Balancing the sySTEM

Views & Analysis
Beautiful high school students with microscopes in laboratory during biology class.

A group of pharma companies – Amgen, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline – have partnered with the UK government’s Equalities Office and Women’s Business Council to support small businesses in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to offer a more gender-balanced work environment. Richard Staines spoke with Chris Fox, VP General Manager for the UK and Ireland, Amgen about why the project is so important to the company.

The government has prioritised Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths based businesses as a sector that is crucial to the country’s economic fortunes.

But a report has found there is a huge gap in skills in the sector – yet at the same time women are under-represented in its workforce.

Called Balancing the SySTEM, the report from the government-backed Women’s Business Council, in partnership with several pharma companies, argues that encouraging girls to study STEM at schools, and women to take on roles in the sector, will play an important role in the country’s economic prosperity.

The thrust of the report is that the ethical and moral argument for ensuring women have equal opportunities in the workforce is reinforced by an undeniable business argument: that the UK will lose out unless it improves the gender diversity of its STEM workforce.

Amgen, AstraZeneca, and GlaxoSmithKline have all backed the report, and a toolkit that has been published to accompany it, that invites small STEM businesses to create a dashboard helping them to create a gender-balanced workforce.

Chris Fox, VP General Manager for the UK and Ireland, Amgen, said that she hopes the report and the accompanying tools will allow smaller businesses to learn from the experiences of the three pharma companies in the field of gender diversity.

Fox said: “The great thing about the ‘Balance the System’ toolkit is that it blends together the lessons that all three companies have learned about the best ways to ensure a gender-diverse talent pool. Add that to the expertise within the Women’s Business Council and you’ve got an opportunity to use all our collective experience to make a difference.

“We chose to get involved in this partnership because it cuts right to the heart of what we’re about as a business: turning breakthrough science into life-changing medicine. If we want to truly achieve that ambition we’ve got to have the industry’s best minds on the job, and that comes from a diverse, experienced and engaged workforce.”

Skills shortages

However, Fox acknowledges that this is a first step on a long journey. According to the report, 41% of junior level roles in STEM are being filled by women, but only 9% of STEM companies have 33% or more women on executive roles, compared with 20% of other non-STEM companies.

Only 15% of managers in science, engineering and technology are female, and around 52% of women in STEM quit their jobs by mid-career.

Overall, only 23% of people working in core STEM occupations are women – yet at the same time a skills shortage in engineering alone could see the UK economy miss out on up to £27 billion a year from 2022.

Jobs in science, research, engineering and technology are expected to grow at double the rate of other jobs, creating 142,000 new jobs between now and 2023.

Fox explained: “We are realistic about the scope and scale of this challenge. Much as we’d like it to, one STEM sector report isn’t going to transform the debate overnight. But what this does do is try and tackle the diversity issue in the places where positive change can make a real difference, which is with SMEs who make up the vast majority of UK businesses.

“The whole point of this initiative was to take these best practice learnings and share them with SMEs across the sector. We’ve tried to make it as simple as possible for companies to even implement just one or two new things. No matter how small the company, each incremental change can still make a big difference for changing the national picture on gender diversity in STEM and beyond.”

But with so much pressure to fill STEM jobs, and so many women opting to leave the industry when it is in dire need of staff, ensuring workforces are gender-balanced will also help businesses thrive in a tough and competitive environment.

“We’ve got high levels of growth in STEM jobs but are struggling to fill them, and meanwhile women are leaving the STEM workforce and not rising to top management as fast as other sectors. There is absolutely a business case for every organisation, whether SME or large company, to stop, look and think about what we could be doing differently,” Fox said.

Problem solving

From pharma’s point of view, ensuring companies are gender balanced will mean that the best people are employed in key R&D roles.

Fox argues that women have a vital role to play, as they may have different approaches to problem solving.

“The magic of clinical discovery is about our potential as humans to look at a problem and using our own biology to solve it.

“Having more women in the science industry can only be a good thing, and the same goes for the rest of the STEM sector, and any industry where society can benefit from different people finding new ways to ask, “what if?”

The companies have also been investing for over a decade in encouraging girls and young women to get involved in STEM subjects in the education system.

“Through GCSE, A-level, undergraduate, post-graduate, PhD – there are so many forks in the road where girls have opted for a different path and perhaps left science behind. We’re trying to show women and girls that there is an open door to success in science and STEM if they want it.”

Looking to the future, Fox is calling for action across society to encourage more women into STEM jobs. It’s not just a job for government but anyone who is in a position of leadership.

At industry conferences, gender diversity is becoming a hot issue and there are now many “female-heavy panel discussions,” according to Fox.

But even here there is more work to be done as selecting women for these roles is not yet “naturally assumed”, she said.

Despite the enormous challenges, Fox said that the dashboard provides a really good starting point for companies that are trying to improve their performance when it comes to gender diversity.

The dashboard creates a framework, based around targets that give clear goals and allow companies to benchmark their performance to measure progress over time.

“Targets matter – all businesses perform better when we’ve got clear goals in place. So we’ve provided a template to make it easy for an SME to plug in a few numbers and give a day one baseline read out – that’s the starting point.

“We’ve also given some suggestions for targets on talent attraction, progression and retention but it’s up to each organisation to decide on those goals. The toolkit is there to offer some support along the way,” Fox concluded.

[caption id="attachment_46849" align="alignleft" width="79"]STEM Chris Fox, VP general manager for the UK & Ireland at Amgen Chris Fox[/caption]

About the interviewee

Chris Fox is the VP general manager for the UK & Ireland at Amgen, with over 20 years of leadership experience in sales, marketing and operations.