Tackling the gender skills gap

8th March 2023
Sheryl Miles

On International Women’s Day, Electronic Specifier catches up with Sarah Chapman, Technical Manager at 3M to talk about the gender skills gap and what more can be done to help drive diversity, increase the number of people in the industry, and how the industry itself is perceived.

On International Women’s Day, Electronic Specifier catches up with Sarah Chapman, Technical Manager at 3M to talk about the gender skills gap and what more can be done to help drive diversity, increase the number of people in the industry, and how the industry itself is perceived.

Chapman isn’t from your typical STEM-related background. In fact, before finding her love of chemistry, because of a very influential and engaging teacher, she pursued a career in ballet.

Now, with a first-class degree in Chemistry from the University of Southampton, Chapman shares her experiences and talks about the creativity of problem-solving.

Could you explain what 3M does and what your role involves?

3M is a global science-based innovation company, and our technologies are literally everywhere.

To give you a couple of examples, in a typical smartphone there are loads of 3M technologies in there – like films to help enhance brightness so that you can use less battery power. If you're driving, you will see reflective materials on road signs, 3M does a lot of work in that area too.

My role is an Application Engineering Manager. I have a team of 13 engineers [across EMEA and UK, Nordics, and Baltics] and my job is to coach and manage them, and their job is to go out to our customers and help them choose tapes and adhesives to solve their technical challenges. It’s a fascinating job, and it covers a huge range of industries.

Twenty percent of my role is officially dedicated to being a STEM spokesperson for 3M. That speaks volumes about 3M's dedication to equity, and to advancing women in STEM.

I've always been a very passionate STEM ambassador. I've always volunteered [in STEM], but this is the first time that I've had an official role dedicated to that. Which means I get to be involved in lots of things from running school programmes, to public speaking and interviews.

I'm also the chair for the [technical chapter of the] EMEA Technical Women's Leadership Forum which is a global Employee Resource Network. We run Lean-In circles and have a mentoring programme. We try to connect people with role models so that they've got people throughout their career that they can relate to, talk to, and learn from.

I understand 3M are ‘Champions for Change’. Can you talk through me through 3M’s forums and initiatives?

Companies like ours can really help to bridge the gap between education and employment. We know that diversity drives innovation, I see that every day in the job I do, and the research supports that.

We try to look at everything from education through to employment … trying to raise the profile of STEM among students.

3M has made a very ambitious, publicly stated goal that it aims to deliver five million unique STEM and skilled trade learning opportunities for underrepresented groups by 2025.

We [also] tell the stories and make sure we are sharing relatable role models working in STEM and working with us. We do that by [being] ambassadors and supporting our employees to do volunteering, but also through campaigns like Smashing Stereotypes. That is a campaign we have supported with the British Science Association for the past four years. It aims to really challenge perceptions around science and what scientists look like and what they do.

That's why it’s important that the message about STEM is carried by lots of different people and not something that is just spoken about by dedicated spokespeople. That’s what the Smashing Stereotypes campaign is all about – making sure that somebody, somewhere has someone they can relate to.

For example, I didn't enjoy science at all at school. At the time I was training to be a ballet dancer … But then I had this amazing [science] teacher who completely blew my mind and completely changed my perception of what STEM is and how science, particularly chemistry, can be used to make things better. Suddenly science became relevant.

What has been your experience of being a woman in the industry?

It's been varied – I've worked across lots of different markets, I've done a range of roles, always technical, but the challenges are quite similar. I've been part of an underrepresented group all my career. Unfortunately, that does mean that quite often I'm the only woman in the room – or these days, woman on the call.

It can be challenging to find those well-trodden career paths, sometimes you feel like you're making it up as you go along because you are doing something that not many other people have done. [But] within 3M, because they put so much focus on STEM Equity, and Diversity and Inclusion, I don't feel alone at all.

It can also be [small] things, [when visiting customer sites] like no one knows where the ladies’ toilet is, or the size of [PPE] is in men’s sizes. These things are not insurmountable, but they do contribute to a feeling of being out of place or not fitting in.

What do you think of the government’s push to drive more people towards STEM, and how that might help to bridge the skills gap?

