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New report shows industry how to get more women into science, engineering and technology jobs


Today, on International Women’s Day (8 March 2004), a new report, explaining how the UK can stop the female brain-drain in science, engineering and technology (SET), is published by the Institute of Physics and the Daphne Jackson Trust.

Are equations and electric circuits really too much for women to cope with, or is there another reason why there are so few women with careers in science, engineering and technology? Do we have a problem in the system, which excludes almost 50 per cent of the population from these professions? The report, ’The 3Rs: Recruitment, Retention and Returning’ makes practical recommendations that will help reverse current trends.

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This report stems from a debate held in September 2003 with panellists prominent in science based industry, academia and politics from the UK, Europe and the USA. It targets SET businesses and industries who could and should be making their work environments more flexible and ’gender neutral’ to suit modern society. The report gives four key recommendations.
  1. Hard facts get results: gender data from UK industry are needed to provoke industry into addressing imbalance in the system.

  2. Industry and business leaders – men as well as women – need to be committed to developing measures to tackle gender imbalances for action to be effective.

  3. Plugging the leaky pipeline: action is needed at all points where people can opt in or out of science, engineering and technology careers.

  4. Children should know more about the range of science and technology based careers, so that they do not rule them out unknowingly.

The Institute of Physics and the Daphne Jackson Trust want these points to be taken on board by the Government and industry. It is not only the women who are losing out, but industry as well – when fully trained women leave the sector early in their careers their expertise is wasted. It currently costs £51,000 (see note 5) to put a physics student through a three year postgraduate degree, but if they do not stay in the sector, the investment does not pay off.

Julia King, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, said:

"The Institute of Physics recognises the difficulties facing women in physics and related careers, and we are doing our best to change attitudes and to create a better working environment for all physicists, both female and male. Science and engineering-based companies need to look at their own situations, as they are losing out on highly capable women who feel that this sector cannot fulfil their needs. Industry has the power to make a difference."

The fourth recommendation stresses that children need better careers advice, as they do not realise what can be on offer to them if they study the physical sciences. For example, the current editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, Lindsay Nicholson, is an astrophysics graduate and a successful journalist. She feels that her astrophysics degree was the ideal way to start off her career. She said: "I don’t know why girls allow themselves to be herded into arts subjects. You can enjoy reading books, going to galleries and the theatre whatever subjects you studied at school or college. But if you don’t have a good grounding in maths and science so many of the wonders of the physical world - indeed the universe - will remain closed to you. What’s more, the training you get in how to think rigorously imparts a degree of confidence that stays with you all your life. Much of my success has been because I am able to express thoughts and ideas with far greater clarity than my arts-trained colleagues."

The Recommendations:

1. Hard facts get results: gender data from UK industry needs to be made available and visible so any inequalities in the system can be addressed. (See the ’Hard facts get results’ section of the report.)

Currently in the UK, there are no regulations requiring businesses to collect and publish data about gender, even though the Greenfield report (see note 4) recommended this. Collecting and publishing data separated according to gender is the key to assessing whether processes or environments in businesses are working against women, and the first step on the way to getting more women to stay in SET. Such data can be used as an effective tool to kick-start changes.

"[Data] will produce more change, particularly in rewards for women working in industry, than anything else I can think of," said panellist Sir Peter Williams, chairman of the Engineering and Technology Board (ETB). A study carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is described in the ’Hard facts get results’ section of the report, is proof that this approach works.

"A starting point should be the inclusion of gender and diversity measures on the R&D scoreboard," commented panellist Gill Samuels, senior director of science policy and scientific affairs at Pfizer, "as this would give industry a real reward for tackling this problem."

2. Industry and business leaders need to be involved in developing measures to tackle gender imbalances to make them effective. (See ’Targeted investment’ section)

Senior figures in industry, who are mostly male, are the people with the power to make women-friendly initiatives work. They should not just support but start measures to encourage more women to stay in industry, otherwise the measures will not be successfully realised.

"This isn’t just something for women, I would like to see a fairer system for all. Flexible working policies are possible and do make a difference, but you’ve got to have the will to do it from the highest level," said Gill Samuels, who has had experience of initiatives at Pfizer.

3. Plugging the leaky pipeline: action is needed at all points where people can opt in or out of SET careers. (See the ’Back to the chalk face’ and ’Flexibility rewards investment’ sections, and the case studies of Joanna Haigh and Margaret Rayman.)

As well as a small number of women choosing careers in SET in the first place, a high proportion of women leave careers in SET at every stage. ’Plugging the leaky pipeline’ is important not only to enable women to continue with their careers without constraints, it would also have huge economic benefits. What is the point of encouraging women to start working in SET if the workplace is so inflexible it causes them to leave after they have been trained?

"People in whom there has been huge investment of training and resources to get them through eight years of training are then opting out and leaving. This is a national waste of resources," said panellist Professor Frances Bagenal, professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

4. Children should know what kind of career options they have in SET, so that they do not rule them out unknowingly. (See ’Back to the chalk face’ section.)

Children start forming opinions about jobs from an early age and if they do not know any scientists or engineers it is easy for them to dismiss a SET career out of hand. It is not always obvious how many career paths are open to physical sciences graduates and parents’ misconceptions and stereotypes can also have a negative influence on children’s career choices.

"More than 50 per cent of female school leavers [in the EU] have the potential to start degree courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and engineering, but universities are losing a lot of these candidates." said Dr Helga Ebeling, an expert at the Women and Science Unit of the European Commission.

If industry takes action on these recommendations there will be great benefits for both women wanting careers in SET, and for the SET sector itself becoming more efficient. On International Women’s Day, the Institute of Physics and the Daphne Jackson Trust hope that businesses will open their eyes to the needs of the other half of the UK population.

Michelle Cain | alfa
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