Many businesses, industries and sectors face the enduring quandary of how to attract more women employees into their ranks. The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – collectively known as STEM – are among those most obviously yet to reap all the benefits of the sizeable advances that have transformed women’s careers in recent decades.

Along with Professor Jo Duberley, of Birmingham Business School, I studied this problem by investigating the experiences of women employees in engineering. A key feature of our approach was that we tried to focus on why some do succeed – as opposed to the vast majority of research in this area, which seems unduly obsessed with why so many fail.

Drawing on individual interviews and focus groups reflecting all phases of the journey, from schooling to degree study to employment within major companies, we took a closer look at a career pipeline widely acknowledged as among the leakiest in any professional sphere. The insights offered by would-be and trainee engineers – girls studying at AS level or degree level – may be particularly useful for any organisation determined to increase the number of women employees.

1. Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late

Youngsters lose interest in STEM subjects between the ages of 11 and 14. That means there’s very rarely any value in trying to influence them when they’re 16, by which time it’s usually way too late.

A key question, then, is how best to ensure that children, especially girls, don’t simply accept prevailing stereotypes. In seeking an answer we would do well to remember that youngsters really don’t have much idea of engineering or scientific work.

That’s why it’s essential to get more information into schools. Teachers, guest speakers and events can all play substantial parts in this regard. According to an Institute of Engineering and Technology survey, the most popular methods of raising awareness are visits from practitioners, trips and activities.

2. Make the Most of Key Influences

As our research underlined time and time again, informal influences can have a huge impact on career decisions. Often these influences are to be found close to home, but sometimes they come from much further afield.

Parent power is perhaps the brightest star in the overall “relationship constellation”. Almost all of the girls and women we spoke with had a father who was an engineer, and most of those that don’t have someone else in their family or in their parents’ informal network whom they could consult about their career plans.

Less obvious but occasionally just as significant is the role of popular culture. Consider, for example, CSI’s contribution to enhancing the appeal of forensic science courses; or the effect of Professor Brian Cox’s TV appearances, which in 2013 led to such a dramatic spike in demand for places on the University of Manchester’s physics degree courses that the entry requirements had to be raised to the most demanding level possible.

3. Provide the Right Role Models and Mentors

It’s vital that young women – and, indeed, their parents – are inspired by the success of others. Care is needed, though, because some role models might ultimately have a negative impact.

The girls and women who took part in our study wanted role models who felt “real” to them. Above all, they wanted to hear from women who would to talk about their own difficulties and challenges. They had no interest in “superwomen” peddling out-of-reach, clearly unrealisable dreams.

Much the same as mentors and sponsors in schools and universities; undue seniority can be intimidating. What’s needed – not least when young women undertaking apprenticeships or undergraduate courses face the potentially awkward reality of being “the only woman in the room” – is simple, straightforward, practical advice.

4. Don’t Be Coy About Money

According to research by Engineering UK, young people underestimate the levels of pay engineers can earn. So, for their matter, do their parents. In other words, the notion that a career in STEM can bring some very handsome rewards is all but unrecognised.

This is an absurd situation. Most young people want jobs that are going to earn them a lot of money. It’s a competitive world out there, so why pretend salary isn’t a motivating factor?

Let’s not beat around the bush; more needs to be done to advertise the fact that those who choose a career in STEM are likely to get a decent wage. The same applies for any career that offers an attractive wage. Being too polite to talk about money does nothing for either employers or, more importantly, their would-be women employees.


Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School. As well as, the author of Imagining Women’s Careers.


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