Women in STEM more likely face to gender bias when returning from career break, poll finds

Females working in the science and tech sector also receive less feedback than men on an unsuccessful job application, as experts urge firms to better support returners

More than a quarter of women returning to jobs in the STEM sector after a career break have experienced gender bias in the recruitment process, a survey has found, with experts urging all sectors to support returners.

A poll of 750 professionals, all of whom were looking to return to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs, found that 27 per cent of women felt they experienced bias because of their gender, compared to just 8 per cent of men.

The research, part of the STEM Returners Index, also found that 30 per cent of women felt they experienced bias because of their childcare responsibilities, compared to just 6 per cent of men, while women were 76 per cent more likely never to receive feedback on an unsuccessful application.

Women also made up half of the professionals looking to return to the industry after a career break, despite making up just 8 per cent of the total number of professionals in the sector.

Commenting on the findings, Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the CIPD, said that improving the employment rate for parent returners could help fill skills shortages and improve diversity. But, she said: “It can take time to adjust back to working after a prolonged period of absence, so it’s important returners get the support they need.

“There are a number of steps organisations can take to help them, including the provision of flexible working patterns, employee support or networking systems and tailored upskilling where needed.”

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Julianne Miles, CEO of Women Returners, added that a loss of professional confidence, which increases with time spent out of the workforce, often stops women applying for suitable roles.

She added that while the high cost of childcare in the preschool years often factors into the decision to take a career break, it is a lack of flexible working that prevents many professionals from returning to work.

“Providing tailored supported routes back to professional level roles is essential, through returnships or ongoing supported hiring into permanent roles. This needs to be combined with identifying and addressing biases at all stages of recruitment,” said Miles.

Natalie Desty, director of STEM Returners, said that despite a “very clear and desperate skills shortage” in the sector, three in five (61 per cent) of STEM professionals on a career break said they were finding the process of returning to work difficult, with women bearing the brunt of this challenge.

“STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled, talented females back into the industry,” she said.