Women in scientific careers - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. The scientific profession has been slow to open its doors to women and history offers many examples of women scientists whose work and contributions were unfairly overlooked, for example Rosalind Franklin's contribution to determining the structure of DNA in the 1950s.[1] Gender diversity in science and engineering has improved somewhat since then, but contentious attitudes towards women in science still remain and many practical barriers hinder women's progression in scientific careers. The under-representation of women in science has been explored in-depth and there are numerous organisations and initiatives striving to improve gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) study and careers. However, despite the attention that the topic has received, it has been estimated that "it will take 50 or 80 years before we get gender equality if we just keep doing the same thing, hoping that the pipeline will produce more women" scientists.[2] Currently only 13 per cent of all STEM jobs in the UK are occupied by women.[3] The loss of women at later stages of a career pathway is often referred to as "the leaky pipeline" (see paragraph 10).

2. There are many routes into a STEM career, and we have previously highlighted the importance of vocational training and education.[4] In addition, many STEM workers are employed in industry. However we focused this inquiry on academic careers because "the main route of entry [into STEM careers], particularly into senior specialist roles or academic positions, remains through the [higher education] route".[5] In addition, the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee published its Report on Women in the Workplace in June 2013, which examined STEM in a wider exploration of workplace equality and diversity.[6] Many of the BIS Committee's findings were relevant to STEM industry but academic careers have unique characteristics. With the intention of complementing the work of the BIS Committee, we announced our inquiry on Women in STEM careers, focusing on the retention of women in academic STEM careers, on 25 June 2013, and sought written submissions on the following questions:

a)  Why do numbers of women in STEM academic careers decline further up the career ladder?

b)  When women leave academia, what careers do they transition into? What are the consequences of scientifically trained women applying their skills in different employment sectors?

c)  What should universities and the higher education sector do to retain women graduates and PhD students in academic careers? Are there examples of good practice?

d)  What role should the Government have in encouraging the retention of women in academic STEM careers?[7]

We received over 90 written submissions and took oral evidence from 13 witnesses including academic researchers, diversity and equality groups, universities, research and funding councils and the Government. We would like to thank everyone who submitted oral or written evidence to our inquiry, particularly those who shared their personal experiences of STEM careers.

3. This report concentrates on STEM careers but also highlights the need for a holistic approach to tackle gender diversity, which includes STEM education. Chapter 2 outlines why gender diversity in science matters. Chapter 3 explores how gender perceptions affect the retention of women in STEM careers and Chapter 4 covers the practicalities of an academic research career. Chapter 5 contains our final conclusions.

1   The Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA was awarded to Francis Crick and James Watson; for other examples see also "6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism", National Geographic Online, 19 May 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/  Back

2   Q 90 [Clem Herman]  Back

3   Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: from Classroom to Boardroom UK Statistics 2012, p.1 Wise Campaign Online, http://www.wisecampaign.org.uk  Back

4   Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2012-13, Educating tomorrow's engineers: the impact of Government reforms on 14-19 education, HC 665 Back

5   WSC 79 [Government] para 12 Back

6   Business Innovation and Skills Committee, First Report of Session 2013-14, Women in the Workplace, HC 342  Back

7   Science and Technology Committee, Women in STEM Careers, Press Release, 25 June 2013, www.parliament.uk/science


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Prepared 6 February 2014