Skills policy encompasses a range of outcomes that impact society, from childhood education to the workplace, influencing both health and economic aspects. As an advocate for diversity in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, I have come to appreciate the potential of good skills policy in addressing the Stem gender gap.
When I founded the social enterprise Stemettes in 2013, my goal was not to address a skills gap but to bridge a participation gap by providing young women and non-binary individuals with information about opportunities in Stem. Then, only 13 per cent of the UK’s Stem workforce were women. Today we’re approaching 30 per cent.
Back then, numerous reports and recommendations from institutes, all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs), and think tanks Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon CEO of Stemettes emphasised the need for more role models, better support for women at work, and increased funding across the ecosystem. Despite policy pushes for change at scale, contradictions such as the co existence of the Equal Pay Act and the gender pay gap frustrated me, leading me to focus on front-line work rather than creating more laws or policy. Today, the skills landscape has evolved somewhat, influenced by the growth of the Stem sector, events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, and the AI frenzy of 2023. Has there been enough fervour for upgrading policy to ensure gender balance across Stem?
Last year, Stemettes’ tenth birthday roundtable discussions in Newcastle, Birmingham and London revealed the impact of the absence of women’s names in the national Stem GCSE and A-level curriculums. Curriculum change and policies promoting equity could be transformational.
Closing the Stem gender gap is achievable through the evolution of good skills policy. An equitable approach to inclusive practice across the skills landscape is crucial. The Youth Equity and Stem project, a five-year collaboration led by the Institute of Education at University College London, produced an Equity Compass resource, which emphasises the need to recognise and value differences between people to ensure a strong connection to Stem. The project highlighted the need to change structures and practices that perpetuate inequalities.
Listening, hearing, and acting on the demand for skills from individuals, especially young women and non-binary people, is key to successful policy. Allocating resources to organisations working to close the gap is crucial. Many in this space struggle for funding, often leading to their disappearance or ruin. Good skills policy should ensure sustained provision while the broader landscape catches up to adequately supporting women.
Engagement with our closed Stemette Society network in January underscored the importance of provisions beyond the classroom for young people. Informal science learning organisations, community groups and charities play a significant role that is often overlooked in wider policy discussions.
Finally, good skills policy can close this persistent gap by supporting those in the majority with core skills. Empowering managers, leaders, academics and others in Stem spaces with skills that enable them to understand, connect with and value women in Stem is crucial. Collaboration, communication and connection are not just future skills, they are essential now. Closing the gap requires building these skills to foster innovation and ensure the inclusion and value of individuals of all genders, across Stem domains.
Let us champion good Stem skills policy, advocate for better practices, and ensure a distribution of skills that enables society to solve problems faster than they arise. Here’s to closing the participation and skills gaps simultaneously.
This article first appeared in our print Spotlight report on Skills, published on 2 February 2024.