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How far have women in STEM come in the last 100 years?

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Kirsten Bodley

Chief Executive Officer, WES

For more than a century, women have been fighting for equal opportunities and recognition in STEM industries.

Just how far have we come in the last 100 years, and what could the next century hold?


Looking back

The First World War was instrumental in catapulting women into new positions within engineering and manufacturing, as their male counterparts were called to the front line. However, this new era was short-lived; when the men returned, women were simply asked to leave.

“Within this climate, a group of women founded the Women’s Engineering Society. Not only to resist this pressure, but also to promote engineering as a rewarding job for women as well as men,” explains Kirsten Bodley, CEO of Women’s Engineering Society.

They certainly had their work cut out, facing discrimination on both university courses and in the workplace. Perhaps rather aptly, it was the development of technology itself that opened up opportunities for women within the field. “The home used to be very labour intensive, but with the advent of electricity the work load was eased and women began to search for employment,” explains Bodley.

Developments in technology also led to an explosion of new professions, with a number of women leading the field: Amy Johnson in aviation, Dame Caroline Haslett in electrical engineering, and Verena Holmes – who established her own engineering firm that employed only women.

Women in STEM today

Whilst, theoretically there is nothing holding women back, STEM industries remain male dominated arenas and a mere 11% of jobs within STEM industries in the UK are held by women.

“Although there are exciting opportunities for everyone, regardless of their background, there are still a lot of barriers to women entering the industries – a lot of which are unconscious,” continues Bodley.

The industry appears to be stuck in a catch-22 situation; male candidates are often hired, because that’s historically been the case, and many female candidates are deterred from entering the profession, because they can’t see themselves represented in it.

It would appear that this fundamental problem has been recognised and many companies are taking steps to redress the imbalance by introducing anonymous application processes and having greater diversity on their interview panels. Perhaps one of the key developments in the last few years has been the focus on more flexible working. “There are more opportunities now. Flexible working is now much more widely available and it’s key that women who return to work can come back at the same level and have support of initiatives like mentoring,” says Bodley.

A bright future

These are small steps in the right direction, but true equality requires a complete change of culture. “We need to see senior leaders not simply saying the right things, but embedding them within the practices of their organisations,” says Bodley. “Culture change can take years, but is so important.”

To help focus action, WES are encouraging universities, government and industry to work together to ensure that by 2030, 30% of professional engineers in the STEM workforce are women. “Research shows that when you reach a representation of 30%, a group stops feeling like a minority,” say Bodley. “It’s ambitious, but not unrealistic.”

It’s important to note that women aren’t the only ones who will benefit from greater equality; there is also a lot that industry can gain from having more diversity within their workforce. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and the industry needs to attract and retain the brightest talent.

International Women in Engineering Day continues to gather pace under the patronage of The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization and, while there is a lot of work to be done, Bodley is optimistic that the next 10 to 15 years could bring with it a significant step change for women in STEM industries.

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