Not so long ago, science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) were seen as ‘men’s subjects’.

This meant very few women went into jobs in areas like construction, computing [see female tech leaders insight], research and architecture.

So, the talents and skills of half the population were largely lost to some of the most important sectors of UK industry.

Things have changed – but how much? Is there still a sense that women don’t feel comfortable in jobs using STEM skills? And what can be done to ensure these outdated perceptions die out?

The UK’s STEM needs.

In an increasingly competitive world, companies are complaining of a STEM skills gap.

In construction, in particular, the Federation of Master Builders has warned that the worker shortage for small and medium-sized firms has hit a record level. With the government setting a target of building 300,000 homes a year, that’s a big problem. And uncertainty over the availability of migrant labour after Brexit can only add to concerns.

UK STEM-qualified workers are in big demand. Encouraging more women to get involved is a necessity.

Have attitudes changed enough to allow this?

Here at Randstad we’ve spoken to hundreds of women working in construction – one of the UK’s biggest employers of STEM-qualified people. The largest single reason (18%) they gave for female employees leaving the industry was a male-dominated workplace culture. This was followed by having too few role models in senior positions (12%).

Clearly there is still work to be done in welcoming and encouraging women into the industry, this finding comes from speaking directly to those who actually work in construction.

When does all this begin?

There’s evidence that attitudes about what constitutes “men’s” and “women’s” work and areas of study start very early on. This can be tackled by exposing girls to career choices where STEM subjects are important and reinforcing the message that there’s no reason why they can’t take them up and thrive.

At the age of 16 – when young people in the UK generally narrow down and focus their education on arts or sciences - sees a drop-off in the number of female students in STEM subjects. And more than 90% of people completing an apprenticeship in STEM areas are men.

Men go on to dominate the study of STEM subjects at University. UK figures for 2016/17 show that only 24% of those graduating in these areas were women – in other words, more than three quarters were male. When it came to some of the most future-proofed subjects such as computing, engineering and technology, the disparity was even greater.

What ideas are there to get young women into STEM?

Positive female role models are vital, so companies and organisations should ask their successful women employees to visit schools.

On the practical side, once women start a career in STEM and construction, there’s often not enough flexibility about working arrangements – for instance, if someone wants to come back part-time after having a baby. In fact, lack of flexibility came fourth on the list of reasons women working in construction gave for female colleagues leaving the industry in our survey. Companies, in need of recruits, should look at how they can change.

They should also educate senior staff to ensure their behaviour is not inadvertently sexist. And they should get the message across that recruiting more women and developing STEM skills are not just about equality, but the future success of the UK industry.

Construction and other STEM-related industries – as opposed to, say, entertainment, law, retail and hospitality – can be poor at letting the world know what they do and what career opportunities are available. Often, it’s a case that women in particular simply don’t know the exciting options open to them.

But, all hope is not lost! There are several organisations, campaigns and government initiatives such as Women in STEM and WISE that are making positive contributions and increasing the awareness of women working in STEM-related fields. WISE, in particular, is campaigning for gender balance in science, technology and engineering by hosting events, awards and other activities. The UK government has also launched a campaign celebrating 2018 as the year of engineering.

With so many exciting opportunities and with substantial progression being made in the industry, there has never been a better time to get into construction.

Find out more at Randstad’s Women in Construction campaign.

Explore the interactive 'STEMisphere'

the world of STEM