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Retaining women in STEM roles

Dr Marion Palmer

WITS (Women in Technology and Science) Chair 2016

A mindset change is needed to encourage women into STEM roles, says Dr Marion Palmer, WITS (Women in Technology and Science) and former Head of Department of Technology and Psychology, IADT. Furthermore, we must retain more women in STEM roles

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

First, women make up 50 per cent of the world’s population and should be part of, encouraged into and retained in STEM. This is a field that has changed — and is changing — the way we live; and if women aren’t contributing to it, they’re not being active agents in society and affecting the way it might develop. Second, STEM provides extraordinary career opportunities for young women. And third, there’s a strong business case for ensuring that women are part of STEM organisations, because the more diverse your staff, the better your bottom line.

What challenges do women in STEM roles face?

I hate the phrase work/life balance; but in STEM careers — and particularly technology — there can be a gung-ho ‘work all hours’ culture that might not fit with their commitments. Many areas have long apprenticeship before a well-paid job is available, and there’s a pay gap. Also, there are a lack of women in senior roles — and particularly women with children. So there is a need for more visible roles. There’s a lack of practical support. By the time you’ve had your second or third child, it gets difficult to keep working. And it can be difficult to come back into a rapidly changing field if you are five years behind the curve. So retraining and mentoring support has to be provided.

How can more encourage / retain women in STEM roles?

Organisations have to refine their language when it comes to recruitment. When women look at job adverts, they’ll say: ‘Hmm. I only fit 90 per cent of the criteria. I best not apply.’ Whereas men will say: ‘I only fit 70 per cent of the criteria. I’ll have a go.’ So if an organisation has too specific a list of demands, women won’t put themselves forward. When women have been recruited, they need mentors to help them identify their skills and encourage them to put themselves forward for promotion.

What would you say to encourage more women into STEM?

It’s such an interesting field, whether you’re at the research end involved in discovery, or in industry involved in application. There is a wonder and a joy in STEM — and you should be part of it.

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