Commons Select Committee’s ‘Women in Scientific Careers’ Report

As I mentioned in my first blog post on this topic,  I have been looking into what the current situation/problem is with girls and STEM subjects and the methods that can be adopted to address the issues identified from a policy perspective, within schools and at home (and the community).

On 6th February The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (what is a select committee?) produced a ‘Women in Scientific Careers‘ report. The focus is on  academia, particularly undergraduates and in my opinion by then it is too late. Although, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, if there are more female role models within the STEM field i.e. women STEM professors this can indirectly inspire young girls to take up STEM subjects in school and go some way to dismantling stereotypes dismantle stereotyping. The Report is pretty lengthy and complex so below is my attempt make sense of it all, parts I found interesting and opinions.

The current problems:

->Despite many attempts to improve the under-representation of women STEM fields in the UK, only 17 per cent of STEM professors are women.

->The efforts made by the coalition Government are mostly focused on “encouraging girls to study STEM, with little focus on enabling them to stay and progress in STEM careers.”

->The Government department, Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) spending allocated to improving diversity in STEM was virtually halved in the 2010 Spending Review.

And why should we care about the under-representation of 50% of the UK population?  To coin the famous phrase by James Carville when he advised Bill Clinton in the 1992 U.S. Presidential election campaign… “It’s the economy, stupid”.

The UK economy needs more STEM workers, it is estimated that around 820,000 science, engineering and technology (SET) professionals will be required by 2020[1]. This demand cannot be met without increasing the number of women in STEM. The Society of Biology stated that “increasing women’s participation in the UK labour market could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion [1.3 – 2.0 per cent of GDP], with STEM accounting for at least £2 billion of this”[2]

The Medical Schools Council and Dental Schools Council makes a business case argument for gender diversity, they stated  that because “diversity of knowledge and social capital in teams is vital in production of new ideas”, having a “lack of women may have a significant impact on the robustness of policy decisions and research innovation”.[3]

So why is there a lack of gender diversity in the STEM world?

-> Gender perceptions in STEM Careers  for example, “70% of people around the world associate being a scientist with being a man”[4]

->”…it is the result of perceptions and biases combined with the impracticalities of combining a career with family.”

“Early academic STEM careers are characterised by short term contracts, which are a barrier to job security and continuity of employment rights. This career stage coincides with the time when many women are considering starting families, and because women tend to be primary carers, they are more likely than men to end their STEM career at this stage.”

Here are some of the Select Committee’s recommendations to the coalition Government:

-> that diversity and equality training should be provided to all STEM undergraduate and postgraduate students. It should also be mandatory for all members of recruitment and promotion panels and line managers.

-> the Government to work with the higher education sector to review the academic career structure and increase the number of longer-term positions for post-doctoral researchers. We have found that what benefits women benefits everyone in the STEM workplace.

-> the Government should monitor the effects of its policies on cutting and “mainstreaming” diversity funding.

Athene Donald (@athenedonald) is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and the University’s Gender Equality Champion wrote a fantastic article in the Guardian about the Women in Scientific Career report . I agreed with most of Donald’s insightful critique, particularly this part:

“the final point the Report highlights is what they see as the apparent waste of money and effort being put into attracting girls into science in the first place, since they leave in disproportionately high numbers later. It almost reads as if they feel it would be better if no effort was made because then the loss would be less severe. Of course in that case the numbers would be even worse and I don’t see that as a solution! Currently, girls entering university to study the biological sciences are in a slight majority so certainly little effort is needed there (and nor is it expended). But for a subject like physics we are still stuck with only around 20-25% of the undergraduate population being girls, and even lower numbers in subjects like computing. Whatever happens to them thereafter, if we are ever going to get a suitably diverse skilled workforce in these fields and extending way beyond academia, we need to continue to try to facilitate the entry of girls into these subjects.”

I will continue to post my findings.

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[1] Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2012-13, Educating tomorrow’s engineers: The impact of Government reforms to 14-19 education, HC 665, para 9 

[2]WSC 74 [Society of Biology] para 1

[3]WSC 64 [Medical Schools Council and Dental Schools Council] para 6.2 

[4] WSC13 [Portia Ltd] para 12 

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