Government support for promoting diversity
Stephen Metcalfe MP and Julian Huppert MP chaired sessions on the low level of diversity in science and ways in which this could be improved. Keynote addresses from David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, and Shabana Mahmood, his Shadow Minister, discussed the role of education in influencing diversity in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).
It’s important to promote diversity in science by allowing equal opportunities regardless of gender, race, sexuality or disability. The topic of women in science was high on the day’s agenda: STEM subjects are highly affected by the “leaky pipeline”, a metaphor describing the decreasing number of women at progressive career stages.
“We want the scientific community, just like government, to look like the country it represents”, said David Willetts, who believes that a diverse group of people is often best for tackling problems. Stephen Metcalfe had a similar viewpoint, saying that encouraging diversity in science is “not just the right thing to do, but the essential thing to do”.
Who should tackle the problem?
Professor Alice Brown of the Royal Society of Edinburgh promoted a holistic approach to diversity. She believes that diversity in science is an issue for universities, learned societies and research councils, as well as for the government. Representatives from a range of organisations attended Parliamentary Links Day, and we discussed the roles of education (through schools, universities and the media), employers, and the government.
David Willetts suggested that forcing young people to specialise early (at the age of 16, when choosing subjects for post-GCSE study) contributes to the “leaky pipeline”. He advocates a European-style baccalaureate system in which the breadth of the curriculum is maintained until the age of 18. However, our current university environment requires a high degree of subject-specific knowledge gained through A-level study, so making changes in the school learning system would require an overhaul of university-level teaching. Shabana Mahmood proposes making gender equity a criterion for OFSTED monitoring of schools, but, personally, I didn’t feel that this would really tackle the root of the problem, or that it would be going about it for the right reasons.
Closer to my heart was the point raised by Heather Williams, Director of Science Grrl. Heather discussed the importance of real-life role models for developing an interest in science – in particular, the importance of good relationships between teachers and students. The STEM Ambassador scheme brings people with a passion for STEM subjects to schools, helping to inspire young people and show them what it’s like to be a professional in a STEM subject. The scheme has over 20,000 voluntary Ambassadors across the UK and 40% are female.
A role for the media in influencing career choice was also highlighted: more role models such as female scientists on TV, and scientists breaking the “lab coat” stereotype, could help enthuse young people about the prospect of a scientific career.
Employers can help promote diversity in science in several ways. Work experience is vital for helping young people investigate career options, so increasing the provision of good quality work experience could make a big difference to young people considering science as a career. Various people agreed that women might feel more encouraged to stay in science if it were easier to have a scientific career whilst raising children. Employers could advocate shared parental leave and provide subsidised good-quality childcare, to help parents raise a family without sacrificing career goals.
Amrita Ahluwalia, of the British Pharmacological Society, suggested the use of quotas to help employers address diversity issues in science. This controversial point was opposed by Roma Agrawal, from the engineering company WSP. Roma believes that quotas undermine merit-based recruitment. She advocates mentoring young people through university and job applications, and working to change stereotypes surrounding STEM subjects.
Andrew Miller MP announced the launch of a “Women in STEM Careers” inquiry aiming to investigate the “leaky pipeline”. He strongly encouraged us to contribute to this (and you can do so online until 3rd September).
Hopefully the points raised in our discussions, and the results of this inquiry, will enable the government to make a positive impact on diversity in STEM subjects. Ideally, I’d like to see the government act at many levels, encouraging a range of educational organisations, funding bodies and employers to promote diversity in science. And we’re lucky that our government here in the UK is keen to investigate these issues – as Julian Huppert MP reminded us, the three main political parties all care about science. We are very fortunate that this is the case!