The importance of social mobility in STEM

Social mobility in STEM is a challenge. According to the Social Mobility Commission, just 9% of life science professionals, 15% of scientists, 6% of doctors, 19% of tech workers, and 21% of engineers come from a working class background. With the industry facing such extreme skill shortages, we cannot afford to lose out on this untapped talent. But is redressing social balance that easy?

A self-fulfilling prophecy – or is it?

Research from the Social Mobility Commission shows that background is difficult to shake - those from a family with a professional background are 2.5 times more likely to end up in a professional role than someone from a lower socio-economic background is to move into a professional role.

Meanwhile, research from the Education Endowment Foundation found that students from disadvantaged background were less likely to succeed academically in science, and that this gap was exacerbated with age. One report found that students on free school meals were half as likely to attend a Russell Group university after finishing their A-Levels.

By the time we reach recruitment, the damage has often already been done. According to Inclusive Boards, roughly a third of Board members and senior executives from tech businesses attended private school, versus 7% of the UK. Meanwhile, 35% of Board members and about a quarter (26%) of senior executive attended Oxbridge – compared to less than 1% of the population.

This means that social mobility in STEM is difficult to achieve – it’s cyclical. Students from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to perform well in science, which makes them more likely to study a STEM-related field at a good university, more likely to take on a professional role, and more likely to achieve top ranks at a STEM business. They are also more likely to pass on this experience to their children.

But if this feels overwhelming, there is hope. A recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the university courses with the highest mobility rates included computing, pharmacology, medicine and medical sciences and engineering – otherwise known as STEM subjects.

The benefits of tackling STEM immobility

Improving social mobility in STEM will have far-reaching consequences for the industry as a whole. There is a significant – and growing – supply-demand imbalance in the STEM sector. In November this year, the IET estimated a STEM skill shortage of 173,000 roles in the UK – or roughly 10 in every business. As a result, it is more important than ever that we invest in the next generation in order to build a sustainable pipeline of future talent.

Improving social mobility also benefits society as a whole. Research shows us that organisations that are diverse perform better and think faster. Cognitive disparity helps businesses to see challenges and opportunities in new ways, resulting in a competitive edge that companies with heterogenous thinking miss. Differences in socio-economic backgrounds are just one example of how we can improve diversity at work.

Importantly, STEM is one of the best industries to enact this change. STEM has one of the highest social mobility rates and is also one of the best paying industries – meaning that we can close the gap and cut social injustice out of STEM far quicker than in many other sectors.

Stopping social stasis

The key to redressing the social imbalance is intervention. The Education Endowment Foundation found students from disadvantaged households grew weaker in science subjects with age (they were studied from Key Stage 1 to A-Level). This means that by investing in STEM skills for students from a young age, we should be able to increase STEM degree uptake and break the cycle.

To play our part, Lorien, alongside sister brands Carbon60 (engineering recruitment) and SRG (life sciences recruitment), has announced a new relationship with In2scienceUK – an award-winning charity which focuses on STEM social mobility through a comprehensive programme for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. 75% of students on an In2scienceUK programme go on to study a STEM-related degree at university. You can read more about our partnerships here.

Together, we’ll be supporting students to get ready for the world of work, with work placements working alongside industry experts and researchers, career pathway plans and skills-based workshops.

We believe that this partnership will help the industry to rebalance in three ways:

  • By improving visibility and offering representation. You can’t be what you can’t see, and the students will be able to gain exposure to people working in the industry who they may connect with. Because the road to seniority can be tough for less well-represented groups, following in the footsteps of a proven role model can feel less daunting and more achievable.
  • By informing. STEM is a fast-moving industry, and it is easy for career advice to quickly become outdated or be difficult to find. In addition, research tells us that our parent’s occupations can influence our own, so it’s important to help students understand the full world of possibilities available to them. As well as work placements, the programme provides students with insight into the industry and guidance on finding a career in STEM. Lorien and our sister brands will be delivering a workshop on career development and vital skills as part of our partnership, using our decades of experience recruiting people in STEM.
  • By providing opportunities. It can still be quite competitive for entry-level talent to get their first foot on the career ladder. One way for candidates to differentiate themselves is through work placements. Through our relationship with In2scienceUK, we will be supporting students to undertake placements amongst industry experts and researchers in order to get hands-on experience and get a head start in the industry.

In addition to our partnership with In2science UK, we’ll also be continuing to build on our long-term relationships with our other diversity partners, including TechGirls (an organisation that works with educators and partners to support young women on their STEM journey through training and support) and MAMA.codes (a business that provides classes to help primary-school age children learn, get involved, and develop skills, in tech), as well as continuing our work supporting local skills with employability training.

Conclusion

We believe that stemming the STEM skill shortage is about widening the talent pool and ensuring that everyone has the access, opportunity, and confidence to apply for a role in STEM. Showing young people of all walks of life that they too can succeed in STEM – whether that’s through education, representation, information, or opportunity – will benefit society as a whole.

Would you like to work with us, or any of our partners, to improve STEM social mobility? Reach out to Lorien at info@lorienglobal.com.

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