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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Wasted time, investment and talent

Monday, September 10, 2012

Meg Munn MP was invited to be a keynotes speaker at the National HE STEM Programme Conference at Birmingham University. Her speech is below.

 

Thank you for inviting me to take part in this important conference.

 

I’m not a scientist, mathematician or engineer. I’ve been at times a linguist, a social worker and now politician. I have however always had a love of statistics and it was when I was Minister for Women and Equality that I was staggered to learn that 70% of women with qualifications in science, engineering and technology do not work in these fields. It was not hard to realise about the huge amount of wasted time, investment and talent. This sparked my further interest and I learnt a great deal about the issue, coming to understand that too few girls go into these areas in the first place, too few women stay in them and yet our country suffers from a shortage of these very skills.

 

Last year I edited Unlocking Potential: perspectives on women in Science, Engineering & Technology, a collection of essays exploring what is holding girls and women back and what we should do about it.  I was fortunate that the Institution of Engineering & Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Physics supported its publication. It was published by the Smith Institute and available online.

I didn’t want the pamphlet to lie on the shelf. I wanted to use it to persuade more people to understand the issues and do something about it. As a Sheffield MP I have been meeting various business and education leaders, indeed I recently visited two first class engineering companies in South Yorkshire. They see the value of having girls and women involved but so far have not managed to successfully recruit women engineers. I’m sure you are all aware that we have two excellent universities in Sheffield, both of whom are represented here today. Working with them and others we have set ourselves the goal of making South Yorkshire a first choice for women and girls who want to study STEM subjects and work in these professions.

 

Why is this issue important?

Just why is this issue important, not only to me and you, but to the UK as a whole.

Many sectors in the British economy which need science, technology, engineering and maths graduates suffer with serious skills shortages. They struggle to recruit qualified staff yet the skills and talent of qualified women lie unused.  

 

In 2008, there were 620,000 female graduates of science, technology, engineering and mathematics of working age, but only 185,000 were employed in relevant occupations. In 2010 nearly 100,000 female graduates in those disciplines were either unemployed or economically inactive. Who can know the innovations that remain undiscovered, the improvements in manufacturing that could produce better for less? This situation threatens the country’s chance of keeping pace with the rapidly growing leading-edge economies of the world.

 

The business case for valuing better trained women seems obvious to me. Adopting some of the measures put in place in other industries, and found to be successful, would be a start such as flexible working, better managed career breaks for maternity leave for instance.

 

We also know that not enough girls consider careers in these areas with the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s skill survey in 2012 finding that only 6% of professional engineers are women and shockingly only 2% of engineering apprentices are female.

 

So beyond the measures taken by other professions, there needs to be a good look at a culture that in the main doesn’t encourage girls and women.

 

Sometimes a more straightforward approach can be successful. My most memorable example of this was shared at an event in Sheffield by a local engineering company who described how when taking on a new female apprentice they pondered what to do about the lack of shower facilities for her. A discussion ensued with the new recruit and an agreement was reached that her first task would be to build her own shower. Problem solved.

 

Government

It is in Parliament as well as in companies where positive change has to happen. Since the 1993 White Paper Realising our Potential the under-representation of women in STEM has been identified by successive governments as an important economic and social issue. It demonstrated the importance of these sectors for the UK’s economic growth, and recognised that women are the single biggest undervalued and under-used human resource.

 

Reports in 1994 and early 2000 made a number of recommendations regarding women in SET. These included work experience days for 15 16 year old girls and achieving 40% membership on SET related advisory bodies and boards by 2005. Later recommendations from the Roberts Review in 2001 and the 2002 Greenfield Report made recommendations that included centralising the sources of advice for women; encouraging the introduction of carer-friendly working practices, and gender balance targets for certain organisations.

 

In response to the Greenfield report, the previous government published A strategy for women in science, engineering and technology in 2003, which took forward many of the recommendations. The wider equality agenda also had many important implications for women in SET. 2004 saw the publication of a research report on how to retain women in the IT industry, by the then Department for Trade and Industry.

 

That year also saw the establishment of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC). They have been working with employers, professional bodies and education institutions to promote gender equality by promoting role models of women scientists and supporting the removal of organisational barriers to the employment and retention of women. Tackling what is known as “unconscious bias” has been a key aspect of their work.

 

The UKRC had a successful 7 years developing programmes to work with schools, academia and industry. Unfortunately the present government chose to phase out all its funding. This was extraordinarily short sighted. The expertise that had been built up by the UKRC should not be wasted. They are continuing as much of their vital work as possible but without the support of Government.

 

On a more positive note, at the end of 2011, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills asked the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to jointly lead a programme to tackle the issue of diversity in STEM. They intend to set-up and run three to five pilot projects to raise the diversity of engineers.

 

Despite various other commitments and initiatives, the allocation made to the Royal Academy of Engineering for the new Diversity in Engineering Programme is just 200,000 a year, less than 10% of the 2.5 million previously allocated to the UKRC and a tiny proportion of the whole science budget.

