Example Program Evaluation: STEM Returners

"It's always helpful to have a concrete example to use as a model. See one, do one."
Isabelle Kingsley
Research Associate | Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador
If you are evaluating your STEM gender equity program—or any program, for that matter—take a look at how STEM Returners (UK branch) evaluated their program. The evaluation findings are integrated into the newly established STEM Returners Australia branch.
The example applies the 5 steps of the National Evaluation Guide for STEM gender equity programs: Define, Plan, Design, Execute and Share.
Download the National Evaluation Guide

It contains practical advice, worksheets and templates to evaluate your program.

5 Steps to evaluate STEM gender equality program infographic

STEM Returners Pilot: Helping STEM professionals return to work after a career break

The STEM Returners project is a program to help employers recruit, develop and retain the best available talent, and to enable highly qualified and experienced STEM professionals to re-start their career.  It aims to redress the gender imbalance within STEM and work with employers to view CV gaps in a different way. Operating within an incredible skills short market, this scheme helps employers to attract STEM-qualified and experienced candidates and gives candidates a supported route back to their career. All of the candidates going through the programme will also have the opportunity to restart their career in a permanent position at the end of the program.

STEM Returners was created as a pilot project in the UK for a small number of engineering companies in 2017. It was started in response to a growing skills gap at the mid-career level and a lack of progress in diversity. The pilot was evaluated, and the findings informed the establishment of an Australian branch of the program in mid-2020.

The image below is a completed Evaluation Planning Tool worksheet for the STEM Women program evaluation (see Appendix A of National Evaluation Guide for a blank version of the worksheet). Use this example as a template for your program evaluation. Each section of the worksheet is explained in greater detail further down. You can also access the evaluation report, The Hidden Workforce: STEM Returners Survey 2020.


There are significant barriers for STEM professionals—women, in particular—who re-enter the workforce after a career break. The key barriers include flawed recruitment practices and conscious and unconscious biases (e.g. the perception of recruiters and hiring managers, that a CV gap equates to a deterioration of skills). This leads to professionals working below their capability or outside of STEM altogether and has long-term implications on the STEM skilled workforce.


There are two main program audiences:

  1. Returners: STEM professionals who want to return to the workforce after a career break. Although women make up almost half of the program participants, the program is not only for women. The program is available for participants of all genders and ages from 16 up to retirement age.
  2. Employers: Recruiters, companies, businesses or organisations who are looking to hire STEM professionals and create a flexible, supported, and inclusive workplace.

The evaluation audience—those who are interested in the evaluation findings—include: STEM Returners staff, participants (member employers and STEM professionals), sponsors and supporters, government, broader STEM sector.


The main aim of the STEM returners program is to achieve parity in representation and pay for female STEM professionals as well as a significant increase in the underrepresented cultural and ethnic groups in STEM (long-term impact). Career-breaks and nonstandard CVs can have a negative effect on a candidate’s employability. STEM Returners aims to show recruiters and hiring managers that gaps and non-standard CVs can be seen as a benefit.

To achieve this, STEM Returners aims to change recruitment methods that tend to exclude or disadvantage returning professionals (short-term outcome) by working with employers and facilitating paid employment placements for them. In the medium-term, the aim is to achieve the following outcomes:

  • Increase the number of mid-senior career STEM professionals
  • Increase the number of women STEM professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds
  • Attract and re-train STEM professionals from other industries
  • Increase understanding of the benefits of diversity and inclusion
  • Raise awareness of the impact of unconscious bias and how to mitigate its effects
  • Promote good practice in inclusive recruitment

Another medium-term outcome is to see supported STEM Returners program as a replacement for direct hire recruitment.


The program consists of a 12-week paid placement aimed at companies who want to make their workforce more inclusive (‘Employers’). The paid placements allow Employers to assess candidates on practical competencies and skills, rather than their employment history.

Once an Employer decides to stage a Returners program and has decided on how many positions they need to fill, the opportunity(ies) opens up to the talent pool of STEM Professionals registered in the program. With the appropriate infrastructure in place to carry out the program, Employers monitor participants’ progress and choose at the end of the program whether to hire candidates on a permanent basis. Services and opportunities are available to the Employers and Returners to support them during the placement.

Some of the inputs for these activities include: STEM Returners staff, mentors and management staff of participating Employers (human resources), placement advertising platform, monitoring infrastructure, training and support services (material resources), funding (financial resources), etc.

Some of the outputs from these activities include: Registered Returners and Employers, workshops and outplacement services, reports and resources, etc.


STEM Returners identified two evaluation priorities to assess during the pilot program:

  1. Establish a baseline of demographic and baseline information about Returners.
    • Indicators: gender, ethnicity, years of experience, career break (reasons and length), education.
  1. Identify barriers to re-entering the STEM sector after a career break by asking those attempting to return, and those who have successfully returned, about their experience.
    • Indicators: self-reported previous experiences with applying for jobs to return to the workforce (e.g. # jobs applied for through standard recruitment, feedback received on applications); perceived barriers to returning to the workforce (e.g. bias).
  1. Evaluate the effectiveness of the program in helping STEM professionals return to work after a career break.
    • Indicators: Percentage of Returners in permanent employment with host Employer; number of Returners returned to an industry; percentage of women and minorities returned to workforce.

These priorities informed the development of a survey to Returners who had participated in the STEM Returners pilot program (posttest). The survey included both closed- and open-ended questions (mixed methods).

Overall, 350 Returners responded to the survey. This involved individuals who were either currently looking to return or had recently been successful in re-joining the industry. Data was also collected from Employers through the monitoring infrastructure.

A report The Hidden Workforce: STEM Returners Survey 2020 communicates the key findings of the evaluation of the STEM Returners Pilot in the UK. It was publicly published on the STEM Returners website and shared with stakeholders, funders and government.

The report outlines the barriers faced by STEM professionals attempting to re-enter the workforce after a career break and the effectiveness of the STEM Returners program in helping them return to work. The findings of the evaluation have informed the establishment of the STEM Returners Australia branch in mid-2020.

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