Comment: Building a sustainable pipeline of female talent

Feb 10, 2022

Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week and International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Dr. Keeley Crockett, IEEE member and professor in computational intelligence at the Manchester Metropolitan University explains how we can build a sustainable pipeline of female talent for STEM.

With technological developments outpacing the speed at which education courses change, building a sustainable pipeline is no easy task. It is important to start inspiring potential talent at an early age. Career talks through STEM Ambassador programmes and engaging pupils with STEM activities, especially those that involve problem solving and teamwork can really inspire young people and get them thinking about their careers. Diverse role models in schools are important and the value of industry-school outreach and collaboration can be very powerful and impactful. Industry wishing to engage in school outreach should contact their local STEM Ambassador hub.

Degree apprentices offer valuable on-the-job training and an exciting opportunity for those who prefer a practical approach to learning compared to an undergraduate degree. In fact, it provides flexibility for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or those that simply cannot afford to leave work to pursue full time study. For industry, it allows students to work on projects that have very tangible business benefits. From a university perspective, ideas and concepts from the labs can be applied directly into industry, so students can put their knowledge and theory to practice.

Sadly, women are still underrepresented in STEM. Not only is there a lack of support but also a shortage of mentors – role models need to be visible to inspire others. There is also the issue of affinity bias, where managers are more likely to employ, promote and socialise with someone more similar to them. Organisations need to create inclusive and engaging workplaces and a culture where diversity in teams is the norm.

Diversity is about the representation and celebration of the uniqueness of human beings

An MIS study, published in Nature in 2021, found that 34 per cent of mums left full time careers in STEM after they had their first child, with reasons including lower salaries, less opportunities for promotion and even discrimination.

This an example of a broken pipeline, where talent is simply neglected. Mentoring and developing a culture of support in industry and academia is vital, whether formal or informal. This is the key to nurturing talent, supporting individuals’ well-being, and building succession channels within business. Mentoring needs to be recognised as a core component of one’s job roles and valued as means of resourcing.

As a professional body, IEEE Technical Activities Board has a Diversity and Inclusion committee which aims to provide support and resources to ensure that all societies and councils in establishing a supportive environment for all members and volunteers. This has included the development of implicit bias awareness training and best practices on how to embed a culture where everyone is treated with an equal voice and opinion. In 2021, after years of debate and discussion, it launched a pledge which has been adopted by four societies so far.

Signing up to the pledge encourages positive behaviour and a commitment to proactively making change every day. For example, at the IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence in December 2021, 52 per cent of the organising committee were female and one out of the three plenary speakers were also female. Similarly, the next IEEE World Congress on Computational Intelligence in 2022, there will be an equal 50:50 divide of male and female conference chairs. In technical communities, where women are underrepresented, this marks a significant change.

At the Greater Manchester Artificial Intelligence Foundry, we have introduced toolkits of how to build responsible and trustworthy technologies, by adopting techniques such as Consequence Scanning and Harms Modelling, which invites businesses to consider the impact of new technology on individuals and society.

This naturally encourages them to think about diversity and inclusion issues, and whether the design of the human-machine interface is as inclusive as possible. Embedding such toolkits into companies’ research and development is one way to maintain this conversation and demonstrate the morals and values of the company.

Diversity goes beyond just gender, it is about cultural diversity, age diversity, or those with a disability – it is about the representation and celebration of the uniqueness of human beings. Industry and academic leaders must be mindful of that, and aware of the responsibility that they have and the role that they must play in building a sustainable pipeline, from all backgrounds.

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Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr. Keeley Crockett

IEEE member and professor in computational intelligence

M15 6BH Manchester

United Kingdom


+44 (0)161 247 2000


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