Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 131-139)


2 MARCH 2005

  Q131 Chairman: Good morning, Ms Williams. Perhaps you could introduce your colleagues.

  Ms Williams: Jane Butcher, who is the Women Returners Manager for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, and Ros Wall, who is the manager of JIVE Partners, one of the projects we have highlighted in the brief document.

  Q132 Chairman: Thank you very much. I think you have been sitting in, so you have seen the general approach we are taking. We recognise, from what you are saying and what we know already, the paucity of women in senior positions, whether academic or industrial, in the SET sector. It has been noted, however, that women have broken through in medicine and the law, which are also traditionally male-dominated positions. Why is it they have been able to do it there, but science, engineering and technology are areas of technical expertise that still do not seem to be attractive to women? It took 100 years for women to get advanced in medicine. Do you think we are going to have to wait 100 years for that?

  Ms Williams: I do not think we can.

  Ms Wall: I think we are looking at two different perspectives. When you think about the non-traditional areas in which women have not yet achieved—although there some women who do, obviously—we are looking at perhaps the harder end, which has a different image, or we are talking about health and medicine, caring industries. I think times have changed. I think there are much more deep-rooted cultural issues around the construction, engineering and technology areas which need additional attention, but also we do find that in those areas there are still the vertical obstacles for women to rise to the top of the professions in law and medicine as well. That kind of discrimination is still evident in those areas.

  Ms Williams: Even in the sciences where women are well represented, the biological sciences, women are still not reaching the top of those professions—which would be parallel to law and medicine.

  Q133 Chairman: You have described for us in a number of your papers the barriers which exist. Since the 1970s this has been seen as a problem and there has been effort put into it. The barriers still remain. How much success do you think there has actually been? Are we now waking up to the fact that there is a skills gap which men cannot fill and we now have to start using female labour to do it? Instead of just the idea of equality, there is now an issue of clear economic necessity.

  Ms Williams: Yes, I think that is the significant difference between what was happening in the 70s and 80s and what is happening today. I think there is an increase in demand which, from our point of view, is an opportunity really for those of us who have been working on equality issues for a long time. The success of those issues from the 70s, 80s and early 90s has always been limited because of the difficulties that women experience in employment. There has been an increase in the numbers of women in SET—I think the statistic shows there are 18.7% now, whereas 20 years ago there were something like less than 10%, so there has been an increase over that time—and we would hope that some of these initiatives have impacted on that, but I think the most significant difference could occur now through the opportunity that skill shortages could bring.

  Q134 Linda Perham: You note that JIVE Partners is working, amongst other organisations, with two Sector Skills Councils, the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board and Asset Skills. Is that a representative sample or are they the only two taking the occupational segregation aspect seriously?

  Ms Wall: We particularly highlighted those Sector Skills Councils because they are national partners of JIVE Partners. They work in a number of regional hubs through JIVE as well. The staff who work in regions in Yorkshire and Humberside, in the South East region, in Wales and in London, latterly—it has just finished—have all worked with different Sector Skills Councils within those regions. Although we highlighted two Sector Skills Councils, we work with a far greater number, but on a regional basis, who are not a formal member of the partnership.

  Q135 Linda Perham: It is obvious there are severe skill shortages in SET occupations, yet it seems that there is not the effort to accommodate women. Are there any obvious key areas where something could be done? Is it prejudice amongst men already working in the sector? Is it a management problem?

  Ms Wall: I think we have seen a major change in the years I have been working. I come from an engineering and construction background over my working life and I have seen major, major differences. Legislation is creating a lot of those changes and making organisations think much more centrally about how they are going to look at equality issues. I think that has been a major asset over the years. On the ground, we find that, although people have equality and diversity policies, they are having great problems about how to implement them and how to really make changes. When you are faced with an organisation, a culture, and an industry that has always acted in certain ways, it is very hard to break down those patterns of behaviour and the structures that create those conditions and the cultures within those particular organisations. That is what we have been doing regionally in JIVE, to help individual organisations, be they learning providers, employers or the career service, to look at their practices and to break them down. The hub structure that we have been using, working within regions, is really beginning to show the fruit of trying to break down occupational segregation in these areas. One of the recommendations that UKRC would make is that this hub structure that we have been using with JIVE is actually taken forward and considered nationally with the rest of the regional development agencies in Wales and Scotland. It has been very beneficial.

  Q136 Sir Robert Smith: In your evidence in paragraph 4.12 you say, "Many do not return to the SET industry at all and women rarely return to the sector at the same level from which they left" if they take a maternity break or a career break. What are the key problems? There is a skill shortage, so surely someone who is returning who already has the skills is an asset. Is it a management problem or is it a particular problem of the way SET works?

  Ms Butcher: I think it is a whole matrix of problems. We are seeing increasingly the right to request flexible working, and the legislative and policy context surrounding the position of women either continuing in employment or returning is obviously helpful, but I think within SET we are seeing that these sectors continue to lag behind some of the best practice and the more creative thinking that we have seen in other areas of our industries. The fundamental difficulty that is most clearly documented—and it has been talked about in the evidence given earlier—is in looking at part-time work in senior positions. If that flexibility is negotiable, it can be seen to be very much of an interim, short-term measure rather than there being that ability to rethink work organisation in terms of senior levels in science, engineering and technology, and to think creatively about productivity and what those valuable and talented people who have been trained and qualified actually have to offer.

  Q137 Sir Robert Smith: It is a traditional view that part-time work does not fit in, is it?

  Ms Butcher: Fundamentally, I think, yes.

  Q138 Sir Robert Smith: There is no fundamental reason why they could not—

  Ms Butcher: That part-time workers will not be there—the 24/7 issue we have been talking about. You can see ways in which, creatively, specific responsibilities and communication within working teams and so on can be managed so that it is seamless to the client. It is more effort, yes, and it is certainly more difficult potentially for SMEs to think those things through, where we have large corporations who are taking that forward, but I think we have to push for all of our benefit. We need more men working part-time as well, fundamentally. That is what is going to happen. As the Equal Opportunities Commission reports just now, part-time work is no crime, so why the penalty? Part-time work brings with it lower benefits, less access to training and fundamentally less pay, and we have to work to shift that balance around or it is not going to happen at the senior levels of our SET industries.

  Q139 Mr Evans: You have spoken about JIVE and I am wondering if it is tackling the problems of ignorance and, indeed, discrimination, whether consciously or unconsciously.

  Ms Wall: You will have seen from the evidence that we are relating to fairly large numbers of people in the areas who influence occupational segregation. I can say that when we have been working with individuals, we have had people coming into our training sessions who literally say: "Women should not work in engineering and construction: there is no place for them, they cannot do it," and they have been able to come out of those—

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