Published today (23 June) on International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), the STEM Returners Index examines barriers to STEM professionals returning to employment following a career break.
Based on a survey of 1,000 people going through that process, the index also found that 40% of women feel that childcare responsibilities prevent a return to work because of a lack of flexibility from employers.
As highlighted today by the Women’s Engineering Society – which started the INWED campaign and supports the STEM Returners project alongside the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) – women made up only 16.5% of the engineering workforce in 2021.
Perceptions of engineering start early, according to EngineeringUK’s Engineering Brand Monitor, with 63% of people aged 11-19 agreeing that girls face more barriers to getting ahead in engineering than boys.
The STEM Returners programme helps qualified and experienced workers return to employment after a career break by working with organisations to facilitate short-term placements. More than 260 engineers have returned to work through the scheme since it began in 2017.
One person who has benefited is Falan Rose-Jones, who experienced an uphill struggle to return to the engineering industry after a career break. Through STEM Returners she was supported through an application process with BAE Air in Warton, and was made a permanent member of the team after her placement.
“As a young female, I have previously experienced some difficulty in trying to join the engineering industry,” said Rose-Jones. “I have found that a small number of companies may focus more on hiring someone such as myself to simply increase the diversity statistics of the company and are lacking consideration of my actual skillset and experience. It wasn’t until STEM Returners introduced me to the vacancy at BAE Systems in 2019 and encouraged me to apply that I was able to progress in the industry.”
While only 7% of men surveyed for the index reported bias due to their gender, 46% reported bias because of their age, compared to 38% of women. Bias also appears to become more prevalent with age, with more than half of over-55s saying they have experienced personal bias, compared to as low as 23% in younger age groups.
“Talented and dedicated” individuals hoping to return to work are often overlooked, said Natalie Desty, director of STEM Returners. “It’s disappointing to see that 66% of STEM professionals on a career break are finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult, and that nearly half (46%) of participants said they felt bias because of a lack of recent experience.
“This situation is being made even harder with more redundancies and more people wanting to return to work due to uncertainty about the economy and the rising cost of living, leading to a wider pool of potential returners.
“There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills. But the reality is that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, can refresh their skills easily when back in work, and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.
“Industry leaders need to do more to update recruitment practices and challenge unconscious bias to help those who are finding it challenging to return to the sector and improve diversity and inclusion within their organisations.”
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