Technical fault: The worrying brain drain of women from science and technology

Why are so many highly trained women leaving jobs in science, engineering and technology when the sectors are crying out for skilled workers? Lee Randall looks at an alarming brain drain.

Why are so many highly trained women leaving jobs in science, engineering and technology when the sectors are crying out for skilled workers? Lee Randall looks at an alarming brain drain.

Leaky pipeline effect is not a new environmental disaster, but a phrase describing the loss of women in SET and STEM industries (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It is not only tough attracting women to these fields – it is tougher still keeping them there. That brain drain represents a loss of around £170 million to the Scottish economy.

Linda Somerville, manager of the Scottish Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (SRC) at Edinburgh Napier University, says: “Seventy-three per cent of the women qualified and trained in these subjects have left those industries, versus about 50 per cent of men. Out of the total population of women who could be at work, only 5 per cent work in STEM-related jobs. It’s around 30 per cent for men. There’s what’s called a leaky pipeline effect, where women drop out at different times in their career.

“For example, in biological sciences, at the graduate level, about 75 per cent will be female, but by the time you get to professor level, less than 10 per cent are women. So even when you have a critical mass going into a subject, there’s still something going on that means women don’t make it through.

“After the first few years a number of women leave again, and certainly after a career break or maternity leave women often find it hard to return. In terms of progress, women’s participation is limited in the more senior positions. So there’s a continual drift of women out of all of these sectors.”

A report from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, published last year, says: “This rate of loss of highly trained women … is taking place at a time when, even though the country is in near recession conditions, many of Scotland’s employers in the SET sectors are unable to find sufficient qualified, skilled and experienced workers. In Scotland 27 per cent of women graduates in STEM work are in the sector they qualified in, compared with 52 per cent of male graduates. It’s estimated that a doubling of women’s high-level skill contribution to the economy would be worth as much as £170 million per annum to Scotland’s national income.”

Those who stay, the report says, find they are “still segregated by occupation and grade. [This] significantly impacts on both a woman’s ability to achieve her potential and her earning capacity.”

Many returning after a career break stay in the same or a lower position in order to work part-time. Somerville says: “As long as full-time working is seen as the norm, anyone who steps away from that is seen as not committed. Unless we challenge that, women’s careers won’t progress, and women who do end up with part-time hours will just sit in them. Until we see a change in how employers look to the norm, and be more flexible in their approach, then women’s under­employment will continue.”

Marie Kane, the freelance continuous professional development officer at the SRC, cites research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, identifying three factors holding back women: inflexible personnel policies (lack of jobsharing, reduced hours); a dominant macho culture where women are seen as outsiders; and the attitudes and behaviour of women themselves.

Confidence is one problem, says Kane, noting that women regularly undervalue their accomplishments: “The Women Matter McKinsey Report of 2007 found that 70 per cent of women rate their own performance as equal to their colleagues, but 70 per cent of men rate their own performance as superior to their colleagues.”

There are various ways in which the SRC attempts to address imbalances, says Somerville.

“We look at employers and the environment, because all too often [people say], ‘If only women were more confident, and if only they were putting themselves forward more, then the problem would resolve’. Although those things are true, in fact, it doesn’t resolve the problem. Often, specific career coaching is tailored to allow them to enhance their profile at work, have more confidence in their job-seeking ability, identify their skills, and how they can transfer them or portray them to give them a career advantage,” she says.

The Harvard Business Review Blog of October 2011 cited four main ways women unintentionally hold themselves back at work, says Kane: “Being overly modest; not asking, but expecting to be asked – in other words, not asking for promotion or to go to conferences, and expecting that their accomplishments would be noticed; blending in, so that behaviour is deemed ‘acceptable’, and remaining silent at meetings.”

Half of the female managers surveyed by the bloggers admitted to feelings of self-doubt, versus 31 per cent of the men. And 20 per cent of men said they would apply for a new role despite only partly meeting the job description, versus 14 per cent of the women.

The pace of life is another often overlooked factor, says Kane, “Increasingly, in organisations, there’s no reflective space. Thinking time is squeezed out. A good coach provides reflective space in a structured way. Someone described it as fearless compassion. You are not holier or thou or judgmental, but sympathetic and compassionate. Good coaching goes below the surface and gets to the real issues.”

• The Coaching for Success programme is for women who are working in or returning to science, engineering and technology. For more information about programmes and workshops run by the Scottish Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, visit; or call 0131-455 5108.


