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Two birds, one stone: Facing up to the gender imbalance and skills shortage in STEM

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The shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) talent is a consistent topic of discussion, frequently making headlines in today’s media.

According to the IET’s annual survey, the “skills gap” has worsened for the ninth year in a row, with over half of British firms employing engineers and IT staff reporting they cannot find the staff they need and 59 per cent saying the shortage is a threat to business.

It has also been estimated that by 2020 the UK will require almost 1.3m STEM professionals and technicians, but at the current rate universities and colleges are turning out STEM graduates – just 71,000 a year – the situation is looking dire

But this is not new news. It is widely known that the amount talent required to fill STEM roles jobs just doesn’t exist. The real question is why?

Gender imbalance is renowned in STEM organisations, however it is now part of a bigger dialogue on the issue. Where it was once a moral conversation to have, the need to balance the gender scales is now being recognised as critical work strength. Everyone knows the decision to hire more women in STEM – or any industry – is the right thing to do, however many organisations don’t consider the pragmatic benefits of doing so.

Quite simply, there is a shortage of talent in STEM and there is a shortage of women in STEM. However, we can kill two birds with one stone by addressing the challenges of the STEM shortage through rectifying the gender imbalance – and reaching young women in early education is key.

Gender balance: not just a moral dilemma

The low number of women working in STEM industries is no longer just a concern for technology companies who are worried about the image problem of a male-dominated workforce. It is now very much a business challenge.

Organisations across the STEM sectors need to recruit and retain the best talent available to remain competitive in their industries and prosper as a business. While women are representing such a small proportion of STEM workforces, it is clear organisations are missing out on a rich pool of talent.

By 2020 there will be a deficit of 300,000 digitally-skilled workers in London alone. By pulling on the female population to fill roles such as these as well as others across all STEM industries, not only will we see a moralistic social shift but a fruitful economy benefiting from a full and balanced productive workforce.

Read more on the skills gap and women in STEM:

Getting to the root of the problem

However the lack of talent available cannot be solved with a single pronged approach. No matter what industry, the STEM shortage is a large collective issue – not just because this type of talent is in short supply but because those that are qualified are often enticed into different sectors. Governments and organisations need to both proactively seek a solution through reaching female talent at a young age.

This is an area where we are seeing gradual improvement. Women in Science, Technology and Engineering’s (WISE) latest findings have reported that not only was there was an increase in the number of girls entering into STEM GCSE examinationsthis year, they are continuing to attain higher results in STEM subjects than their male counterparts. 

Moreover, in September this year, new qualifications known as Tech-levels were launched by the UK’s AQA exam board. Seven Tech-levels are now available for students, including design engineering, mechatronic engineering, power network engineering, IT networking, IT programming and IT user support, with cyber security and entertainment technology available from 2016.

Whilst the government makes a conscious effort to tackle this problem, it is also vital that corporations suffering from the STEM shortage step up and proactively work to find their own solution to the skills gap and gender imbalance, which could lead to a collective resolution later down the line. 

An example of an organisation taking the initiative to reach female talent at a young is Google’s ‘Made With Code’ campaign – aimed at getting young women excited about learning code and pursuing a career in the industry.

The idea being to show young girls that the things they love – from apps on their smartphones to their favourite movies – are all created using code and encouraging them to apply the skills they learn to their own individual passions.

Collaborative effort

The gender imbalance and skills shortage challenges facing the STEM sectors can almost be regarded as one in the same. Through governments and individual businesses reaching and educating girls at a young age about the vast career opportunities available within the STEM industries, we hope to see a new, deep pool of talent emerge. 

From there, organisations will not only fill the roles they so desperately need candidates for, but will successfully balance the gender scales of their workforce.

Scott MacFarlane is the client solutions director at Futurestep

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