 

I believe it is time for a thorough review of spending to identify where greater emphasis could be given to ensuring women both enter and remain in SET. It is still far from clear that the importance of this issue has been grasped. We are a long way from where we should be.

 

Can girls dream?

There is a very important question within the Unlocking Potential publication which gets to the heart of what we are discussing today - “How can you dream of being an engineer if you don’t know what one is?” If you have never seen, never heard, a women inventing something, fixing something, will girls dream about doing that job when older?

 

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 change and complete a new set of appropriate subjects. Schools need to address these structural issues about future careers. I have been struck by the number of women in engineering whose fathers were engineers. So while women role models are important, men who tell girls they can do these jobs and show them how are also important.

 

Schools also have to work better with local companies in arranging work experience sessions for pupils in order that young people can see for themselves the wide range of jobs in science and engineering. Some businesses are keen to pursue this option if only schools could see the value for their pupils. Worryingly the IET survey found 25% of companies that engage with schools saw no benefit.

 

One positive sign is that more girls are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses they are also getting better grades as confirmed by this year’s GCSE results. Although more boys overall chose STEM subjects, 1,207.400 boys compared to 1,155.100 girls the % of females achieving grades A C* is 3.3% higher than the boys.

The increase in numbers of girls taking mathematics, further mathematics, technology subjects, physics, and science subjects at “A” level has been proportionately greater than that for boys.

This level of success is good but where are these bright young girls going? More young women are studying STEM courses, but female graduates are not heading towards employment in these areas. Less than 30% of all female STEM graduates, in comparison to half of all male graduates, are working in these occupations. Many of these skilled women work in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, and the economy operates below its potential.

 

In my recent visits to local engineering and technology companies I spoke to young women who worked there. While they were content in their work places they all said that they wished they had more female colleagues with one games designer identifying the lack of female support as being a key issue for her in the work place.

 

Workplace Culture

 Encouraging girls and young women to work in these areas is good, but it will be wasted if the culture in the workplace doesn’t change. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of sexist remarks and outright bullying that some women experience at work. Or how they can feel so isolated they leave the profession for which they have studied and trained.

 

Unfortunately, such sexist remarks often remain unchallenged by colleagues and managers alike. The following quotes are from an online consultation carried out by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, in 1999.

 

“Large companies should have no problem in providing these [family friendly] conditions. Unfortunately, when I have mentioned this to my employer in the past, my personnel department’s response is that ‘this is not a big problem because they don’t have many women engineers!’”

 

A more recent survey by the trade union Prospect in 2010 heard from a range of women who used words like intimidating and draining. One said “I’d like to get out of SET as soon as possible. It feels like being trapped in a dead end.”

 

Role Models

Increasing the part played by role models cannot be underestimated when there is little understanding of what engineers do either amongst girls or boys. During a recent meeting with a local education coordinator for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, I was told that when many young people are asked “Who is the most famous engineer you’ve heard of?” most said “Kevin Webster from Coronation Street!”

 

One way of enticing more young women into engineering is to listen to the enthusiasm of the young women who contributed in my pamphlet. Dr. Liz Ainsbury wrote of the importance of the support of teachers, lecturers and the Institute of Physics. I was struck by their desire to take on a challenging career that could give job satisfaction and their enthusiasm for their work. They are the very people we need to be role models and spread greater understanding about just what engineering is.

 

Manufacturing for the Future

We are beginning to hear a greater focus on manufacturing. In Sheffield we are very proud not only of our history in engineering, but also the more recent University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) which was jointly founded with Boeing. This partnership between industry and academia it is at the forefront of developing new ways of manufacturing and the Advanced Manufacturing Centre is working with businesses, from global aerospace giants to local SMEs. We also have newer industries to be proud of with a thriving digital sector including many computer games makers.

 

Furthermore, we have a new University Technical College due to open in 2013. It is going to work with Sheffield Hallam University and others on how to attract more girls to their courses. I’m challenging companies to have women comprise 50% of their apprentices, and I’m pleased that a target of 50% female admissions has been set for the new University Technical College.

 

Working with many others I want to see change in South Yorkshire. We want South Yorkshire to be the first choice for women scientists, engineers and technologists but there’s nothing stopping anyone else saying ‘they’re not as far ahead as we are let’s make our area first choice’. A bit of competition is after all no bad thing. To be honest I don’t care who’s first, I just want us to be able to say we got there; that SET careers are more attractive to young women and girls wherever they live, and that more women stay in SET professions, that some go on to make the next great discovery or next technological improvement which benefits us all.

 

Conclusion

Despite the reams of research, the good work of all the professional bodies, the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology and initiatives like the Big Bang Fair, we still fail to attract and retain girls and women.

 

The figures for women in science, engineering and technology careers remain stubbornly low, the skills shortage is well known, and the importance of these disciplines to our future economic growth is uncontested. Nothing less than a concerted, determined and persistent approach by all will be sufficient to achieve the transformation that is required.

 

Unlocking Potential: perspectives on women in Science, Engineering & Technology can be read at: http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/file/Women%20in%20SET.pdf

 

For details about the National HE STEM Programme visit: http://www.hestem.ac.uk/conference


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