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STEM Returners and the Career Break Curse: Could Leasing Round 5 Improve Gender Diversity in UK Offshore Wind?

Updated: Mar 7


Too often undervalued, underpaid and under-resourced, career returners are a key target group in RenewableUK’s Retention and Upskilling strategy. For International Women’s Day 2024, Lara Lawrie, OWC’s Director of Environment and Consents reflects on how the Celtic Sea could catapult more women into offshore wind and the role the sector has in challenging gender bias and supporting diversity.


Lara Lawrie, Director of Environment and Consents, OWC

Introduction


It isn’t news to those in the offshore wind sector that the UK’s STEM skills shortage is affecting productivity, economic growth and threatening wider policy goals, such as net zero and energy security. The strain on resources has been particularly evident with the progress of Round 4 and the rapid development of ScotWind and INTOG projects. With Floating Offshore Wind Leasing Round 5 (R5) imminent and targets of 40 GW by 2030, the number of people working in offshore wind in the UK is expected to rise from 26,000 to 69,000 by 2026, and 104,401 by 2023 (OWIC, 2023). Looking at the current market, it is difficult to understand how this growth can be achieved as qualified, skilled candidates are in high demand and short supply. The Governments strategy for addressing the STEM skills gap is tackling education, but as a sector is there an opportunity for us to consider other options and could R5 be a catalyst to encourage women STEM returners to fill the skills gap?


In 2018 16% of the offshore wind sectors workforce were women and the Government announced a target to increase this to 33% (40% if feasible) by 2030 (HM Government, 2019). Interestingly, Wales boasts the UK’s highest percentage of women employed in offshore wind at 45.9%, with an expected spike in planning and consenting jobs in the next 2 years in response to the early phase of R5 (RUKCymru, 2023). Understanding how this gender balance has been achieved in Wales and the social barriers facing women is key to attracting and retaining more women in the sector and encouraging STEM returners back.


Busting the maternity barrier to women in STEM


Women still face social barriers within the workplace and recent Government findings showed a lower chance of promotion following return from maternity; bias around pay and promotion; and tensions balancing care with work are key challenges (Gov.UK, 2019). The theme around returning to work is recurrent and PwCs research into female returners found that 76% of professional women on career breaks want to return to work but “many returning women move into lower-skilled work due to recruitment biases against CV gaps” (PwC, 2016). The perception that a gap in your CV means a deterioration in skills, results in three in five women being occupationally downgraded. For STEM that means we’re underutilising a capable, skilled pool of resources. In a highly male dominated sector, with women only making up 29.4% of the STEM workforce (Gov.UK, 2023), it is hardly surprising that the perception of diminished skill set poses a substantial barrier to women returners.


Maternity returners face other unique physical and psychological challenges, including the perception that women can’t be both a mother and career focused. I experienced this when I returned from maternity and was told there are two types of maternity returners – those who come back more ambitious; and those focused on family. At the time (and I blame sleep deprivation) I didn’t question this and accepted that being categorised as the first was complimentary. Unfortunately, their comment highlights another common misconception that it’s either/or when it comes to combining family and career. However, it may be difficult, but with the right support from your employer, women can have both and maternity coaching is a simple mechanism to support women through the uncertainty of returning to work, as reflected on by Kathleen Tunkina, Group Marketing Director at OWC…


OWC sponsored me to do a maternity coaching course with an independent coach, to help me prepare for taking time away from my work to have my 1st child. Just the offer in itself provided considerable relief to me, to know that I would not be alone in planning for my maternity leave and how to best set the team up for my departure. Going on maternity leave is more complex than I imagined both emotionally and professionally, and I am very grateful to OWC for supporting me through this new journey, as it shows me that there is a genuine understanding and support in the complex nature of that journey”.


Targeting STEM Gender Diversity at the Source


This gender bias is slowly changing, but if we are to encourage women STEM returners into offshore wind and banish stereotypes for the next generation, we need to be more proactive in promoting existing incentives and looking for new opportunities. In R5 the three developers awarded an Agreement for Lease (AfL) must plan to increase the number of apprenticeships and commit to at least 3.5% of new workers being apprentices (TCE, 2024). Apprenticeships are not new to offshore wind and East Anglia ONE, Gwynt y Môr and Triton Knoll have all incorporated apprenticeship plans within wider employment strategies. However, it is new for a UK leasing round. It provides an opportunity for developers to be innovative and to challenge the issue of diversity in the workforce. It could also include elements to enable women STEM returners or open opportunity for degree apprenticeships aimed at young women, bridging the gender gap in the offshore wind workforce at the source – education.


Last year the Minister for Women launched a pilot to encourage more women back into STEM jobs targeting the 75,000 or so economically inactive STEM skilled people (the majority of which are women and inactive due to caring responsibilities) (Gov.UK, 2023). Initiatives such as the STEM Returners programme is essential to connect those economically inactive women with the right role. At OWC we’ve forged a successful partnership with STEM Returners, focusing on helping engineers overcome the ‘career break curse’. The programme aims to provide mentorship and real work experience and over 50% of the candidates they support are female, who more often than not have taken career breaks due to childcare considerations. Katherine Phillips, Chief Transformation Officer of ABL Group believes…


A large proportion of candidates attempting to return to work are women, the majority of whom took a career break for childcare reasons. This reality is at the heart of why women continue to be a minority of the global engineering workforce, with even fewer in senior positions. It is really important to us at OWC to be a part of helping women back into work, and to find an environment where their unique technical skills can flourish.”


The R5 Skills Development Plan must identify skills gaps and shortages and provides another opportunity to include components for women STEM returners. Identifying how best to incorporate their skills into the workforce, with respect to the challenges female returners face, could avoid the issue of occupational downgrading and enable more women to take up senior positions. And having women in senior STEM positions is essential - they act as role models for the next generation and where they are also balancing family life, demonstrate it isn’t a case of either/or. The NEETs Plan and Community Impact Plan could also be used to deliver STEM outreach and enable female returners within the local communities to engage in the offshore wind sector. One of my colleagues Fran Pitkin, Principal Engineering Project Manager at OWC is living proof that STEM outreach works…


It was a visit by a WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) activity bus when I was in primary school that first got me interested in engineering as a career. STEM outreach is so important because it gives the message to young women and girls that science and engineering IS available to them. It is far from being “just a man’s career”. I work with so many talented women in engineering and it’s so important that we keep encouraging diversity in the workplace so that new ideas, knowledge, skills and attributes are brought to our teams and projects. It is really important that this messaging to young women and girls starts at a young age so that they can make their school subject choices in an informed way, which will help them on their way to a successful engineering career”.


Conclusion


With the social value piece intrinsic to R5, the requirements provide a unique opportunity to bridge the gender gap in the offshore wind workforce, welcome women STEM returners into the sector and enable a generational shift towards more women in offshore wind. R5 is not a STEM or returners initiative so it will be on us, the consultants advising project teams, the developers, but also The Crown Estate and bodies like RUK, to realise the full potential of this opportunity and use it as a catalyst to promote diversity, inclusion and start breaking down gender bias and outdated perceptions.


Ends


Lara Lawrie is based in West Wales and has over 15 years’ experience specialising in offshore wind, marine energy and major infrastructure project development, EIA and permitting including Erebus, a 100 MW floating offshore wind T&D project in the Celtic Sea. Lara joined OWC as the Director of Environment and Consents to develop additional environmental capabilities, supporting OWCs specialist engineering, consultancy and advisory services to the renewable and offshore wind sector.

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