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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Women in the scientific, engineering and technology sectors

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Meg recently spoke at a meeting organised by the Prospect trade union, her contribution follows.

I want to thank Prospect for the opportunity to be here and discuss a topic I feel passionately about the lack of women in the scientific, engineering and technology sectors. 

My interest in helping to improve the numbers of women in science, engineering, and technology springs not from my own background, but from a desire to achieve gender equality in these important fields.

Allied is the conviction that Britain can only succeed if we nurture and encourage the talent all our young people have, and ensure they are able to be the best they can be.

But first identify the problem

We know that the sectors of the economy which need STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates suffer serious skills shortages and that 43% of employers have difficulty recruiting staff with these skills. Recently James Dyson said that the biggest barrier to growth is the shortage of engineers in Britain.  He wants 2000 if he can get them but says he will be lucky to get 300.

When I was Minister for Women and Equality I was staggered to learn that 70% of female graduates in STEM do not work in those fields, and many who start don’t stay.  In 2010 100,000 female STEM graduates were either unemployed or economically inactive. Only 6% of professional engineers are women - only 2% of engineering apprentices.

The 1993 White Paper Realising our Potential outlined the under-representation of women in STEM subjects. It recognised that these sectors were vital for economic growth, and that women are the single biggest undervalued and under-used human resource.

Further reports made recommendations for change - work experience days for Y 11 girls - 40% membership on SET related boards - centralising sources of advice - the introduction of carer-friendly working practices gender balanced targets. Some activity has happened, but the bigger problem remains.

If the jobs are there why is there such a problem getting enough girls interested?

Unconscious bias teaches children what a ‘woman’s job’ and a ‘man’s job’ are. Once set on a particular educational path, chosen by the stereotypes all around, it can be hard to change to a new set of subjects. 

How can you dream of being an engineer if you don’t know what one is?”  If you have never seen, never heard about, a women inventing something, fixing something, will girls dream about doing that job when older? 

With few qualified women working in the science, technology and engineering fields the role models for young women are rare and often unsung.

So how do we get girls interested?

Pros­pect’s own survey found that 35% of woman had been inspired by a teacher or educational opportunity, and 25% cited their main motivation as enjoyment of their subject. More girls are studying STEM subjects, and they are also, generally, getting better grades - as confirmed by this year’s GCSE results.

But we need more schools engaged with employers to ensure girls get work experience where they can see the range of jobs available - to move away from stereotypes, to stop seeing them as “men’s work”. Some businesses are keen to do this, but 25% of science, technology and engineering companies who participate saw no benefit.  We need to change that.  

The STEM NET Ambassadors programme works with employers to create effective links with education.  There are 25,000 ambassadors, around 90% of UK secondary schools have accessed the programme, and 40% of the ambassadors are female.  The initiative has been successful and it needs to be encouraged and supported.  

Universities must play a part. In Sheffield we have a new University Technical College with an ambitious aim of 50% female admissions in its first year. They have not hit that but they will keep the aim. Sheffield Hallam University are putting on girl’s days for schools featuring female role models from industry, giving the girls the chance to meet eco-engineers and forensic scientists. 

We need inspiring role models; in Sheffield we have Ruth Amos. She designed a product called ‘StairSteady’ as part of her GCSE Resistant Materials Course, now in her early twenties she runs her own company. Ruth won the Young Engineer for Britain 2006.

Is there a retention problem now?

Yes.  In my visits to companies women say they wish they had more female colleagues. Young women in particular can feel so isolated that they leave the profession.

It’s hard to appreciate the scale of sexist remarks and gender bullying that some women experience. Everyday sexism that remains unchallenged by colleagues and managers, coupled with the lack of family friendly policies. Women just leave, particularly in a highly skilled and competitive environment where women are so under-represented. 

How do we ensure we retain young woman in SET?

Adopting measures put in place in other industries, often driven by Trade Unions. These are not rocket science - career breaks; flexible working policies; work-life balance; and childcare. Business leaders must look at recruitment practices; terms and conditions; and the culture of their organisation.  Is it inclusive, welcoming, open, and engaging or is it closed, exclusive and hierarchical?

Cathy Travers, a senior engineer at Mott McDonalds in Sheffield, told me that when her children were young she did term time working to balance her family life and career. Mott McDonalds were rewarded with loy­alty, and retained a talented and experienced employee.

The Prospect survey found that the engineering population demographics are skewed but many men were due to retire in the next few years.  That is an opportunity we must seize and one we have to get employers to recognise.

My contribution

Two years ago I edited a collection of essays exploring what is holding girls and women back, and what we should do about it. Sue Ferns from Prospect contributed an important chapter about the experience of women at work in these sectors.

I didn’t want the publication to just lie on the shelf, be read by researchers and academics. I wanted to use it to persuade more people about the issues and change things. 

In my home city, Sheffield, I have been meeting a series of business and education leaders, to discuss, educate, jolly along. Amongst these have been two world beating engineering companies who do see the value of having girls and women involved, but so far have not managed to successfully recruit women engineers. A strategy group is now working in Sheffield to promote that understanding and put ideas into action.

In conclusion

I want us to move the environment in the science, technology and engineering sectors toward one which welcomes women.  No single agency can resolve the range of economic, institutional, organi­sational and cultural challenges that ex­ist.  However if a number of us work together we can change the situation, we can help create an environment where all our young people can realise their potential, and ensure Britain leads the world in great discoveries and technological improvements.

Unlocking potential perspectives on women in science, engineering and technology -:


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