31 Jan 2024
by Natalie Desty

Breaking Down Barriers: The STEM Returners Impact

Natalie Desty, the Founder and Director of STEM Returners explores some top-level insights from the STEM Returners Index 2023, looking into the prevalent hurdles, nuanced experiences, and progress made in assisting STEM professionals return to work. 

Unveiling the Recruitment Bias

In the dynamic world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), a persistent challenge hinders the return of professionals after a career break – recruitment bias against race, age, and gender. The recent STEM Returners Index 2023 sheds light on the hurdles faced by those seeking to re-enter the STEM workforce.  

Gender Disparities 

The survey exposed a stark reality for women attempting to return to engineering after a break. A notable 24% reported experiencing recruitment bias based on their gender, compared to a much smaller 9% of men. 

Ethnic Diversity 

Professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds, constituting 39% of returners in 2023, faced a higher likelihood (34%) of experiencing bias related to race or ethnicity. This statistic is double that of other ethnic groups and emphasises the necessity of fostering inclusivity in STEM recruitment practices. 

Age as a Barrier 

Both men (29%) and women (25%) expressed feeling biased due to their age, impacting 30% of returners who reported a decline in personal confidence. Overcoming age-related biases is crucial for unlocking the full potential of experienced professionals seeking to re-enter the STEM sector. 

Signs of Progress 

While challenges persist, there is evidence of progress. Compared to the STEM Returners Index 2022, fewer women felt biased due to their gender, and the overall percentage of returners experiencing bias in recruitment processes decreased from 38% to 33%. Yet, the journey towards inclusivity is far from complete. 

A Founder's Perspective 

While there is a  positive trend there are ongoing battles. There are still too many people finding it an uphill battle … Industry leaders need to do more to update recruitment practices and challenge unconscious bias to give returners a fair chance to rejoin the industry they are passionate about. There is an urgent need for addressing biases against race, age, and gender, emphasising the valuable contribution returners can make to bridge skills gaps in STEM industries. 

Beyond Gender and Age 

The survey revealed that caring responsibilities, with 44% citing family care as the primary reason for a career break, disproportionately affect women. 36% of women felt biased due to childcare responsibilities, compared to only 8% of men. This indicates a need for inclusive policies that accommodate diverse caregiving responsibilities. 

The Role of Structured Returner Programmes 

When asked, 40% of returners expressed a preference for returning to work through a supported returners programme. However, only 21% had encountered such programmes. This disparity underscores the necessity for STEM employers to diversify their recruitment approaches and embrace structured return-to-work platforms. 

Success Stories: STEM Returners in Action 

Elizabeth Chikwanha-Mavengano had 14 years of engineering experience in Zimbabwe and South Africa, including studying for a Master’s in Civil Engineering, before moving to the UK in 2023. She applied for several structural engineering roles but found it challenging to get an interview. Through STEM Returners, Elizabeth completed a programme with Amey Consulting, after which she accepted a permanent role as a Project Manager. 

Elizabeth's story demonstrates the transformative impact of returner programmes in empowering professionals with diverse backgrounds. 

Read more returner stories here

Moving Forward 

As The STEM Returners Index 2024 data collection is underway, the call for industry leaders to update recruitment practices and challenge biases rings louder than ever. The UK needs a diverse, agile, and innovative STEM workforce, and the untapped potential of returners can be a key solution. 

Click here to read the full STEM Returners Index 2023 and get set for the release of the 2024 findings on September 23rd, coinciding with National Inclusion Week 2024. 

Learn more about STEM Returners and join the movement toward a more inclusive and diverse STEM community. 

IMarEST is holding a free Returning to STEM Webinar on 8 February 2024, find out more and buy tickets to this event here.