I believe that every woman with the desire, skills and training should be able to enter and succeed in any profession she wishes. So it was shocking, when as Minister for Women and Equalities I learnt that around 70% of women with qualifications in science, engineering and technology (STEM) leave their chosen profession, not to return.
This is not only a huge waste for the UK economy, but for many of the individuals concerned a bruising emotional wrench, leaving the job they wanted and had trained hard to get. We need to fix this loss of skilled professionals and increase the numbers of women working in these areas. By doing so we make them happier and productive, and we increase the chances for great discoveries and technological advances for the benefit of all.
It has been estimated that the UK has an annual shortfall of around 40,000 skilled workers in the STEM sectors, and a recent report, Improving diversity in STEM, from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, CaSE, reminds us that just 8% of British engineers and 4% of engineering apprentices are women. Quite simply, the UK economy needs more engineers and we cannot meet the demand without increasing the numbers of women.
However like other male dominated sectors of the economy, widespread and unchallenged sexism can make someone's working life unpleasant and sometimes unsafe. This, combined with repeated undermining of their work and worth, can lead to the understandable desire to go somewhere, anywhere, else.
Being part of a network can help reduce a feeling of isolation, sometimes it need be no more than expressing frustration or anger down the phone or in an email to someone you know has felt the same. The best networks provide mentors and encouragement which help build confidence so that the woman decides to stay and further develop her career.
I have heard women working in STEM careers say they are not keen to join networks, fearful of drawing attention and of being treated differently, or in some way disadvantaged because of their gender. While I understand these concerns, the truth is that women are often treated differently anyway at the moment - not in a positive way.
We do not have a level playing field. We have to recognise that the field, to continue the metaphor, is currently tilted away from us.
A recent report by Sciencegrrl, Through both eyes: the case for a gender lens in STEM, argues that local networks have a role to play in working with young people, so I'm taking the opportunity to mention some of the work in my own region.
Pat Morton, Director of Sheffield Hallam University's WiSET team, and her team work hard to bring employers, students and schools together. They recently held a breakfast meeting with Professor Dame Athene Donald who explained that a lot of her career development was due to her being willing to say yes to projects that took her out of her comfort zone. Having a career in STEM does not mean you have to stick to a particular pathway, you have the opportunity to change and innovate.
I also want to mention the brilliant work being done by the University of Sheffield and their Women in Engineering Society. Their outreach work is invaluable, giving girls the chance to understand engineering and the role of engineers. An annual conference for over 50 year 12 girls showcases the huge range of opportunities and careers opened up by studying an engineering or science subject at university.
I met John and Jackie from the Work-wise Foundation in Sheffield who told me about their annual 'Get up to Speed' event. It helps young people, their families and teachers see some of the fastest vehicles and recent innovations all in one place. I am reliably informed that in their 'innovation competition', it is the girls who regularly come out on top - which of course is no surprise.
Networks such as Work-wise show young people how to use engineering skills to solve real world problems. This is especially important to encourage girls, who can be inspired by the thought of being able to change the world. I cannot stress enough the importance of letting young people see and meet those behind the inventions, before they make critical decisions over GCSE choices.
Networking should also include sharing experiences with women in other professions. I recently edited a pamphlet - Building the future: women in construction - which looks at the challenges facing women in the construction sector, who account for just 11% of the workforce.
Women in Building Services Engineering, (WiBSE), and Women in Construction, Arts and Technology, (WiCATT), support those working in non-traditional trades. WiBSE has built its membership from zero to over 500 in just 12 months. It now delivers peer-to-peer mentoring, confidence workshops, role model events and personal development sessions, all of which offer networking opportunities.
Encouraging women into senior roles is vital so that change can be embedded in a company or institution. Without the culture changing fundamentally, the arrival, or acceptance, of more women working in engineering, construction or the scientific community may be just a passing phase.
I too work in a male dominated world. In four years' time we will mark one hundred years since women could first stand for parliament. The suffragettes would be appalled to learn that the sacrifices they made, and the humiliation they underwent in prison, led to only 23% of our elected representatives being female. There have only ever been 369 female MPs - less than there are men who sit in the Commons today.
