Some years ago, I was the recruitment representative on the UK Diversity Council of a large multinational engineering and technology business. The UK Chairman expressed concern that we weren’t recruiting many female engineers.

“We need to recruit more female engineers,” said he.

“Yes, that would be good,” quoth I. “But you do know that there aren’t many female engineers out there.”

“But we need to find them.”

“You can’t find something that doesn’t exist. The only way to change this situation is to invest in early engagement in schools and colleges. Work with other engineering businesses to spread the load, and build a talent pool that we can all benefit from in future.”

“How long would that take?”

“Eight to ten years.”

“I’m planning to reference the improvements we’ve made to our male:female hiring ratio in the next annual report.”

“But that comes out in 3 months.”

“Yes. Happy hunting!”

And that was that. We met monthly and had the same conversation every time, and unfortunately it’s a conversation that is still being had regularly in technical and engineering businesses up and down the country. The fact is that, whilst the trend in schools and universities is slowly starting to reflect the huge effort that the government, charities, Professor Brian Cox (!) and – yes – many employers have put in to the STEM agenda in recent years, our education system still produces far more STEM-qualified males than it does STEM-qualified females.

Whatever the reason for this – and peer pressure, media stereotypes, ill-informed parents and a scandalous under-provision of careers advice in schools are most likely the biggest culprits – the fact is that somewhere along the line our children are splitting into two distinct gender groups, making qualification decisions that affect their entire lives.

As an example, let’s contrast two subject areas: Languages and Engineering. In 2013, the UK’s Higher Education sector produced a totally unsurprising 13,260 male engineering graduates, and 2,355 female engineering graduates. And languages? 14,965 females and 5,965 males[1]. Yes, we all know that there are differences between girls and boys, but this stark situation suggests a systematic failure of our educational system to provide children and their influencers with high quality information about study and career choices.

So, back to the circular conversation. The good news is that many employers have seen that they need to be more proactive in early engagement and subsequently the attraction of diverse STEM graduates and young people. And it isn’t just female STEM students – in an environment in which a staggering 95% of engineers believe that there is currently a major skills shortage in STEM[2], everyone needs to be thinking creatively about how to build the most diverse talent pool.

Microsoft is one of those businesses that has taken a proactive approach to achieving real diversity within its STEM graduate recruitment programme, using a defined early engagement strategy and – crucially – a clear system via which to monitor the success and therefore the return on investment of its activities. Focussing principally on female STEM talent and talent from under-privileged backgrounds, it has demonstrated a commitment that makes a real contribution to its business, whilst also doing something that benefits society as a whole. If you would like to find out more, come and see Microsoft’s Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Anna Fullerton-Batten, at Symposium’s Graduate Recruitment and Development Forum on Thursday 26th February:

[1] HESA 2014