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Inequity in the UK STEM workforce is being made worse by COVID-19

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 21, 2021
A lack of representation in the STEM sector of minoritized groups is intersectional, systemic and is leading to a lack of skills, experiences and perspectives in the workforce.

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There are barriers for every minoritized group along the STEM career pathway in the UK - from issues in recruitment and retention, to access to mentors, professional development and leadership roles. And to make matters worse the restrictions that have been placed on society throughout the COVID-19 pandemic are reversing any positive improvements in recent years. 

This is the finding of an inquiry led by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, launched in November 2020. The findings of the report are based on evidence from 85 organizations and individuals, four evidence round tables with over 40 attendees and additional research from over 150 relevant sources. 

The report released this week found that inequity in the STEM workforce is systemic and intersectional, across ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual identity, geography and socio-economic status. 

The STEM sector accounts for 18 percent of the UK's total workforce and this inequity is leading to a lack of skills, experiences and perspectives across STEM organizations. 

Chair of the APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, Chi Onwurah, commented on the findings: 

Throughout the last 18 months STEM workers have played vital roles in heroically steering the nation through challenging and heart-breaking times. From Chief Scientific Advisors to doctors and nurses, to epidemiologists and economists, those who utilise STEM skills have underpinned the nation's recovery, while - in many cases - putting themselves directly at risk from the virus.

The pandemic has cemented the importance of this workforce and their skills in UK and global society, but it has also preyed on existing inequities and begun a trend to reverse the progress made over recent years. Without fully addressing the issues of representation and equity in STEM, we fail this sector and its workers who are so vital to society and critical to our economy.

Many of the challenges detailed in this report are historic as well as systemic. As a Black, working-class, northern woman working as an engineer in the 1980s and 1990s I know too well the barriers that minoritized groups in STEM face. Being different in any profession or job is tiring, you face people's stereotypes rather than being judged on your actual experiences and ability. Nearly 40 years later, it is saddening to know that many minoritized communities are still denied a sense of belonging in the STEM workforce.

We know the UK has a STEM skills gap, and we know how recruiting and nurturing a diversity of talent will not only help to address these skills shortages but create equitable economic opportunity with a more innovative and productive sector. But the need for diversity and inclusion in STEM goes further than any skills gap or economic imperative; it is our obligation to create an equitable society, free of systemic discrimination for future generations.

Key findings

The APPG's report outlines a number of key findings from its inquiry, which are outlined below. 

  • 1 - The STEM workforce is less diverse than the wider workforce but consistent data collection and sharing is lacking 

The APPG conducted some data analysis which found clear evidence of demographic inequity in the STEM workforce, which worsens with seniority. 

It has a lower share of female workers (27% vs 52%) and disabled people (11% vs 14%) than the rest of the workforce. 

It also found that while the percentage of STEM workers from ethnic minorities is similar to the wider UK workforce (12%), amalgamating minoritized groups skews the data, so it appears more ethnically diverse than it actually is. For instance, the greater representation of workers of Indian ethnicity masks the underrepresentation of Black workers. 

However, whilst there have been improvements in the collection of demographic data, this data collection tends to focus on single characteristics, rather than take an intersectional approach. For instance, beyond gender and ethnicity, other characteristics become harder to track - for instance covering groups that are disabled, LGBTQ+ and from varying socio-economic backgrounds. 

As such, evidence received for the inquiry was often limited to addressing single characteristics. 

  • 2 - There is a need for the Government to take a multi-pronged approach to drive equity in the STEM workforce 

The inquiry found that new legislation and government-led initiatives have had a positive effect on reducing equity in the SEM workforce, but these approaches are fragmented, lack high-level coordination and are not making use of all the tools available. 

For example, new legislation that would complement the Equality Act 2010 have not yet been taken forward, including the legal recognition of non-binary people, reform of the Gender Recognition Act, a ban on gender conversion therapy and extending redundancy protections for those returning from maternity, adoption and shared parental leave. 

