Women’s minister calls on employers to push forward with positive changes - such as flexible working - adopted during the pandemic

Today we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day. There is so much brilliant innovation going on in STEM industries at the moment, I am adamant that we use today to encourage more businesses to look at the considerable pool of talent that is waiting to be discovered.

Historically, we know engineering has been a male-dominated industry. Indeed, just 12% of those working in engineering are women but, of that small percentage, there are many amazing and inspiring women.

Baroness Elizabeth Berridge

Those role models can encourage girls to think about different career paths. From Lilian Bland, one of the first women to design, build and fly an aircraft, to communications engineer Hedy Lamarr. Famous for her acting roles in the 1930s, Lamarr also invented a remote-controlled communications system for the US military. This influenced the creation of many of today’s communication devices, including WiFi. 

As minister for women, you will of course be unsurprised to hear me banging the drum for women’s opportunity.

The benefits of a diverse business go further than fairness, and this should certainly not be considered to be a simple box-ticking exercise. Up to £250bn of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started new businesses at the same rate as UK men.

It’s just good business sense to have a range of experience and skills in your boardrooms, and throughout your business. McKinsey found that organisations in the top 25% for gender diversity on their executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.

Companies are recognising this, and prior to the pandemic we had record numbers for female employment and a higher percentage of women on FTSE boards than ever before, with women on the boards of FTSE 350 companies in the industrial engineering sector at 39.5%.

My position as both minister for women and an education minister allows me a unique perspective on how girls’ subject choices influence the careers they move into.

Last year I was shocked to see that men were 10 times more likely to undertake apprenticeships related to engineering than women. We want this to change, and we’re taking steps to engage with the sector, for example through the employer Apprenticeships Diversity Champions Network. There is no doubt that we need to encourage more women to select and remain in engineering careers. Education and industry professionals have the power to be a great influence here.

In 2019, 37% of girls entered at least one STEM A level compared with 51% of boys.

We all need to look carefully at what more we can do to support and encourage girls to consider STEM careers - there’s a role here for the government of course, but also for parents, teachers, careers advisors, and employers. I have no doubt that by showing young women the wide range of careers available in engineering, we are increasing their opportunities and choices. As well as attracting the best talent to the sector.

And when it comes to all of your employees, there are some really simple changes that are already proven to work, ensuring that everyone is able to have a long, successful career and reach their full potential.

Part of this is the need to break down the dated stereotypes and gender norms which can prevent girls from choosing the STEM subjects that can lead to a fulfilling career in the sector. These stereotypes limit aspirations, preventing young women from reaching their potential. 

But we are making progress. Since 2010 there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A levels in England. We have also seen the number of women accepted to full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 34% in the UK between 2010 and 2019. Last year we published behavioural insights research that helps us all to understand what interventions might be most helpful in continuing that trend.

And when it comes to all of your employees, there are some really simple changes that are already proven to work, ensuring that everyone is able to have a long, successful career and reach their full potential.

Industry bodies have found that a lack of flexible working in sectors such as engineering, particularly in senior roles, led to women taking career breaks and suffering the negative impacts these can have on progression.

Rectifying this is incredibly simple and will ensure those women already in the workforce can stay on, even if they face pressures outside of the workplace.

This doesn’t just mean allowing employees to work from home, although that is a useful option. Employers can introduce other flexible working options such as job sharing, or increasing the number of senior roles that can be done on a part-time basis. Doing this will help organisations keep skilled workforces together, ensuring they are happier, which in turn can lead to an increase in productivity and revenue.

There are many other ways employers can encourage diversity in their staff and the government is on hand to help.

We’ve produced a number of publications that highlight the practical steps employers can take that actually work to increase diversity, this includes guidance on promoting family-friendly policies, transparency when it comes to promotion, pay and reward processes and making sure recruitment is carried out in a fair and open way.

I think we have all seen that in the face of adversity, business has adapted incredibly well to the new world we find ourselves in.

We must harness some of these positive changes that businesses have adopted as a result of covid-19 and flexible working is definitely one of those.

I have been engaging with a range of STEM industries, calling on them to continue championing gender equality and introduce innovative measures and make a meaningful, lasting change.

Engineering is an example of an industry perfectly positioned to be a leader of this change, setting an example to the rest, and showing the benefits of encouraging more girls to consider engineering as a career.

Baroness Elizabeth Berridge is minister for women