Social mobility in STEM & Technology
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Social mobility is the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.

Three quarters of women from lower socio-economic backgrounds weren’t encouraged to pursue a career in tech at school, a new study by NatWest and Code First Girls finds. Social mobility is a massive problem in the technology sector with the proportion of employees from working class backgrounds measuring at only 19%, compared to 33.3% across other sectors.

The UK technology sector is predicted to grow by £30bn by 2025, the CFG estimates there will be one qualified woman for every 115 roles.

Past research indicates that achieving gender parity in tech could add £2.6bn to the economy whilst increasing social mobility across industries could benefit the economy by up to £45bn.

Research conducted by CFG found that STEM women  face barriers in this sector starting from school right through to higher education and employment. Females from lower socio-economic backgrounds face a number of obstacles in order for them to get ahead in their careers, from our research here at Hire STEM Women we found that women from from state-funded schools stated they faced “lack of confidence”, “imposter syndrome” & “sexism” with one female stating that she was told “you do not look like an engineer”.

Individuals coming from disadvantaged & working class backgrounds are underrepresented within the UK STEM sector. According to the Social Mobility Commission 15% of academics come from working class backgrounds.  Diversity data analysis from the Royal Society shows that workers within the STEM sector generally earn more, and we can see that opening up access to the STEM sector can help to pave the way for social mobility.

A report from UCAS looked at what influences the choices that school leavers make and they found the biggest motivator for 18 and 19 year olds in choosing their degree was career prospects, with this factor holding more weight for disadvantaged students (52%) compared to their more advantaged peers (40%). It is clear from this that highlighting the broad range of careers that are accessible within STEM has a major role to play in influencing school leavers choices.

According to a report by Natwest & CFG experts believe the pandemic has worsened social mobility after poorer families burned through savings during lockdown, were put on furlough, or resigned because of family commitments. Women have been particularly affected – one in three mothers, for example, lost their jobs or number of hours due to childcare responsibilities. And with the current cost of living crisis looming, rising interest rates and energy prices escalating, it’s women who are more likely to feel the impact. According to the Women’s Budget Group, women are the “shock absorbers of poverty”. They’re more likely to be poor, with lower levels of savings than men, caring responsibilities that prevent them from increasing their working hours, and tend to hold the main responsibility for budget management in poor households.

“It’s estimated only 19% of technology workers are from a lower socio-economic background”

The technology sector is uniquely placed to make a real difference when it comes to social mobility. A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found computing and engineering were two of the university courses with the highest mobility rates. There are more routes into the profession and it costs less to qualify or upskill, compared to sectors such as medicine and law. It’s also one of the better paying industries, with computer engineers earning an average of £50,000 per annum. According to the British Computer Society (BCS), three quarters of those in the tech profession are better off than their parents were at the same age. Yet the proportion of employees from a working class background lags far behind the nationwide population. It’s estimated only 19% of technology workers are from a lower socio-economic background (versus 33.3%). In contrast, those with parents from a professional managerial background make up 45% of workers (compared to 31.2% of the nationwide population). That’s creating a class pay gap – those from lower socio-economic backgrounds can expect to earn £4,736 less per annum than their more privileged peers.

Recruiters are less likely to hire working-class candidates in the first place, even if they have the right skills and experience, because of worries about ‘cultural fit’. For instance, recruiters at elite law firms may think of applicants from lower-class backgrounds, “No, they’re not going to be able to fit in with our clientele”. Or they may make snap judgements related to how someone speaks, in ways that favour more privileged applicants. In general, focusing on hazy notions of cultural fit can keep a workforce homogeneous.

The barriers women face in technology start at school. Despite efforts to encourage girls to study STEM subjects, they’re still seen as subjects for boys. Hire STEM Women found that female students are not encouraged by teachers to study a STEM subject or are not taught coding at school. Our work with STEM women found that over 90% of females who were interested in technology felt that they were required to have tech skills in order to land their first role in STEM.

The words and layout used in a job advert can also have an impact – particularly those who are neurodiverse (1.57% vs 1.5% of all respondents said they look for this). One Canadian study found women are more likely to be put off by male-coded words (known as agentic language) such as “high-powered”, “competitive” and “dominant”, versus more communal terminology including “support”, “interpersonal” and “understand”. Researchers found women were more interested in applying for jobs ads that had more communal language and managed to increase the diversity of applicants with a few small tweaks. “Almost one in three women say they won’t apply for a role if they don’t have all of the experience required” The use of too many bullet points can also be off putting. Research by Tech Talent Charter discovered if more than half of a job description is in bullet points, there’s a rapid decrease in women applying for a role. Women often feel like they have to meet all of the requirements of a job before they apply. Somewhat positively, those women from minority groups agree they would apply – 55.65% of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, 54.35% of neurodiverse respondents and 53.36% of POC, vs 51.58% of all those polled from the Natwest report.

Even if girls don’t consider a STEM or specialist technology career from school, there are a high number of women getting into the sector later in life. Here at Hire STEM Women we find that those  from minority groups are particularly interested in career progression and training opportunities, seeing the salary listed in an ad, and flexible/remote working, plus extended benefits such as gym membership and health insurance. Hiring managers also need to consider whether the terms used in job ads are more tailored towards male candidates, and whether their unconscious bias, or search for ‘culture fit’ in the interview room is having a detrimental impact on workplace diversity.

These days, some organisations are working harder to ensure their workforces come from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. That’s partly because failing to include people from working-class backgrounds means that broad perspectives are less likely to be reflected in policies and stories, for example. It’s also bad for organisations, given that diversity fuels innovation. And there is also the risk that companies are missing out on excellent candidates because of processes that are biased against working-class applicants.

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