Progress on women in STEM is starting to unravel

Thirty years on from the start of the push to get more girls into science, the sense of urgency and commitment is waning, says Karen Russ

April 26, 2018
Female scientist examining flask of liquid

Forty years ago, before I embarked on my career in science, I sat in a chemistry lesson at secondary school and listened to my male teacher telling the class that women were good for only two things: cooking and breeding.

At that time, only 7 per cent of engineering graduates were female. It is easy to marvel at how far we in the UK have come since the Women into Science and Engineering (Wise) campaign was set up in 1984. But while, in the 1980s and 1990s, the numbers of women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics surged, there are worrying signs that 30 years of progress could be starting to unravel.

It used to feel as though encouraging young women into science was an everyday part of working in the industry. I was very active in the Institute of Physics’ Women’s Group; when I was a postgraduate student in Manchester, we would run whole-day sessions for girls to come and learn about physics. And when I worked in the US in the 1990s, we had afternoons off each week to run science clubs in local schools.

I also benefitted from this drive. Everywhere I went, I was exposed to willing mentors and active networks of female scientists and academics who talked openly and honestly about their careers, passing on the skills and resilience I needed to succeed in a male-dominated environment. I remember thinking that the glass ceiling had already been broken and that my generation would be the first to see gender balance in science.

However, although gender equality in STEM is still frequently discussed, there are signs that we are losing our sense of urgency and commitment. Just one-fifth of A-level physics students are girls: the same proportion as 25 years ago. The number of women studying engineering and physics at university has barely changed in six years. Just 15 per cent of the most recent UK computing graduates were female, down from 16 per cent last year. And, for the third year in a row, women make up just 14 per cent of engineering graduates.

Even when women do take STEM subjects at university, their dropout rate from subsequent careers in industry is much higher than men’s.

In the context of the national conversation we are having around gender equality – from the #MeToo campaign to the gender pay gap and the President’s Club dinner – such statistics look like an almighty wake-up call for those who thought we were close to gender equality.

The reasons for the slide backwards in STEM can in part be attributed to our changing work culture. There are very different pressures facing scientists than there were 20 years ago. The rise of the 24/7 work culture means that both academics and industry researchers have less time to get involved in the kinds of initiatives that used to be commonplace.

There are still many reasons to be cheerful. There has been undoubted progress in some areas. When I first came to work at the Health and Safety Executive’s laboratories in 2006 I was amazed that the staff gender balance was already almost 50/50. And there are still some fantastic initiatives, groups and networks that exist solely to advocate for women in science: the Wise campaign is still going strong and the Women's Engineering Society also does a sterling job.

But what we need to restart progress is a proper, joined-up commitment from all parties involved. Universities, businesses and professional institutes must come together with renewed drive to give proper visibility to the work women in science do. This should take the form of funding, promotion and – crucially – giving scope for women working in science to give up some of their work time to participate.

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe. As we begin to have open and honest conversations about gender equality nationally, there is no better time to renew our commitment to promoting women in STEM.

Karen Russ is director, science and commercial at the Health and Safety Executive. A Fellow of the Institute of Physics, she has a PhD in optoelectronic inspection systems.

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