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Making science and engineering more inclusive

21 Feb 2018

Lizzie Dellar, CaSE Policy Intern, reflects on the key take-aways from her work on diversity and inclusion.

In my work as Policy Intern I have focused principally on updating CaSE’s work on diversity and inclusion in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine). This has involved creating an evidence base resource for our website, and producing a new policy briefing with key recommendations for government, published today. In this briefing I’ve tried to focus as much as possible on ‘what’s changing?’ and it’s good to see that there have been some improvements, particularly in the representation of women in senior positions; for example the proportion of female directors in STEM FTSE100 companies increased from 9% to 28% between 2008 and 2017.

A careers strategy that means business

However, what has stood out to me most is how some other disparities continue to persist, and even increase, not just according to gender but by ethnicity, disability and socio-economic background. For example, for students previously attending state schools, in 2016 the overall entry rate to higher education for those who received free school meals was half that of those who did not, the largest difference ever recorded.

Under-representation in STEMM is perpetuated by a lack of knowledge of career pathways, so careers education is vital to increasing diversity: this is the focus of one of the briefing’s key recommendations for government. Recently the Department for Education has published a new Careers Strategy and ‘A plan for improving social mobility through education’, which place a strong focus on the Good Careers Guidance Benchmarks developed by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, but a focus on STEMM-specific guidance within that is perhaps lacking.

Intersectionality and diversity data

The clear effects of intersectionality have stood out. For example one study suggests that for the most socio-economically advantaged third of students there is no gender difference in A-level STEM subject choices, but differences become evident for the less advantaged. There are also large differences in the proportions of BME and white women in senior positions in academia (see table below), emphasising the interacting effect of gender and ethnicity.

Note on table: CaSE analysis of Equality Challenge Unit Statistical Reports 2017 and 2011 and associated data tables. If the number of professors and senior managers were representative of the total academic population who are UK Nationals (both STEMM and non-STEMM), these figures would be 100%.

What have I learnt personally about diversity and inclusion?

Spending time reading, talking and writing for this policy review has caused me to start viewing what do with a diversity lens, and what I can do differently. Many people have talked about the importance of mentoring, for supporting career progression but also young people considering careers in STEMM, so it’s something I’ve been researching for when I finish my internship and return to the lab. Other small actions, like taking the time to consider diversity when asked for suggestions for seminar speakers, and at conferences simply being much more aware of actions taken to promote accessibility, such as live subtitling or sign language interpretation.

Having attended many conferences and events over the past few months, I’ve also realised how much, in the situation where I know no-one, I unconsciously gravitate towards other young women ‘like me’. Even at some events specifically on diversity, taking a look around the room so many people are doing the same. Recognising that, and challenging myself to approach a broader range of people is something I’m now actively attempting to do more (with mixed success!).

A lack of understanding of what different STEMM careers are available, what they involve and how to get there has repeatedly been raised as a barrier to increasing diversity. My favourite point from the Royal Academy of Engineering event Diversity and inclusion: can the engineering profession rise to the challenge? was when, to end, the chair of the discussion asked each panellist to “tell a story – an engineering story, or a story about an engineer, a story that brings engineering to life”. The importance of telling your story, how you got to where you are, your successes and your failures, is something many people have raised as key to making science and engineering a more open, inclusive and diverse place. 

The recommendations in this policy review are purposely focused on areas where Government is well positioned to act to drive improvements in diversity. As the upcoming series of guest blogs on diversity and inclusion and the reports in the evidence base indicate, moving the dial on diversity and inclusion in STEMM requires all our efforts as employers, colleagues, parents and individuals. What will you do?