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Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend on this debate, as I have been involved in this matter for some time as a boss in a university department where more than half of the students were female, but where we had only one female member of faculty. It took some brutishness on my part and that of others to increase the number of women, but we managed to get it up to five after much resistance.

Recently, I went to the United States on a Science and Technology Committee visit with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), to find out how practices in science were progressing. Somehow, I had expected more of the United States. Sadly, the situation is just as bad there. The US Congress has now set up a commission, which will legislate to improve matters for women. The battle continues throughout the world and its time has certainly come.

Dr. Starkey: My hon. Friend confirms that the problem is extremely complex and that no country has yet managed to crack it.

Furthermore, all the figures I have quoted so far on the percentage of women applying for research funding and on their success rates relate only to that part of the Government science budget that is channelled through the research councils. However, that is only just over a fifth of Government spending on research and development. About £1.3 billion is allocated annually through the research councils and just over £1 billion by the Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Wales and Scotland to finance university infrastructure, but more than £3.5 billion or 63 per cent. of the Government's total science budget, is spent by other Departments including the Ministry of Defence, the rest of the Department of Trade and Industry--apart from the Office of Science and Technology--the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for International Development. All those Departments award research funding by competitive tender, yet when I asked them in written questions to tell me the percentage of women among the researchers that they funded, they were unable to do so because they do not collect the data.

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If the Government are serious in their commitment to ensure that they do not discriminate against women researchers--I believe that they are--they need tomonitor all their science spending for equal opportunities, not merely the money within the OST budget. I hope that the Minister will be able to take up that point with his colleagues in the other Ministries and urge them to monitor gender balance in the same way as the OST.

I shall end with an allusion to my constituency. Last week, I visited a school on an estate in Milton Keynes where all the streets are named after famous engineers. It is called Energy Village and has many energy-efficient homes. When the head teacher was first appointed to the school, which is new, he noticed that the street names all commemorated famous male engineers. Therefore, he chose to name the school after Caroline Haslett, who was born in 1895 and became the first secretary of the Women's Engineering Society and the director of the Electrical Association for Women. Through the association, Caroline Haslett encouraged the use of electrical power in the home, believing that electricity was the real emancipator of women.

I applaud the efforts of that head teacher in choosing Caroline Haslett's name for his school to give a positive message to his pupils--girls and boys alike--that engineering is not the sole preserve of one sex. However, unless the reality of the barriers to women's progression in science are removed, girls will continue to choose more congenial career options and British industry will continue to be held back by a shortage of engineers and scientists. Making science and engineering more woman-friendly is not merely an issue for women, but one which we have to get right if we are to capitalise as a country on the opportunities of the new technologies.

1.47 pm

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) for raising this subject, as well as all hon. Members who have stayed to take part or to listen. My hon. Friend speaks with more authority than most of us on these matters. We often ask for role models for women in science and she said, almost apologetically, that she had a former life as a scientist to which she might not return. As a scientist in here, her scientific training shines through in the quality of her contribution and long may she contribute to this House precisely on those terms.

I am tempted to be brief and to say, "Yes, I applaud and agree with every word my hon. Friend has said", and that the Government will take forward her proposals in a practical and direct way. I am grateful to her for her comments.

We must not continue to risk wasting the talents of more than half the population. If we do not allow women's talents to be fully developed, we shall jeopardise our future. There is an international problem, but we have much to do. Women are significantly under-represented in almost every area of research and employment in science, engineering and technology. In those areas, women work disproportionately in junior positions. There is little room at the top for women in science, and that must change. More practical action is required to increase participation.

Since we came into office, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade--a scientist herself--has actively pursued equality of opportunity and has

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attempted to increase the participation of women in science, engineering and technology, not least through the Department of Trade and Industry's development unit on the subject. She has also worked closely with bodies including the Engineering Council, which is making great efforts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said that there are complex reasons for lack of participation. I was encouraged to read an article in The Independent by Susan Greenfield, the professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford. She wrote:


There are complex reasons for the lack of participation, and we must tackle them.

The problem starts at an early age. Not enough young women are attracted into science, engineering and technology, particularly the physical sciences such as engineering, physics and information technology. If we are to change that, we must understand why girls tend to opt out of such subjects. We must explore that with the Department for Education and Employment.

Even when women choose science subjects at school and go on to higher education and research or careers in industry, further factors inhibit their progression, as my hon. Friend has said. Having chosen a career, women face barriers to progression; that, contrary to popular opinion, is true even of the biological sciences and medicine. My hon. Friend put it well when she said that we need to focus attention not only on women getting into science, but on women getting on in science. Many barriers are associated with the balance of work and home life, and those need to be addressed.

One disincentive to continuing an academic research career in the United Kingdom is the possibility of a fixed-term contract. Although that might bring advantages of flexibility for funders of research and employers, it can, if badly managed, put women off.

The development unit in my Department works with other Departments in trying to attract more girls towards science subjects and to encourage women into higher education. It considers means to improve women's career progression up the academic ladder. The campaign for Women in Science and Engineering--WISE--began in 1984 when only 7 per cent. of engineering graduates were women. That figure improved a little--to 14 per cent.--by 1998, but it remains far too low. The Engineering Council, the Women's Engineering Society, women in computing, physics, medicine and neurosciences and the European Union's women in technology group are all dedicated to increasing the participation of women.

WISE recently asked for funding for 1998-99 for an outlook project to provide an opportunity for girls aged 13 and 14 to obtain practical experience of engineering on a three-day programme at a further education college, including a visit to a company. That would be a sort of engineering workshop, and the DTI is providing£35,000 to allow 1,750 girls from 70 schools to

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participate. That is a small step, but we can build on it. The development unit's booklet, "X 2 --the mystery of vanishing girls", was aimed at girls aged 13 and 14. A series of posters was published in September. Videos and websites are among small, practical ideas aimed at secondary schools as we try to use every means to ensure increased participation.

My hon. Friend raised important points about the difficulties women face as they try to progress in their careers in science once they reach the research stage, especially if it is academic research. She mentioned the Swedish study. Its findings were welcome, and we have taken prompt action to examine our research council's review system. We examined success rates for grants and fellowships for all research councils. A much larger exercise than the Swedish study examined the outcome of 114 applications, and we are trying to make sure that success rates for grants and fellowships are monitored annually so that we can keep a grip on the analysis.

My hon. Friend referred to our study's finding of no apparent difference in success rates for men and women. Although that is welcome, especially in view of the concern generated by the Swedish study, we cannot be complacent. We must recognise that our study is not necessarily the whole picture. We will go a step further by examining whether there are underlying gender differences in the proportion of potentially qualified candidates who apply for grants and fellowships--a study that should help us to begin to address seriously my hon. Friend's concerns. We need to get down to the level of examining competence, and to find out why such a small proportion of academically qualified women apply for fellowships. I assure my hon. Friend that the work that she has requested today will be undertaken. I am grateful for her exploration of gaps in the preliminary research.

It is important to develop policies for family-friendly employment. We can co-ordinate Government policies on employment and social security to fit in with that, and we must identify examples of good practice so that we can focus the employers' attention on ensuring that opportunities exist.


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