Too few women in science engineering and technology

Report seeks answers as to why, and explores solutions


Despite considerable effort and a raft of initiatives, progress remains slow  in raising the percentage of women working in science, engineering and technology(SET). In 2008 women accounted for 12.3% of all employees in SET occupations, up from 10.3%  in 2003, but this compares with 45.1% of women in the workforce overall. This set of essays, published by the Smith Institute, seeks to  explore  the reasons why this remains the case.  The Smith Institute is a centre left think tank which sees social Justice and economic efficiency as two sides of the same coin.

Edited by Meg Munn MP, the publication  includes contributions from (interalia) Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, Sue Ferns, Head of Research and Specialist Services at Prospect, Professor Athene Donald, DBE FRS, Director of the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative at Cambridge University and  Chair of the Athena Forum and Dr Deidre Hughes,  Immediate Past President of ICG and Associate Fellow  at Warwick Institute for Employment Research. Dr Hughes topic is ‘A new era for careers – choices and consequences’

The mechanisms for change within business to recruit and retain more women in science enginnering and technology are well known. Flexible working, mentoring, role models, transparency of pay, and structured career paths (with breaks) are consistently proposed. But the prevailing workplace culture  and stereotypical   perceptions among some teachers and  sadly  some careers advisers too, have   meant that women are often reluctant to explore   opportunities in STEM.

Dr Hughes says that ‘Ofsted has recently reported that girls are receiving weak information about careers, making it difficult for them to make informed choices about courses. It highlights that most examples of work placements for young women collected from school records were stereotypical experiences. It also found that most of the schools were not doing enough to promote confidence and ambition in girls or encouraging them to challenge vocational stereotypes. In general, girls aged 11 to 14 had limited knowledge and understanding of how choices about courses and careers influenced pay and progression.’

Hughes is concerned too that on-going Government reforms will do nothing to reduce gender stereotyping. She writes ‘There is great concern that the Coalition’s current education legislation proposes  to remove the secretary of state’s direction-making powers regarding local authority  services in England and to place a duty directly on schools requiring them to secure  access to independent careers advice. Thus pupils would be reliant on the quality of advice secured by individual schools. With fewer young women choosing STEM subjects, and by  not encouraging young women through careers education and guidance interventions,  there could be further gender stereotyping in education, with resultant occupational  segregation in the workplace.’

Hughes concludes ‘Teachers are well placed in local communities but their skills and experience in providing careers support is generally very limited. The demise of the Connexions services  has exacerbated the issue of young people’s access to high-quality and impartial careers  guidance. A lack of ring-fenced funding in educational institutions for careers provision is a major concern. While this period of uncertainty remains, professionals will have to  find a way of managing this. Embedding STEM, labour market information and ICT within  both initial work-based and off-the-job training must be achieved at low cost. However, there is a high cost for individuals, particularly for families and communities and for the national economy, of ill-informed career decisions. Inspiring girls and women to visualise and experience future possibilities in STEM has to be up there as a major priority’.

Unlocking potential –perspectives on women in science, engineering and  technology;Smith Institute 2011



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