Women's representation in STEM

Posted on 5 December, 2022 by Advance 

Swetha Kotichintala, Chief Business Officer & aerospace engineer, Exobotics, outlines why women need more representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Image courtesy Exobotics

National STEM Day recently celebrated the technological advancements and opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. These areas play a major role in UK research and development initiatives, as well as the economy.

However, for all of the positives that these industries bring at both an educational and career level, there is a concerning STEM gap that has developed with an underrepresentation of women in these areas.

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women account for only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers and the gender gap is particularly prominent in rapidly growing, high-paid jobs such as computer science.

It is fundamental that the STEM gap is addressed from education institutions to career opportunities in order to improve diversity and inclusion in these fields, as well as maximise the potential of scientific and technological advancements for the future.

Current underrepresentation

STEM is a hugely prosperous area which can spearhead economic growth on a regional and national scale, so encouraging women into STEM subjects and careers is crucial for UK productivity.

Last year, the United Nations reported that only one in five people in the space industry were female, roughly the same proportion as 30 years ago. The lack of progress points to an overarching issue with the attitude towards STEM subjects which, if not addressed, will continue to stunt scientific growth in the UK.

Yet despite this, government statistics highlight that, since 2012, the population of space organisations had grown almost 21% per annum on average, opening new opportunities for careers in STEM which are not being diversly filled.

Bridging the STEM gap begins at an educational level, with a need to encourage more women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects at school and university to inspire them to pursue a career in these fields. Engaging in these subjects at primary and secondary school is important to build and retain interest in STEM which later influences sixth form and university choices.

Providing funding to education programmes can help to create a positive culture around STEM, as the Cornwall Space Cluster has done through the likes of Truro & Penwith College and the University of Exeter. This provides regional opportunities such as placements with engineering and space companies and meeting inspirational female STEM leaders.  

Celebrating women in the space industry

The UK space industry serves as a shining example of the brilliance of women in STEM, with females leading the charge during a historic 2022 for the sector.

Dr Alice Bunn OBE is a member of the Exobotics advisory board and has recently been named as the President of UKspace, the trade association for the UK space industry. Alice has dedicated her career to promoting STEM for all and also currently serves as the CEO of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (iMechE), following her role as International Director at the UK Space Agency where she increased the UK’s global influence in science and trade.

Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, and Gail Eastaugh, Head of Strategic Partnerships at the Cornwall Space Cluster, are two of the leading figures behind the upcoming landmark UK launch. They have become the face of not only the Cornwall space industry, but the UK space industry in recent months, as the whole world waits to watch the historic launch.

Celebrating strong female STEM role models encourages the next generation to follow in their footsteps at an early age, influencing their choice of subjects in school and ultimately their career paths later down the line.

With women spearheading the UK space industry, turnover growth has increased year on year to £6.5 billion and space exports were valued at £5.3 billion to the UK in 2021, according to research from the ADS UK Space Outlook 2022


Encouraging the next generation

The main barriers for girls at school, according to NGCP, are their interest, confidence, and sense of belonging in STEM subjects. Therefore, it is essential that, starting with education, we make STEM an inclusive and welcoming environment for our future female leaders.

STEM is the catalyst for all our scientific and technological advancements and for the UK to remain a leader in these fields, it is essential we tap into all of the talent at our disposal by encouraging women into this area.

Boosting interest and confidence in STEM will not only play a large role in diversifying these industries, but it will also help to retain female talent in highly skilled job roles and continue to lead science and tech success.

Swetha Kotichintala is co-founder of Exobotics, an experienced aerospace engineer and national coordinator for World Space Week in the UK (the largest annual space event in the world), helping to raise awareness of the benefits that space can bring to all through innovation, sustainability and boosting the economy. She is also the National Contact for the Moon Village Association and Chair of the British Interplanetary Society’s Next Gen Network, which aim to connect, inspire and empower students and young professionals in the space community.