Bias against race, age, and gender still preventing people return to STEM industries

Recruitment bias against race, age and gender continues to prevent STEM professionals who have had a career break return to employment, according to a new survey by Hampshire-based STEM Returners.

The STEM Returners Index 2023, published in National Inclusion Week, showed women trying to return to the engineering industry after a career break are more likely to experience recruitment bias than men. Nearly a quarter (24%) of women said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to nine percent of men.

In the survey, professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds represented a large proportion (39%) of candidates attempting to return to work in 2023. They were twice as likely as all other ethnic groups (34% vs average of 17%) to feel they have experienced bias in a recruitment process related to race or ethnicity.

Both men (29%) and women (25%) said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their age. As a result, 30% of returners say their personal confidence has been affected by the recruitment challenges they face, and their low confidence remains a barrier.


Every year, STEM Returners, which is based near Southampton, asks more than 1,000 STEM professionals from across the UK on a career break, a range of questions to understand their experiences of trying to re-enter the STEM sector.

The latest results show some progress. In 2022, 29% of women said they felt bias due to their gender (5% more than this year) and overall, 38% of returners felt they had experienced bias in a recruitment process, compared to 33% this year. In 2022, 65% of participants said they found the process of getting back to work difficult or very difficult, but this year it was just over half (51%) of participants.

Natalie Desty, Founder and Director of STEM Returners, said that while progress should be celebrated, there was still a lot of work to be done, especially in helping returners who are residents in the UK and eligible to work, transfer their valuable skills and experience they acquired internationally.

She said: “For the first year since we launched the STEM Returners Index, we have seen that candidates are finding it slightly easier to return to work than they were this time last year. This is positive news but there are still too many people finding it an uphill battle.

“There are skills gaps across the engineering, tech and green jobs sectors – these gaps are growing, and the UK needs a diverse, agile and innovative STEM workforce more than ever. This talented and committed group of professionals are ready to help fill those roles. But they are still facing recruitment bias against their race, age, gender, and a perceived lack of experience.

“Women and professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds still face a significant disadvantage when attempting to return. People from minority ethnic backgrounds were 50% percent more likely than White British candidates to say they were finding the process of returning ‘very difficult’. This has to change. Additionally, we are seeing people who have moved to the UK from overseas are finding it difficult to transfer their international skills and experience to UK positions.

“Industry leaders need to do more to update recruitment practices and challenge unconscious bias to give returners a fair chance to rejoin the industry they are passionate about.”

In the survey, only a small proportion (12%) of career breakers stop working out of personal choice. Caring for others (both children and other family members) was the primary reason for a career break for 44% of respondents. Thirty-six per cent of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to childcare responsibilities compared to eight per cent of men, according to the results.

Despite 86% of respondents having career breaks lasting less than five years, 38% of candidates felt they have received bias related to lack of recent experience, signalling there is a perception that a break leads to a deterioration of skills.

Helping professionals return

When asked if they would have preferred to return to work through a supported returners programme, 40% of returners said yes. Despite the clear need for structured return to work programmes, only 21% had seen one, and only 16% had returned to work via this route – underlining the need for more STEM employers to think seriously about diversifying their approach to recruitment.

Partnering with STEM organisations to run paid, short-term returner programmes, STEM Returners has supported and mentored more than 400 returners back into permanent roles.

It was founded by Natalie in 2017 after she saw how hard it was for STEM professionals to return to work with a gap on their CV.

Natalie said: “After working in recruitment for many years, I could see how hard it was for STEM professionals who had been out of employment to re-enter their profession. I wanted to provide an inclusive way back for those talented people who were being let down by outdated recruitment methods and bias that prevent them from getting an interview, let alone being offered the role.”

Natalie established a small pilot returners programme with BAE Systems, which saw a group of returners take part in a paid placement for 12 weeks. It was a great success for both the returners and BAE Systems, and since then internationally renowned firms from the engineering, aerospace, renewables, tech and construction sectors have all launched returners programmes across the UK and Ireland.

STEM Returners is also part of the STEM ReCharge programme, which is funded but the Government’s Equality Hub, which is delivering free of charge return to work career coaching, job skills training and sector specific upskilling and mentoring designed to support parents and carers in the midlands and the north of England.