The new programme is launched as research suggests that gender inequality in tech workplaces may be amplified by women being underrepresented in films about artificial intelligence. Women are also being failed by a lack of UK childcare infrastructure and gender biases within the tech industry.

Why are there still fewer women in STEM careers? 

Across the world, only 39% of STEM professionals are women. In emerging technologies such as AI, this figure drops down to 22%. There is also evidence pointing towards declining figures in the UK AI workforce.  

But there is a demand for more people to take up roles in STEM careers. The UK government say that 43% of vacancies are hard to fill. 

This also isn’t the first time the government has attempted to bring women into STEM careers. In 2019, the Department for Education announced an investment of £2.4m in the ‘Gender Balance in Computing research project’ in collaboration with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, STEM Learning and the British Computer Society (BCS). 

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“STEM jobs make up a large proportion of our economy, but there is a shortage in STEM employees and 75,000 STEM returners who want to get back to work,” said Minster for Women, Maris Caulfield. “We know there are women across the country who have left their jobs to care for elderly relatives or children, and want to return to work.”

Women are more likely to have lower-level roles compared to men 

In 2021, only 17% of women held Fortune 500 CISO positions, with Accenture finding that while 53% of male respondents said they had applied for or been offered the CISO role four times or more, this only happened to 7% of women. 

In the AI workforce, women are only 10% of AI research staff at Google and 15% at Facebook. In academia, over 80% of professors are men. 

A study released on Monday by the University of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence researchers found that women were more likely to work in lower-paid and lower-level roles, with more men working in sub-fields such as machine learning. This was also seen in the portrayal of women in popular media. 

The researchers examined how AI scientists were gendered in films and which genders directed the films between 1920 and 2020. Out of 116 characters who were AI professionals, only nine were women. Further, none of the 142 films about AI was solely directed by a woman. 

The researchers linked the paucity of women AI scientists in the media with the lack of equality within the workforce as well as gendered narrative tropes. 

“Gender inequality in the AI industry is systemic and pervasive,” said co-author Dr Kanta Dihal from LCFI at Cambridge. “Mainstream films are an enormously influential source and amplifier of the cultural stereotypes that help dictate who is suited to a career in AI.”

Sue-Ellen Wright, managing director of aerospace and defence, Sopra Steria, told Tech Monitor that these “gender biases” inform the expectations of teachers, parents and peers: “As a result, fewer women choose STEM subjects,” she says.

This underrepresentation in on-screen tech roles discourages more uptake as there are no role models for young women aspiring to work in the industry. This is why 77% of tech director roles in the UK are filled by men, Wright argues.

Childcare infrastructure makes it difficult for women to return to STEM careers 

Another reason women leave the STEM workforce is linked to the lack of childcare infrastructure in the UK. According to the Local Government Association, the cost of early years provision (for children under five years old) in the UK is among some of the highest in the world, with fees reaching up to £7,000 every year for a two-year-old. 

This higher cost puts strain on many households and results in women sacrificing their work as childcare is unaffordable for them. The Social Market Foundation says that this is resulting in gender inequality and economic unproductivity.

Monica Olcina, an associate research fellow at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford, spoke about how this affected women on the university’s blog: “Some childcare responsibilities inevitably still disproportionately affect women,” she said. “When caring for a young breastfeeding baby, for example, I found my ability to travel to conferences, and give talks (away from home) was compromised.”

Beth Michael, founder of charity tech platform Swiftaid, says she was fearful of taking time off to have her first child. “There was the fear of technology moving on, which will be a reality for many women re-entering the STEM sector,” she says.

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