The report notes that the government's ‘Build back better' plan for a strong COVID-19 recovery provides an opportunity to drive STEM and workforce equity through use of financial levers - such as the £100 billion investment in infrastructure and the government's £14.9 billion investment in R&D between 2021 and 2022. 

The APPG notes that there has been a lack of standardization and top-level coordination, and that a multi-pronged approach has the highest chance of success in driving equity in the STEM workforce and beyond. 

  • 3 - Intersectional barriers continue from STEM education into the workforce

The APPG report finds that from education through to careers in wider society, inequities play out at every level of the STEM career pathway, and in many cases worsen. But it notes that it is important to view these inequities through an intersectional lens. 

It notes that peoples' career decisions are influenced by a variety of factors, and inequity cannot be treated as a problem caused by aspirations, motivations, or attitudes of individuals in minoritized communities. 

The report states that multiple, intersectional barriers face those entering the STEM sector and do not disappear after hiring. Recruiting a talented and diverse workforce is pointless if the systemic inequalities of the sector continue to exclude minoritized groups, it adds. 

Whilst investments in education and pathways to hiring are important, investments also need to be made in retention and internal cultures and practices.

  • 4 - There is an awareness of structural inequity in some large STEM organizations, but no consensus on solutions

The APPG received evidence form a number of large STEM employers that have initiatives underway to support marginalized groups, but they are in the early stages and there is not a consensus yet on whether they are driving significant change. 

Multiple examples of recruitment tactics were submitted to the inquiry including anonymised recruitment, gender neutral language, use of recruitment agencies who draw upon a good representation of recruits across socio-economic backgrounds and the protected characteristics, job boards, targeted university recruitment campaigns and more.

However, the inquiry also found that despite work being done, STEM remains unrepresentative of the wider workforce and population, especially within engineering. There is also a lack of monitoring and evaluation strategies.

The APPG also states that the problem is too complex to be solved by recruitment practices alone and must be accompanied by improvements in retention practices, including leadership, internal communication, progression, awareness and training. 

  • 5 - There is already considerable inequity in the STEM sector, but COVID-19 is making it worse

The report states that many marginalized groups in the STEM workforce have suffered disproportionately from changes to working patterns and missed development opportunities caused by the pandemic. 

Some short term impacts from COVID-19 include: funding and contracts, reduced opportunity for progression, redundancy, loss of income, altered working patterns, health inequality and access to treatment. 

Whilst at a societal level the pandemic has demonstrated the value of high quality science, technology and engineering,w high may lead to more opportunities in the STEM field, it is still too soon to know the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the inequalities that are emerging. 

Key recommendations

The above key findings are just an overview of some of the details released in the APPG report and the document is worth reading in full to get the whole picture. 

The inquiry has also resulted in a number of recommendations that have been put forward. Again, it's worth reading the document in full, but some of the key recommendations are as follows: 

  • The Prime Minister and UK Government should set a bold vision for a diverse and equitable STEM sector at the heart of their ambitions for the UK to become a ‘global science superpower'

  • STEM leaders from organizations from across the private, public and voluntary sectors should work together to form and co-fund an Employers' Coalition for STEM Diversity to address the structural inequity in the STEM workforce and drive long-term change

  • The UK Government must deliver a statutory workforce data strategy and drive forward changes in policy and legislation to support employers to improve equity for minoritized communities in many sectors of the UK workforce, including STEM. 

  • The Office for National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority should increase the scale and level of detail in demographic workforce data collection, including within the categories of ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and identity, and socio-economic status, to allow for improved mapping of the workforce. 

  • The UK Government and STEM organizations must quickly look to address and reverse worsening inequity within the STEM workforce as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This work should include studies on the impact of COVID-19 on the STEM sector, and government working in partnership with the STEM sector to overcome barriers within the workforce created by the pandemic. 

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