Older women who work in science and engineering (STEM) will not need telling that there is an enduring problem of gender segregation. Women make up around one half of the workforce overall but only 12% of all STEM employees, less than 7% of engineering professionals and 1% of skilled tradespeople. The ‘leaky pipeline’ means that a higher proportion of women than men either never use their STEM qualification or leave to work in other areas.

Prospect has around 14,000 female members working in STEM and, over the last couple of years, we’ve been investigating their experiences. A programme of qualitative research in 2011 was followed up by a large scale survey last year, to which 2,000 women replied.

It’s clear from what they told us that many were inspired by teachers to go into STEM and they speak very positively about the enjoyment to be had from providing solutions and making a difference. But our members are also frustrated by lack of leadership, lack of consistency and being side-lined. And there’s clear evidence that older women continue to have a tougher time professionally.

Around 30% of respondents felt that their career had been hindered by their gender, but the proportion holding this view increases markedly with age. Only 15% of women under 30 but nearly 40% of women over 50 feel this way. Many of the issues identified were difficulties with, and the impact of, having a family or of part-time working – often associated with either child or elder care. Many of the women we spoke to felt that they had only survived – let alone progressed – because they did not have caring responsibilities.

It seems that there are four stages in a female STEM career – optimism, uncertainty, glass ceiling and resignation – and, alarmingly, that could be the best of it, as this does not account for those who leave along the way.

We need to break out of this cycle, and unions can help to do so.

Our members tell us that supportive line managers – many of them also union members – make a huge difference to the quality of women’s working lives, as do opportunities to network with other strong women. Prospect provides this facility along with a mentoring programme, developed with Union Learning Fund support, and a Linked-In group.

Although there is legislation to prevent discrimination against part time workers, it is clear that this has not addressed barriers to promotion and progression. So there’s a collective bargaining challenge too to prioritise a better deal for part time workers.

It’s easy to become disheartened but, even in these bleak times, there are some opportunities. With growing evidence of skill shortages and gaps and the important role of the STEM workforce in securing and sustaining economic recovery, there’s a compelling business case for decisive action now.

Posted on March 11th, 2013 by Sue Ferns filed under: Work