Closing the gender gap in STEM: What recruiters can do

Woman speaking to a recruiter, gender gap in STEM


We chat to Clare Adams from Handshake to delve into the role recruiters can play in helping to close the gender gap in STEM!

Clare joined Handshake in 2019, where she has been instrumental in leading the company’s partnership work with universities to help level the playing field and ensure that all students have equal access to meaningful opportunities.

Clare Adams, Handshake

Prior to joining Handshake, Clare spent over a decade in a variety of roles across careers and student services in HE and FE. Her time in this role inspired her to make the move to Handshake, having seen first hand how technology could amplify the work of careers professionals, educators and employers.

What are some of the key factors contributing to the persistent gender gap in STEM fields, particularly in recruitment and hiring processes?

Gender bias stereotypes are still one of the most significant factors contributing to the continuing gender gap in STEM, with the association with relevant fields to more masculine qualities. Along with this comes the continued need for more role models in these fields. When specifically looking at recruitment and hiring, women are less likely to pursue a career in STEM if there is a lack of female representation, particularly at a leadership level. Data shows the number of young women interested in STEM almost doubles when they have a role model to inspire them (41%), compared to those who do not (26%).

Furthermore, a career in STEM can be demanding, leaving little time for a healthy work-life balance. Many women who have a family, or are looking to start one, often have to choose between a career break or going back part-time, which ultimately takes a toll on advancing and developing career paths.

In your experience at Handshake, what strategies or initiatives have you seen that effectively address the gender gap in STEM recruitment?

To level the playing field, employers are realising the road to gender equality starts with them, and are leading authentic and inclusive conversations around what it takes to attract and engage more women in STEM. As well as launching proactive strategies to attract and retain female STEM talent, including:

Providing Mentorship and Regular Check-ins: Women in STEM value opportunities to learn and grow in their careers. Employers can attract more women candidates by offering regular check-ins and mentorship opportunities. This approach also includes providing constructive feedback during internships or annual performance reviews, and showcasing women leaders who speak about technology, thus reflecting a culture where women are well-represented​​.

Creating Supportive Environments with Inspiring Leadership: Women candidates in STEM h are looking for supportive work environments with inspiring leadership. They expect their managers to act as mentors. This is closely followed by clear pathways to leadership roles from an early age through university. Programs that nurture women’s progression to leadership roles not only increase diversity at the entry level but also build a larger pipeline for filling leadership roles, leading to more equitable representation of women in higher positions and promoting diverse thinking and innovation​​.

Authentic Communication and Inclusivity in Job Descriptions: Employers also use inclusive language in their job descriptions and eliminate bias from their recruitment process. This approach involves distinguishing essential job prerequisites from “nice-to-haves” and communicating honestly to set a positive tone for the work culture. Such authentic communication is essential for attracting today’s university graduates, including the large number of Gen Z women entering the workforce with technical skills​​.

How can recruiters and employers create more inclusive and welcoming environments for women in STEM, starting from the initial stages of the hiring process?

It’s important for females looking to enter the STEM workforce to feel inspired and supported in their decisions, from a school age through to higher education and employment. Investing in tools to support proactive targeted recruitment outreach and unbiased hiring decisions can be critical to this. Introducing ERG advocates and connecting applicants to existing female employers throughout the process, is another way a recruitment team can create an inclusive environment, as it demonstrates the company’s values and culture through proactive work. Women looking to enter such fields will feel more inclined to do so if they are exposed to a relatable team and company wholeheartedly committed to diversity and closing the gap.

What role does mentorship and sponsorship play in fostering the success of women in STEM careers, and how can companies encourage and facilitate these relationships?

Due to the engrained history of limited female representation in the STEM fields, females were considered competitors to succeed and be seen. Mentorships and sponsorships are pivotal for women in supporting other women. Companies must invest in female-led mentorship programmes to provide a support system for females in these career paths. A recent study in Nature Communications revealed that women who had female mentors, felt immensely more motivated and likely to continue into postgraduate studies. Mentorship builds confidence and provides a platform for networking opportunities and for women to voice their experiences, shape more inclusive work cultures and to show younger females looking to enter STEM that it is possible.

Are there specific challenges or biases that recruiters might inadvertently bring into the hiring process that could further contribute to the gender gap? How can these be addressed and mitigated?

It is extremely important for the hiring team to be trained in biases and stereotypes so they can take the necessary steps to ensure that any possible unconscious biases are not impacting their hiring decisions. In order to truly understand the depths of unconscious bias, training needs to be prioritised. The recent STEM Returners Index revealed that 24% of women felt bias during the recruitment process compared to just 9% of men. Whether intentional or not, everyone involved in the hiring process should be trained to recognise these biases and have a mix of both women and men in the team. They should be able to recognise bias and focus on reducing unconscious bias, such as associating particular roles with a specific gender.

What are some successful examples of companies or organisations that have managed to significantly narrow the gender gap in their STEM teams? What lessons can others learn from their approaches?

Girls Who Code is a great example of a non-profit organisation working to close the gender gap in technology, with a particular focus on computer science. Operating globally, they have a presence within the UK and offer programs to females to learn how to code and develop essential skills in the tech sector. One factor that stands out to me is that they’ve curated programs for primary students, which focus on early education and engagement, as well as programs for college-age/early career learners aged 18-25 to focus on how they can develop the right skills for jobs in the tech industry. The proof is in the pudding, as they are on track to close the gender gap in new entry-level tech jobs by 2030 and have over 580,00 girls, women and non-binary participants coding.

From your perspective, how can educational institutions and industry leaders work together to encourage more young women to pursue STEM education and careers?

It is vital for there to be more female role models and leaders in the space to generate engagement. Having more female educators in STEM to encourage female students to pursue these educational pathways, has an important role to play. This influence should also start before higher education – schools should be further supported to build enthusiasm for the critical fields of maths and science in the early education journey so that young female students are exposed to these subjects from the very beginning.

Recent data has revealed a 30% increase of females starting STEM A-levels in England, from 2009 to 2020, which really draws on the positive direction young women are heading in their attitude towards STEM subjects. However, just as widening participation strategies have encouraged more students across the UK to enter higher education, similar strategies bringing industry and educators together to drive female participation in STEM subjects need to continue and expand. Whilst, there has been a notable 50.1% increase in the number of women admitted to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK, women only made up 29.4% of the STEM workforce in 2020.

What advice would you give to recruiters and hiring managers who are genuinely interested in creating a more diverse and gender-balanced team in the STEM industry?

My advice would be that if you are passionate about creating a more diverse team in STEM, open up the conversation and hear from women either inside your organisation or outside. Employers and recruiters have the opportunity to spark meaningful and impactful conversations about what needs to be done in order to encourage a more diverse and gender-balanced team. Outside of conversations, there needs to be proactive action.

We know that mentorship opportunities are key in driving engagement around STEM, so focus on creating a strategic path to set up mentorship programs with female leaders in STEM at the heart of it. Build and invest in a Female ERG group to allow colleagues to connect, learn, sponsor and support each other, as well as share insights back with the organisation. Invest in proactive, targeted and unbiased recruitment processes that focus on skills based hiring and attracting early talent by offering development programs for women in STEM, allowing them to connect with female peers and leaders throughout the recruitment process.

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