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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Unlocking Potential: perspectives on women in science, engineering & science

Thursday, June 9, 2011

At the launch in Westminster of a new publication edited by Meg Munn MP entitled Unlocking Potential: perspectives on women in science, engineering & science Meg made the following remarks.


First I wish to thank all the contributors to this report, the Smith Institute and the professional organisations that have sponsored it the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Physics.


I’d also like to thank all those people and organisations who have shared their views and thoughts with me that includes those who have written chapters and those whose ideas helped me to understand the situation better.


I’m sorry that we don’t have a government Minister here. As a former Minister I do understand the demands on a Minister’s diary, but in this case there has been a clear failure by the private office to respond to the invitation in a proper way. The Smith Institute were being told on Monday morning the Minister had not yet decided whether to attend, then later that morning they received a letter dated last week declining the invitation. I fear this reflects their sense that this issue has little importance.


The issue of course is not having women in sufficient numbers working in science, engineering and technology. I’d like to add that we probably do not have enough men working in these fields either! But this session is about the lack of women!


It’s a long standing problem which needs tackling. There are many issues entangled at the root of why this is so, some structural, many deep-seated and embedded in our workplace culture. Some of these issues affect boys too. As I remarked earlier, science, engineering and technology fails to attract sufficient interest across both genders.


We have a workplace culture which leads to around 70% of women with relevant qualifications leaving, not to return. In 2008, there were 620,000 female science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates of working age in the UK, but only 185,000 were employed in SET occupations. In 2010 nearly 100,000 female STEM graduates were either unemployed or economically inactive.


The business case for doing more to ensure women can return after a career break is obvious. After all companies in these fields are not unique, however much they may think they are. Indeed their opinion of their ‘difference’ is probably one of the causes that hampers organisations from changing and making progress.


Accepting that some of the measures put in place in other industries, and found to be successful in retaining women, and attracting back those on a career break, would be a start. It’s no longer rocket science - flexible working, better managed career breaks whether for maternity leave or longer would be a good start.  


Part of the longer term solution is attracting more girls into these professions.  Tackling the vital issue of what working in science, engineering or technology means is crucial here. How can girls, or boys for that matter, dream of being something when you don’t know it exists or what it does?


This must means ensuring that the structural issues are addressed early enough in schools. Children learn early just what a ‘woman’s job’ and a ‘man’s job’ are and make their choices accordingly. Once set on a particular educational path it can be hard to completely change and complete a new set of appropriate subjects.


We should listen to the enthusiasm of the young women who have contributed to the pamphlet. In fact you will be listening to one shortly. I was struck by their desire to take on a challenging career that could give job satisfaction. We would do well to not only learn the lessons of how to appeal to other young women but harness this enthusiasm. They are taking on the job of being role models and spreading greater understanding about just what engineering is.


We are beginning to hear in the media a greater focus on manufacturing. It is precisely in the areas of science, engineering and technology that we need to develop and grow if the UK wants to remain one of the top economies in the world. But at the present time we lose ideas and talent when qualified women scientists, technologists and engineers leave for work in other fields, or are unemployed or economically inactive.


Change is slow. But there are successful initiatives and we need to use them more systematically or they will remain islands of good practice. We have to spread this good practice and find better ways to disseminate it, but the stubborn issue of workplace culture needs new thinking and new ideas. Without changing the culture the fundamental problems will persist and we will continue to squander the talents of half the population.


The cut to the budget of the UK Resource Centre (UKRC) was as devastating as it was unexpected. It was also extraordinarily short sighted. The expertise that had been built up by the UKRC is in my view something that we should not be wasting.


While the government has made a small grant to the Royal Academy of Engineering to take on some of the work, much will remain undone. The technology area is not getting any funding to help with the government’s professed aim of mainstreaming. This may be because unlike the engineering field with its wealth of 37 Institutes, (which brings problems of its own); there is no similar organisation for technology.


Increasing the number of women working in the science, engineering and technology professions has to be seen as a central issue in policy terms, not just an add-on. This government’s policy remains unclear. I do not see the leadership on science, engineering and technology, there appears to be no strategy.


I have written to David Willets, Minister for Universities and Science, asking that an independent high level commission be established to address this issue. Back in 2004 the then Labour government brought together experts from business, trade unions and the public sector to make recommendations on closing the gender pay gap. This issue is no less important. Without sufficient scientists, engineers and technologists the UK economy will be held back and women will miss out on the opportunities for stimulating and fulfilling careers.


This pamphlet was never intended to be a comprehensive analysis or to identify all the problems, all the solutions. I hope that we can have a lively debate and particularly address the issue of What Next? I would like to hear how we can put this issue firmly on the agenda for government, business and the professions.


Thank you.


Unlocking Potential: perspectives on women in science, engineering & science is available to read at: http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/file/Women%20in%20SET.pdf



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