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.
Lorien works with a number of organisations to improve access to STEM-related skills in the community and to develop the next generation of STEM-specialists, including TechGirls and MAMA.codes, as well as supporting local schools with employability training. These partnerships raise awareness of opportunities within STEM, aim to improve the confidence and aptitude for STEM skills in those that may be left behind in the system, and help to educate young people with insight and guidance on finding a career in STEM.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.