There are two lessons which can be drawn from what’s happened in the last year in core-STEM, based on statistics for education, the workforce and boardrooms.
Firstly, incremental progress, although it may not create exciting headlines in one year, can over time add up to a bigger improvement. The improvement in the percentage and number of engineering roles filled by women in the last decade is one example of this (especially compared with the more anaemic improvement seen in tech).
Secondly, incremental progress can be turned into more rapid progress through the judicious use of targets as a yardstick, with the progress made in getting women into STEM boardrooms coinciding with the imposition of (voluntary) government-backed targets.
Beginning at GCSE level, there have been signs of progress this year with the numbers of girls taking computer science and physics continuing to rise. As the numbers of girls taking GCSE core-STEM subjects rises, girls’ performance has held up – so in computer science, girls did significantly better at getting A*-C (4-9) grades than boys, and in physics and maths, girls and boys performed about equally.
The trend continues through to A Level, where students have greater latitude over which subjects they choose to study. Female students did better in 2019 at getting A* and A grades than males did in physics and computing.
In maths, the percentage of females taking the subject has declined year-on-year, as has the number (the number of males also declined). However, taking a longer-term view shows that the number of females taking maths at A Level has almost doubled since 2002 (the first year of availability for statistics), while the percentage has also improved (by two percentage points) in that time.
It’s a similar story at higher education level, where across the last five years of available data there has been consistent growth in the numbers of women achieving qualifications in core-STEM subject areas. The percentage has also increased, so that women now make up 29% of those getting qualifications.
The general trend of improvement has carried on from education into the workplace, where there are now about 350,000 more women in core-STEM than there were a decade ago. This means that we’ve now reached the milestone of one million women in core-STEM occupations, with women comprising 24% of the core-STEM workforce (which also represents an improvement).
The biggest cause for concern is the relatively slow growth in the number and percentage of women in tech occupations.
The comparison with engineering, where women were starting from a lower base, is stark – given the expected growth in tech occupations in the coming years, if this trend does not improve it will be difficult to reach the target of 30% of all core-STEM roles being filled by women.
However, the situation in boardrooms shows that it is possible to effect more rapid improvement. The introduction of percentage targets for women on boards, and annual measurement of progress towards this target, has coincided with an improvement in the numbers.
33% of board members of both STEM and non-STEM companies are now female. In 2010, women filled just 12.5% of boardroom positions.
The Davies review set a target of 25% female representation on boards by 2015, which was achieved; the subsequent Hampton-Alexander Review set a further target of 33%, which (as above) has also been reached.
Further progress is now needed in ensuring women in board roles are in executive roles – just 16% of STEM companies listed on the FTSE-100 have achieved the 33% target, although this still represents significant progress compared with a decade ago.
At our 2019 annual conference, WISE called for all organisations, from the classroom to the boardroom, to set targets for the percentage of females in STEM and to monitor progress.
The lesson from boardrooms is that setting targets coincides with improvement in gender balance, which is corroborated by findings from organisations which have signed up to WISE’s Ten Steps.
When targets are achieved, more ambitious targets can then be set. This means that targets can be introduced regardless of the starting point. The important thing is to focus minds by setting the target, and then by measuring progress to reinforce the need to meet the target.
Therefore, while the general trend for women in STEM is positive, further action is needed to hit the target of 30% of core-STEM roles being filled by women by 2030, and targets will form an important part of the mix of interventions and policies used by employers in reaching that goal.
Further action is especially needed in the case of tech roles, where the percentage of women has flatlined – this is the fastest-growing occupational area in core-STEM and is projected to keep on growing in the coming decade. Getting more women into tech roles is crucial to hitting the 30% target.
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