Later today we will launch Prospect’s short film ‘Breaking the bias barrier’.
Produced in collaboration with Wilbury Primary School in North London, the film is a practical demonstration of how we can get beyond career stereotyping. So it’s a positive story, and it was both a pleasure and a privilege to work with the students and staff at the school - along with some of Prospect’s fantastic members - to create it.
The question that should concern us all is why such initiatives are still necessary.
The Women’s Engineering Society is 99 years old but, as one Wilbury student told us: “I didn’t really know what an engineer does, I thought it was like a plumber or something”. And it is clear that the prevailing stereotypes of scientists, camera crew, firefighters, archaeologists and football players are overwhelmingly male.
Underlying the stereotypes are value judgements about how roles should be rewarded and who can do them and, from these, follows explanation for the UK’s persistent gender pay gap and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Prospect represents many thousands of women working in male dominated occupations and workplaces. Fortunately deliberate discrimination is an issue in only a very small minority of circumstances, but the cumulative effects of everyday sexism and unconscious bias can be equally damaging.
That’s why we worked with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to produce practical guidance for employers on ‘Supporting women in STEM roles’, including many straightforward measures to help ensure that good policy intentions are followed through in practice. We have also joined forces with the IET and Equate Scotland to support women returners to work. We have developed training modules on unconscious bias and equal pay and have secured legal victories on equal pay in several organisations, including most recently at the Met Office.
Our motivation is always to make work better and challenging career stereotyping is a key part of that mission. We know that gender segregation makes it easier for bad and outdated practices to thrive, and we know that it is easier too for women to exercise their voice if they are not constantly outnumbered and outranked.
And, for the avoidance of doubt, there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that diverse teams are good for business performance.
The better news, as our film demonstrates, is that it is not difficult to open the minds of primary school students and, at the very least, to encourage them to think openly and carefully about the options available to them.
That’s why Prospect is supporting the Year of Engineering, targeted specifically at this age group, which will be formally launched by government this week. But we need a joined up approach: As we encourage girls and young women to make positive and informed career choices, government, employers and unions should also work together to make sure that our workplaces are fit for their future.