Geraldine Angus: ‘Men don’t have to give up their jobs just because they have children’

Geraldine Angus was as a small girl fascinated by aqueducts and railway bridges, and grew up to become an engineer. She feels she lost her way a little after having her children, now six and four.

‘I’d like to reframe my focus, because my career took a slightly different direction after maternity leave. I was working as operations manager, at the head of a team. I’m now seconded to Scottish Water working as part of a team. I miss the management aspect. Most of my experiences working in a ‘male’ industry have been positive. I’ve always felt treated very equally. The only difference I’ve noticed is since babies, to be honest. Some guys almost fell off their chairs when I said I was pregnant. [And later] one said he was surprised I was coming back to work. Men don’t have to give up their jobs just because they have children. Everybody’s life changes, but it’s never expected that they give up or go part-time. All this shouting recently about sharing the paternity leave – it’s the same thing no matter which [parent] takes it. The people complaining should be lauding it instead.”

Jacqueline Hogg: ‘Without the SRC I think I’d be drowning and looking for a checkout job’

Jacqueline Hogg, an IT project manager, took time out to bring up her son, now seven, and is finding it tough getting back into work. She attended an SRC workshop in Dundee in October, and is embarking upon the new Coaching for Success programme.

‘I was a producer for games for mobile phones. On my return from maternity leave I was made redundant, so I decided to take a couple of years out. Then the crash happened. This past year I said I have to get a job, and it’s been really difficult. Now I have the confidence that I can do the work I used to do, but even that was in doubt at the beginning of last year. And the benefits changed, so I found myself moving from Income Support to Jobseeker’s Allowance.” [This means regularly presenting herself to discuss her job applications. Initially she thought she would take any job, but was overqualified for most administrative posts.]

“In August or September I found the SRC. It was such a relief to speak to somebody who understood the challenges facing a professional, technical female coming back into the workplace. They gave me the confidence to carry on, so I changed my search criteria with the job centre: I am only looking for work in my area. I have those skills.

I paid for my masters degree in multimedia technology. So I obviously want to be back working with software and projects.

“People say you’ve got to remember the person posting the job. Are they thinking of a female in the first place? Someone said that some employers just don’t get that women’s brains are still OK after having had a child. There have to be lots of smart employers who understand the value that women can bring to the workplace, but do they communicate that to the person doing the hiring?”

She cites the Jennifer/John study done in the US, when identical-but-for-the-name CVs were sent to reputable employers, who regularly replied that Jennifer probably didn’t quite make the grade, and was unlikely to be up to the work required.

“So it’s really difficult, but SRC workshops made me realise all of my achievements, so I’ll be able to discuss what I’m good at,” she adds. “People say, ‘on returning, most people take a lower position’. But why should I? I have 15 years’ experience. I have managed teams that delivered software to the market. I know how software works. I can tell you whether your software is ready to go or not. Without the SRC I think I’d be drowning and looking for a checkout job.”

Marianne McLeod: ‘I have experienced men with fewer qualifications promoted above me’

Marianne McLeod, a quantity surveyor, has more than 20 years of experience in the construction industry. McLeod graduated from Paisley College with a degree in business economics and finance, and gained a degree in surveying while working for Strathclyde Regional Council. She works for CBC (Central Building Contractors), a Glasgow-based firm with a turnover just under £40m, and about 200 employees – though she is their only female

chartered surveyor. McLeod has taken SRC workshops, mentored, and been through a coaching programme.

‘I was stuck in a rut. At my sessions we determined where I wanted to go with my career [versus] where I was, and moving out of my comfort zone. I had hankies in my bag every single time! My coach made me challenge my beliefs. Believe it or not, she brought me round to discovering that my ideal job was doing what I was doing – I just needed to tweak it.

“You go through life thinking that you’re alone, especially in the construction industry, but coming around the table at an SRC workshop you realise that there are so many women who have the same problems.”

Asked to identify some uniquely female problems in SET industries, she says: “You need to have a sense of humour, and be thick skinned. But [now that I’m older] I give as good as I get. When I was younger I was totally bamboozled at times with the way the site operated. I have also experienced men with fewer qualifications being promoted above me – so I left.

“I’ve been very fortunate that the last couple of companies I’ve worked with have recognised that women do have a place in construction. We have the same knowledge and ambition. Coaching opened my eyes and gave me a fresh perspective to go forward to the next 20 years of my career.”