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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Voice of the Future

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The following speech was given by Meg to a gathering held in Parliament on the 28th February. The occasion was a seminar organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry for young scientists.


Can I first welcome you to Parliament.

Despite what you may have heard, MPs are pleased when the public come to visit, to look round the buildings, to see what we’re up to. It’s particularly pleasing when we have such a large group who we can talk to - politicians not generally being noted for being quiet and retiring!

And in that spirit I want to say a few words about the present and future for women in Science, Engineering and Technology, and the report from the Women and Work Commission published yesterday. Now it may be that some of the men present think ‘it doesn’t concern me, it’s all about women’ - they’d be wrong. Their future, our future, depend on encouraging all the talents we have. Compared with China, India, and South America, we are a small country. Unless we use wisely the abilities of all our people we will get left behind - with the implications that has for us all.

Some statistics to set the scene. Since 2002 the number of students taking a Science, Engineering and Technology related GCSE has remained fairly constant.  Within this the proportion of female students has remained at a steady 49%. 

Since 1995, A level entries have also remained fairly constant and the female representation in Science, Engineering and Technology A levels has risen from 52% in 1995 to 54% in 2004.

Since 1997 the number of first degree Science, Engineering and Technology graduates in Britain has risen by 57%.  This is a steeper rise than in non-SET related subjects, which rose by 49%.  In 2004 the proportion of female Science, Engineering and Technology students has risen to 52% from 45% in 1997.  Within Chemistry female graduates are increasing too.  In 1995 women represented 36% of students, a figure which has increased to 47% in 2004.

Women now make up a higher proportion of students across all Science, Engineering and Technology disciplines. However, they still predominantly choose areas of study that will take them into professions where they are directly involved with the health and welfare of people, rather than building, designing, fixing or constructing things.  For example, within Physical Sciences at Higher Education males make up 77% of the total number of students.

The problems arise after graduating. Research suggests that 70% of these qualified women are not working within the Science, Engineering and Technology industry.  These sectors are increasingly reporting a skills shortage - the areas in which women are substantially under-represented. The low numbers of women in all aspects of Science, Engineering and Technology employment suggests that there are barriers to recruitment, retention and progression. 

A poll by the Institute of Physics showed that seven out of 10 physicists who took a career break did so to have children, the vast majority of them women. But while 34% left jobs in industry to start families, only 14% returned to the same posts - and 55% of those who did go back to the same employer went part time. In 2002 Baroness Greenfield was asked to conduct a study to identify the difficulties faced by women in this field.  Her report made various suggestions, one of which was to establish a resource centre to offer guidance and support to both women and business.

With Government funding approaching £7 million, the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET (UKRC) was launched in September 2004 as part of the Government's Strategy to tackle the under representation of women in Science, Engineering and Technology.  The Centre works with business to help increase the opportunities for professional women in SET and close the skills gap that is affecting UK competitiveness. 

When I visited the Centre last year I saw just how closely it works with business and individuals to tackle this problem. The UKRC is doing excellent work and I invite you to explore their website if you have not already done so; it provides an excellent source of guidance. 

On a broader level you may have seen on the news the launch yesterday of the final report from the Women and Work Commission. This is the most comprehensive exploration of the causes of the continuing gender pay gap, the unrepresentative board rooms, common rooms, university courts. It looked at the complexity of all the issues that disadvantage individual women, and act as a break on the economy as a whole.  

Their report identified many areas where work can be done, and has generally received a warm welcome. Part of the reason why the Commission has been successful is it brought together all the key components around the table. This included small and big business, the public sector, trade unions, educationalists and the voluntary sector.

The pay gap starts at school.  The Commission found that from “A” level onwards, girls and boys tend to choose different subjects and this channels them into different jobs with the implications for different rates of pay.   But two-thirds of young women would have considered a wider range of career options had they known of the pay rates they were missing out on.

The Commission highlighted some of the good practice in companies keen to recruit women into science jobs.  They are building a set of ‘good practice’ companies, and I was interested to see that Serco Science is to be one for their programme to encourage girls into science.

Serco Science has traditionally operated closely with a number of schools, but now they will now be taking this a step further.  They will be encouraging women scientists to act as role models for young people considering a career in science. This will be at schools, colleges and at organised science events where they will run demonstrations and give talks.

The Commission also highlighted the need for companies to provide quality part-time work, to ensure that they don’t waste their female talent.    The Commission found that nearly half of women workers with children under five are in jobs that under-utilise their skills.

Probably at some stage in your lives you will find the need to examine your own work-life balance.   The Women and Work Commission outlines a wide range of ideas to ensure both flexible, and part-time work, become embedded into working culture.

The recommendations in the report require a renewed push by both Government and the private sector to make the world of work open up. It can be done; we know many companies abroad already do some of the suggestions in the report. With positive results for the workforce, the individual company and the economy. Enlightened employers in this country have already made huge progress. 

I commend this report to you - I really hope that some of you will take a look at it and ask your employers what they will do to contribute to the ideas it contains.

I hope that you will enjoy your day here, and that it provides you with a lot to think about.

Thank you.

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