As a STEM ambassador and as a company operating in the UK climate, we welcome any investment and any initiatives that can help to tackle [that skills gap].

I think it's fantastic it's being recognised and is on the agenda more and more. But we mustn't forget that companies can help too.

We're in a very good position where we can bridge that gap between employment and education, through outreach, or relatable stories and role models. Especially role models, because they have to come from industry, then they're real-life examples. So, I think it's really incumbent on us to try to help to support those initiatives.

The government absolutely has a role to play, as does the education sector. But we also need the private sector to be supporting those things and creating inclusive cultures. So yes, I think it's great to see progress, but it's a joint effort. It’s not down to just one area.

At a time when STEM is being encouraged, numbers are still falling short. How do you feel the balance of being diverse and inclusive can improve, against the pressures of needing more people in the industry in general?

In order for companies to recruit diverse talent, they have to have that diverse talent coming through the pipeline. It is really challenging because, especially in engineering, I've heard engineering managers say, ‘Well, you know, I'd love to have a more diverse team, but the people that are coming for interviews are very homogenous’, and I think it comes back to tackling this at all levels from education through the whole of employment.

We are making some progress, and it's great to see more women going into STEM, but we also need to see them in leadership roles so that they're the ones recruiting and hiring and making those decisions. It's about doing that for the whole of the ecosystem.

From a social perspective, diversity is the best solution to that skills gap. We still need to make sure that people have the right skills to fit that gap. There is talent out there that we're missing, that we don't have to wait to go through the education system. If we can get the right mix of training programmes, reskilling and returner programmes, it's a rapid way to get more people into STEM.

3M’s global survey ‘The State of Science Index’ asked 1,000 members of the general population for their thoughts on STEM, particularly their perception of science and its contribution to society. The research showed that in the UK, 88% of people believe women are a source of untapped STEM potential.

What more do you feel can be done to help women stay in STEM careers, after childbirth or a challenging experience for example?

It's such a difficult one because there is a difference for men and women. When you have a baby, most fathers report they want to spend more time with their children. So having a more equal partnership after pregnancy and childbirth, which obviously affects women more, can be really helpful because it benefits everybody.

If somebody has a challenging experience, having the visibility of the different roles, role models, organisations, showing them a wide range of options, so you know [a challenging experience] is not representative of the whole industry.

The other thing is mentoring and sponsorship and making sure that people, particularly underrepresented groups, like women, have mentors that can help them to progress through the organisation and tackle some of those challenges.

I think a sponsor can also open those doors. I think it's something that we need to make sure that women have access to as much as men. It really does make a difference.

How do you challenge gender stereotypes and female underrepresentation in STEM?

There are so many ways to do that.

For every company, it's a question of prioritising and trying to do the things you think are going to have the most impact.

3M is trying to do that at all levels. I've mentioned the Women's Leadership Forum. We have mentoring, Lean-In circles, we've rolled out the I Am Remarkable programme to over 500 people in EMEA. That's all about building confidence and being able to talk confidently about your achievements.

There's a lot 3M is doing internally, but also externally making sure that we are playing our part in increasing STEM equity – I mentioned the smashing stereotypes campaign – we’re also a strategic partner of the British Science Association.

We have also produced some docuseries. One is called ‘Not the Science Type’, which showcases four female scientists who have successfully broken through stereotypical barriers. And more recently, we've launched ‘Skilled’ which is about challenging stereotypes within the skilled trades  and perceptions of what a skilled trade career looks like.

What words of encouragement would you offer any woman considering a career in STEM?

Be adaptable. It's really important.

The idea of zigzag careers, or squiggly careers, is going to become more common. So being adaptable, being flexible and knowing that with practice and a bit of determination, you can master any skill. I'm a believer in the power of practice and knowing that you can do what you want and have confidence.

Also, be proud of [your] differences. See it as a strength and remind yourself that if you feel out of place, that's okay. That's helpful in the long run.

And be proud of your achievements and the achievements of other people and find ways to pay it forward. Because, ultimately, that's what we're trying to do. It's got to be a collective approach.


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