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Closing the gender gap in science

With yesterday (11 February) International Day of Women and Girls in Science, employers must look to change cultures, celebrate female talent internally and externally, and connect with schools

Women are under-represented across almost every level of science. Far fewer girls than boys choose science subjects at school and university, and women make up just 12.8% of the UK’s scientific workforce, according to the organisation WISE. This imbalance presents a real challenge for an innovation-driven company like P&G as we strive to achieve an equal gender workforce. However, I believe it’s also an opportunity for HR professionals to step up and help make change.

In many cases outdated stereotypes about science mean young girls are put off these subjects at school. At P&G around 45% of our scientists are women, and they have access to hugely exciting, hands-on careers. Whether it’s perfecting the technology behind the Pampers nappy, or making achieving the perfect shave with a Gillette razor a reality, our company of brands has been built on incredible science foundations.

One of P&G’s principal scientists, Ilaria Ambrogio, who was recognised in the Forward Ladies Awards for STEM Rising Star, says that science is a “collective dream” that encourages one to “think like a molecule”. I love this idea as it demonstrates how collaborative science can be. At P&G our scientists work as a team and share knowledge across borders to create next-generation products.

As an HR team we work hard to foster a culture where our senior role models feel impassioned to mentor young talent within the company and in the wider industry. We are always on the lookout for young talent in the industry, and new recruits can begin their STEM careers at P&G in a number of ways. We offer the traditional graduate programmes, including internships, plus we offer laboratory science and engineering apprenticeships – offering ‘hands-on’ learning experience with a qualification at the end of the two- to five-year placements.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just that fewer women choose to go into science after school. Even when they do and are successful in their careers, women are more likely to leave the field. What can HR professionals do to encourage these talented and very competent women to stay and contribute to development? I believe it comes down to culture.

HR has an important role to play in creating a flexible and inclusive workplace where women feel encouraged, particularly in traditionally male-dominated fields like the physical sciences. R&D companies need to invest resources and attention in recruiting, retaining and developing female graduates and leaders. I firmly believe it’s not only the right thing to do; it’s smart business. An imbalanced workforce is not sustainable for long-term innovation or company growth.

It’s also crucial to celebrate the women who are trailblazers in their field so that we can break down stereotypes and give young girls more science role models. Organisations need to show young women what a career in science looks like by leveraging their talent and connecting with schools and universities. Many girls lose confidence in STEM subjects around years five and six – making it crucial to use our trailblazers to engage with and inspire children at those crucial school years. Within our innovation centres and research centres we have a truly outstanding array of female talent, and we take great pride in highlighting their stories both externally and internally.

I believe this year is going to be one of great progress for women across all industries. With 2018 marking 100 years since some women were given the vote, and equality reaching a new level of public consciousness, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the year ahead. I hope the R&D industry will embrace this momentum and we’ll see more progress towards achieving gender parity in the UK’s scientific workforce.

Helen Tucker is human resources director at Procter & Gamble