In my part of the political world we have more than one network: Labour Women's Network focuses on training and development to help women get elected to local council and parliament. The Fabian Women's Network has a wider brief, bringing women together to discuss politics, share experiences and meet others who may act as role models.
Out of the Fabian Women's Network has grown the Fabian Women's Mentoring Scheme, of which I chair the Advisory Body. We combine a 10-month mentoring scheme with a political education programme, comprising a number of training events to encourage the development of a peer network alongside the one-on-one mentoring relationship. The recent evaluation by researchers from Birkbeck University"Cracks in the glass ceiling" called it "an exemplar of best practice in the training and recruitment of women for public and political life."
Employers also have a responsibility
Networks can and do play a positive role. But gender issues at work should not solely belong in women's hands. Employers also have a responsibility, and it's in their financial interest to get positively involved.
The best performing companies are often those with diversity high on their agenda. Organisations with a strong diverse and inclusive culture reduce average employee turnover by half, quadruple workforce innovation and double customer engagement.
This includes doing more in supporting people returning to engineering following a career break. Adopting measures such as flexible working, and better managed career breaks for maternity leave, also benefit employers.
Having more women in engineering and particularly at line manager level will make the biggest difference. This means we should not only be looking at plugging the leaky pipeline, but examining the bigger picture and focusing our efforts on getting more girls into the pipeline in the first place.
STEM in our schools
Efforts to broaden young people's views of where science can take them must begin at primary school. Most children form a view very early about the kind of careers that are open to them, so focusing on secondary school children is likely to be too little, too late.
STEM networks should deepen engagement with primary teachers by showing real world applications for the science they teach and possible job opportunities for their students. This is important as currently only around 5% of teachers in primary education have a science related degree.
Given the strong impact that primary teachers' knowledge of science has on their students' attitude to science, I believe the Department for Education should ensure that every English primary school appoints a science subject leader, who has the experience to ensure a high-quality science education.
When girls are interested in STEM we need to provide the means to pursue it. Too few secondary schools offer all three sciences at GCSE - meaning many students are prevented from even considering physics at A-level. Consequently their STEM careers options are limited.
Secondary education must be free from gender bias in the roles that it presents to children. Work done by the Institute of Physics in the It's Different for Girls Report commented that single-sex schools are significantly better than co-educational schools at getting girls into non-traditional subjects.
Current work by the Institute for Physics has shown clearly that this is not just a physics issues. Many secondary schools show gender bias, with boys also failing to pursue traditional female subjects such as English and psychology. A whole school approach is needed; not one centred only on encouraging girls into physics.
We also need a greater focus on vocational provision. I am, however, delighted that Sheffield's new University Technical College boasted 14% female students just in its first year - 10% above the average for female engineering apprentices. This was achieved by a relentless focus on recruiting girls and framing the challenges of engineering to show how they are about tackling the problems into today's world.
The Perkins Review, published last year, was an important addition to this debate. It recommended that 'Government should continue to support schools to increase progression to A-level Physics, especially among female students'. Last year's exam board figures showing a steep rise in the numbers of students of both sexes taking AS-level physics, from 36,258 in 2006 to 61,176 in 2013, suggest positive steps are being taken.
On closer examination, however, these figures also show that physics loses more students than most subjects after AS-level, and that girls are more likely than boys to drop the subject. By A2, the second year of A-level, only a fifth of physics students are female - a staggering 46.7% of girls do not progress.
The recent Sixth Form Colleges Association Funding Impact Survey highlights that as a direct result of funding cuts, 22% of colleges have been forced to drop STEM courses. Physics is one of those hardest hit.
The figures for women in engineering, and other non-traditional careers, remain stubbornly low. The skills shortage is well known, and the importance of these disciplines to our future economic growth is uncontested. Nothing less than a concerted, determined and persistent approach will be sufficient to achieve the transformation that is required.
Women's Engineering Society: http://www.wes.org.uk/