Do STEM employers need female graduates more than women need careers in science?
Our Conference on May 14th looks at the skills mix needed ahead in STEM, and how to ensure that women can be central to this opportunity. Here one of our speakers, Patrick White, explains the research he has been involved in, looking at STEM graduates and which careers they choose.
Patrick will speak as part of a debate at our Conference
How are education providers preparing for the future? Will universities deliver the future skills your organisation needs?
If not, what can you do to educate your own workforce of the future?
Join us on May 14th to be involved in these discussions. TICKETS ON SALE.
Dr Patrick White
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Leicester
Two stories about the STEM labour market are rarely out of the news. For many decades now, employers have been concerned about both the quality and quantity of STEM graduates and have reported problems recruiting workers to fill highly-skilled positions. For almost as long, concerns have also been raised about the relatively small number of women studying some science subjects at university, and their corresponding underrepresentation in the STEM labour market.
In just the last month, several news stories have highlighted key issues relating to women in science and the labour market. Katie Bouman’s role in capturing an image of a black hole has been celebrated widely, but her achievement has also served as a reminder that, historically, many female scientists’ accomplishments have not received proper recognition. Debates over the size of the gender pay gap have been reignited by the release of new ONS data, and the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, has claimed that employing more women and tackling gender discrimination in the work would not only lead to greater equality but also significantly boost the economy.
This last story is particularly interesting in terms of the discourse that dominates policymaking in this area. Policymakers have long been concerned with supposed ‘shortages’ in the STEM workforce and women have been seen as a potential solution to this problem. Although some lip-service is paid to reducing barriers to women’s participation in STEM careers and providing them with fulfilling and rewarding careers, the primary impetus behind many policies – and the root concerns underlying them – appears to be the needs of industry and the wider economy. In both the US and the UK, policy documents on women in STEM position women as important in terms of ‘alleviating shortages’, ‘international competitiveness’ and ‘meeting demands’.
Our research, conducted at the Universities of Leicester and Warwick, examined these issues in the context of a project on the supply of STEM graduates to the labour market. We used several different data sets to put together the most comprehensive overview available of STEM education and employment. We started with applications and acceptances to undergraduate courses and looked at the destinations of graduates six months after finishing their degrees. We analysed longitudinal data from the British cohort studies, and also looked at large scale survey data on the labour market as a whole.
Many of our findings relating to women in higher education and the STEM workforce will not be surprising: fewer women than men take undergraduate degrees in ‘shortage’ subjects such as engineering, computer science and the physical sciences. Even lower proportions of these women actually go on to work in highly-skilled STEM jobs. The pipeline is ‘leaky’ at every stage.
Some of the context surrounding these trends was more surprising, however. Employers may complain about supply, but there is no overall shortage of people with STEM degrees. Although most female STEM graduates never work in highly-skilled STEM jobs, neither do around half of male graduates. However, the likelihood of female STEM graduates going on to work in sciences is smallest in male-dominated subjects. Female graduates have the lowest rates of STEM employment compared to their male peers in subjects such as engineering – in which women are a small minority – and much higher relative rates in subjects such as the biological sciences, which have a much more balanced intake. The kicker is, however, that – overall – engineering has a relatively high level of graduate STEM employment and the biological sciences have a very low rate. Women are concentrated in the subjects that have low levels of STEM recruitment and when they take subjects that are more likely to result in STEM careers, they are less likely than their male peers to follow this route.
Another interesting contextual factor relates to levels of graduate employment. Regardless of the subject studied at university, both male and females have relatively high levels of graduate employment (above 80% by their early 30s). Although women may be much less likely to pursue STEM careers, they are no less likely to end up in graduate employment or other high-status employment.
If we were to summarise our most important findings, they would be as follows. First, the majority of STEM graduates – male or female – never work in STEM careers. Second, most highly-skilled STEM jobs are held by non-graduates, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. Lastly, around 80% of graduates – in STEM and other subjects – will enter graduate-level employment by their early 30s.
In terms of the position of women, we can draw some important conclusions. Although smaller proportions of female than male STEM graduates go on to work in science, they have this in common with half their peers: entering science careers is (almost) a minority trajectory. The vast majority of women who do not end up working in science will work in graduate-level, professional or managerial positions: female graduates are, on the whole, very successful in the labour market. Female STEM graduates have no shortage of attractive options available to them and if STEM employers are serious about recruiting them, they need to compete with many other employers who want to do the same and make these careers more attractive to women. It may not be going too far to say that the STEM labour market needs women more than they need careers in science.
Join Patrick at our WISE Conference 2019 and join the debate. BUY TICKETS.