The gender imbalance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has long been a critical problem. STEM is constantly crying out for innovative and highly skilled talent to sustain its evolution and growth, something that can only be fully realised by utilising the entire workforce.

In cleantech, the demand for talent is just as severe. In the UK alone the sector employs around 130,000 people, a figure which is set to double by 2030. The sector cannot afford to exclude any part of the workforce and more must be done to improve opportunities for women. 

Education is key

The problems seen in the STEM industries can be traced back to blockages in the pipeline of talent. Fewer girls are picking STEM subjects at school, due to it being seen as a male-dominated subject. Knowing that your class is going to be full of boys can be off-putting for girls, especially at secondary school age, and if women are not studying STEM subjects, this disparity will be reflected further down the line.

There is also a noticeable gap between girls and boys that study STEM subjects beyond GCSE and into higher education; 35 per cent of girls and 80 per cent of boys. 

Work must be done to make the sector a more attractive career choice to women. Aspects such as closing the gender pay gap, presenting role models to look up to and implementing workplace practices that take into account female-centric considerations, such as policies around menopause and maternity leave, will all help to make it a more appealing and logical option.We must shine a light on, and celebrate the amazing women in cleantech and the broader STEM arena.

Career Progression

That’s not to say that the wheels are not in motion. In 2019, the UK celebrated a landmark moment, with more than one million women working in core STEM roles for the first time. And there has been a 31 per cent increase in entries from women and girls to STEM A-levels between 2010 and 2019. 

But there is still a long way to go, particularly when it comes to leadership positions. As an executive search firm, we know all too well how difficult it can be for organisations to source senior talent, and that’s without considering their gender. 

26 per cent of graduates in STEM subjects are female, however women account for only 10 per cent of leadership positions in the STEM sector, signalling roadblocks to career progression. 

There is also more subtle inequity at play, such as mistaken identity. Women — especially African American and Latina women working in STEM — report being mistaken for custodial or administrative staff, rather than being recognised as the scientists and engineers they are.

The sad reality is that, despite work to the contrary, many women working in STEM still face workplace discrimination. Over half of women in STEM  who work in a mostly male-dominated workplace felt a kind of discrimination. Trust for women in senior roles must often be earned rather than assumed. And whilst it’s great to see more women in these roles, attitudes must change to make this a normality rather than a box-ticking exercise. Otherwise, there is a danger that those in senior leadership positions will feel doubt around why they have been placed there; is it to maintain appearances or because of their skillset? 

Cleantech is just as guilty

Cleantech and renewable energy sectors are unfortunately just as at fault and continue to be male dominated, as highlighted by reports from IRENA. Their January 2020 report ‘Wind energy: A gender perspective’ found that only 21 per cent of the global wind energy workforce is women, falling below the 32 per cent share of women in the global renewables workforce and even the 22 per cent share of women in the conventional energy sector workforce, according to their 2019 paper ‘Renewable energy: a gender perspective’. 

The demand for talent in cleantech makes tacking this systemic issue all the more urgent. IRENA estimates that the number of jobs in renewables could increase from 10.3 million in 2017 to nearly 29 million in 2050. This, combined with the ongoing global energy transition, offers ripe opportunities for all those considering a more meaningful career choice. 

The growth of the sector will rely on employees that can provide highly skilled, innovative solutions and anything that can be done to widen talent streams will be paramount. Employing those from different educational backgrounds, social backgrounds and skillsets, will ensure a diverse talent pool. It cannot be ignored. 

Scientific progress relies on unique solutions that arise from diverse perspectives. When sectors exclude any group they miss out on a huge range of talent, and compromise on the quality of work they can produce. Simply by increasing women in STEM the UK’s labour value will grow by at least £2bn.

What can businesses do? 

Government policies around providing better educational balance and opportunities will of course be essential, but they can only go so far. The biggest responsibility sits with businesses and business owners. Recruitment processes must reflect their audiences and leaders must stop hiring in their image and concede to their potential role in unconscious bias.

Business success is dependent on welcoming candidates from all backgrounds and putting pressure on those who typically hold senior positions to take action. We must focus on normalising gender equality and on celebrating those with diverse and skilled teams, rather than having tunnel vision on hitting ‘quotas’ for certain groups of people Dr. Hayaatun Sillem, Royal Academy of Engineering summed it up perfectly – “To me, inclusive leadership is just good leadership”.

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