Could Covid-19 be the catalyst to get more women into STEM?


With unemployment reaching record highs and further troubles in the labour market likely, there’s never been a better time to signpost potential career opportunities for women in science and technology, says Shivvy Jervis.

It’s no understatement to say that coronavirus has thrust the UK’s job market into uncertainty, with the unemployment rate recently rising to its highest level for two years.

Faced with the chaos around them, people will be seeking to understand now more than ever how to find secure and rewarding employment – including accessible ways to retrain, and the ability to pivot their careers.

Women in particular must be shown the pathways to train and reskill into STEM careers; an area in which females are still hugely under-represented – whether school-age, graduates or experienced workers.

Only around a quarter of people working in STEM in the UK are female, according to workforce figures from the WISE female STEM campaign, and just 17% of tech roles are currently filled by women.

This is not a new problem. Indeed, it is rooted in a range of issues, including a lack of girls taking STEM subjects at school or university, less encouragement from parents in some cases and other barriers to entry.

How can we turn this around?

Through my on-the-ground work with organisations such as the UN and Microsoft via my forecasting lab, and engaging with young girls and women debating a STEM career, I’ve seen some significant ways to infuse much-needed momentum behind the number of women entering the STEM arena:

More targeted and better careers information: Becoming a coder or startup founder is by no means the main or sole way to enter STEM. Helping people to understand their adaptability is key – you could be a budding science or tech journalist, a researcher, a campaigner, a project engineer. For instance, I don’t have an engineering or science background (I did an economics degree) and do not code.

I started out as a freelance web and TV reporter and then handled multimedia content about STEM themes for a global telco; only then did I strike out on my own to form a forecasting advisory and speak professionally about the “fourth industrial revolution” and people-centred innovations.

More engaging and relevant skills training and information on career paths: Technology itself can be harnessed to achieve this, overcoming some of the main barriers to engaging with this content – including a lack of time or money. For example, creative digital platforms can help present information, advice and guidance on relevant jobs in a far more immersive and engaging way for the person on the receiving end than bland mediums.

Augmented Reality (AR) campaigns and ads are one shining example of this, pushing clever, imaginative experiences to people’s devices that can bring a sector, company or role to life. It is even being used for onboarding, especially during a remote working phase – and is also being leveraged to upskill and train employees, with wonderful results.

Active mentoring: This is another mechanism that will help ensure prospective female talent receive realistic insights and access to people and networks – both of which can help shape people’s trajectory. The UK’s start-up ecosystem is primed for this, offering up official mentoring programmes and pathways to match talent to seasoned pros that are keen to help give them a leg up.

Greater diversity: You would be forgiven for wondering if STEM roles are geared more towards those from a “certain background” or with more means. I hear this stereotype often. Science or engineering degrees can be long, expensive and not within reach for all females, irrespective of desire.

However, the tech sector isn’t obsessed with degrees or diplomas and recognises the surge in the gig economy and the freelancer culture. People are now likely to have several different jobs during their working lives and cannot be expected to possess specialist training in multiple fields. Finding ways to engage these members of the workforce with opportunities and advice at the right time will help draw in more talent into the pool and make things more inclusive.

Unlock digital skills

As someone focused on human-centred innovations that can make a real positive impact on our futures, I’m hugely encouraged by digital solutions that can help people enjoy better employment prospects. The need to unlock innovative solutions that improve working lives is why programmes like the CareerTech Challenge Prize are so important.

Through the CareerTech programme, Nesta and the Department for Education are providing mentoring and financial backing to various ideas that can equip adults with the tools and skills to thrive. Nesta is working with more than 30 innovators to help people across England navigate an incredibly turbulent labour market – and as part of its judging panel, I’m excited by their promising prospects.

In the coming months, the innovators will start to work with employers, local authorities and community organisations, so that people across the country can benefit, with prime information about the job market harnessed to help people to make better-informed decisions.

There is no denying that the UK’s job market can seem daunting at the best of times – and the impacts of the pandemic have caused major difficulties for people in all kinds of roles. But with our job market in flux, there is the opportunity to help people to consider careers that they might not otherwise have thought of and equip them with the tools to succeed.

If we can do so, we’ll all stand to benefit. Indeed, empowering more women to work in digital roles will not only increase their opportunities for rewarding and stimulating careers, it will also provide the sector with business benefits of a more representative and diverse workforce. There are also major economic benefits; just a 10% increase in women working in STEM careers could boost the UK economy by £3 billion, according to WISE.

With all the complexities the world of work offers up, ultimately people need support to truly maximise the opportunities available. By making the STEM sector more inclusive, rewarding and accessible – and harnessing technology and innovation itself to do this – we can keep people at the heart of this aspiration.

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