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Making South Yorkshire the first choice for women scientists, engineers and technologists?

Monday, May 14, 2012

The following article was published in the April issue of first for business the magazine for the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The sectors in the economy requiring science, engineering and technology (SET) graduates are affected with serious skills shortages, with reports from many businesses that they struggle to recruit qualified staff.  Yet more than 70% of female science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates don’t end up working in their chosen field.


The underrepresentation of women in these areas is a well-recognised and long-standing issue. In 1993, the White Paper ‘Realising our potential’ demonstrated the importance of these professions for the UK’s economic growth, and recognised women as the single biggest undervalued and under-used resource. In 1994, ‘The Rising Tide report’ documented the loss of women in SET at every stage.


Ten years later a DTI report on retaining women in IT found that women in their mid-40s were leaving the sector at one of the most productive points in their careers. The main reasons given were poor work-life balance and a culture that did not value the skills of coaching and team working. Between 2002 and 2008 there was an overall reduction in women working in science, engineering and technology.


The outflow of skilled women from these professions means we are wasting a huge amount of talent. The country loses the resources used to train them, the women lose by not being able to utilise the skills they have developed. Overall who can know the innovations that remain undiscovered or the improvements in manufacturing that could produce better for less?


The situation threatens the UK’s chance of keeping pace with the rapidly growing leading-edge economies of the world. It is precisely in these areas that we need to develop and grow if the UK is to remain one of the world’s top economies.


We still have a situation where too often these professions are portrayed with men only in mind; they are not ‘what women do’. Issues, such as sexist remarks aimed at young women starting out in the workplace, remain unchallenged by colleagues and managers alike. School children hold perceptions that need to be changed - I was sad to learn that when Sheffield pupils are asked ‘Who is the most famous engineer you’ve heard of?’ most say ‘Kevin from Coronation Street’ the car mechanic.


There are many issues at the root of this problem, some deep-seated and part of ingrained cultures. Some affect boys too, with science, engineering and technology failing to attract sufficient interest across both genders. Whilst steady progress has been made in increasing the numbers of young women studying these subjects, we have a way to go before we reach the point where the majority of female graduates stay and work in these professions.


South Yorkshire has a proud engineering and manufacturing heritage, world-class universities with a new University Technical College on the way. It is in a good position to tackle this issue which holds back our local economy.


I am calling on education and business leaders to work together to make South Yorkshire the first choice for female scientists, engineers and technologists. I’d like to see our local businesses and industry recruit 50% female apprentices in the future, with the new University Technical College aiming for 50% female admissions. Women are part of the skills solution.


Work to achieve this ambition is already happening. The University of Sheffield have already put the ambition in their strategy, and the new University Technical College is examining how it can attract more girls to their courses when they open next year. Sheffield Hallam University is working to achieve change, and many businesses are already co-operating closely with our local universities, schools and colleges.


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