Four lessons for attracting more women into a workforce

Although women’s careers have generally been transformed in recent decades, many sectors are still conspicuously male-dominated. Laurie Cohen, a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School, and Jo Duberley, a Professor of Organisation Studies at Birmingham Business School, outline some simple lessons for tackling this imbalance by influencing career decisions.

Many businesses, industries and sectors still struggle to attract women. As we hear again and again, change in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – collectively known as STEM – is proving especially slow.

We recently investigated this problem by researching the experiences of women in engineering. We wrote about some of our findings in a previous post. Here we would like to discuss what we learned about career decisions and how they’re influenced.

The following lessons are drawn from individual interviews and focus groups with girls studying engineering at AS or degree level. Although inevitably STEM-centric, they’re relevant in some way to any organisation committed to increasing the number of women in its workforce.

  1. Don’t wait till it’s too late
“Most youngsters decide which subjects they like and which they want to discard between the ages of 11 and 14.”

There’s virtually no value in trying to influence young people’s career thinking when they’re 16. Our research indicates very strong that by then it’s far too late. Most youngsters decide which subjects they like and which they want to discard between the ages of 11 and 14. So how might we ensure that children – especially girls – don’t just accept prevailing stereotypes?

One answer is to get more information into schools so that youngsters can understand what’s actually involved in the likes of engineering or scientific work. According to an Institute of Engineering and Technology survey, the most popular methods of raising awareness are visits from practitioners, trips and activities.

  1. Make the most of key influences

Our research repeatedly highlighted the huge impact that informal influences can have on career decisions. Often these influences are found close to home, but they can also come from much further afield.

Parent power counts for a lot. Almost all of the girls and women we spoke with had a father who was an engineer. Less obvious but sometimes just as significant is the role of popular culture – for example, Professor Brian Cox’s TV appearances, which in 2013 prompted such a spike in demand for places on the University of Manchester’s physics degree courses that the entry requirements had to be raised.

  1. Choose the right role models and mentors

It’s vital that young women – and, for that matter, their parents – are inspired by the success of others. Care is needed, though, because some role models may end up having a negative impact.

“The girls and women we spoke with wanted role models who felt “real”.”

The girls and women we spoke with wanted role models who felt “real”. Above all, they wanted to hear from women willing to talk about their own difficulties and challenges. They weren’t interested in “superwomen” touting unrealisable dreams. Similarly, they wanted their mentors and sponsors in schools and universities to be people to whom they could readily relate.

  1. Don’t be polite about money

According to research by Engineering UK, young people underestimate the levels of pay engineers can earn. The idea that a career in STEM can bring very handsome rewards is practically unrecognised. The same may well be the case for other professions in which women are underrepresented.

This is crazy. It’s a competitive world out there, so why pretend that salary isn’t a motivating factor? Most young people want jobs that will earn them lots of money. Being too polite to talk about wages – especially when those wages are good – does nothing for employers or, more importantly, their potential employees.

Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women’s Careers.


Is your business geared up for gender pay reporting? Read the CBI’s latest guidance on gender pay gap reporting to ensure that your business is ready for this new piece of legislation to take effect from April. 

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