Women in STEM campaign aims to bridge gender gap

The government has launched a campaign to attract more women into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

May 8, 2014

The Your Life campaign, launched by Chancellor George Osborne at the Science Museum on May 7, aims to contribute to the government’s aspiration to double the number of female engineering and technology undergraduates by 2030.

Participating organisations – which include many technology firms, as well as a handful of universities and funders, have all set out what they will do to further the campaign. For instance, the University of Sheffield has pledged to run a conference to educate teachers about engineering, review degree titles to make them more appealing to female students and address unconscious bias in the recruitment of female staff.

The campaign also figures prominently in the government’s response to a report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee on women in science. That report, published in February, criticises “biases and working practices” that “result in systematic and cumulative discrimination against women throughout STEM study and academic careers”.

The government’s response also cites several other existing initiatives to boost the number of women in science, such as the Athena SWAN awards and Research Councils UK’s Statement of Expectations for Equality and Diversity. But it says that their effectiveness will be monitored and “if significant progress is not observed over the next three years, [the] government will consider further action”.

The government also supports the committee’s recommendation that diversity and equality training should be provided to all students and staff. It notes that the research councils are currently introducing training on unconscious bias, progress on which will be reported later this year.

The government stops short of explicitly endorsing the select committee’s call for fewer short-term research contracts, which the MPs say has a particularly detrimental effect on women, noting that short-term contracts “allows the research base to be flexible and responsive”.

But it notes that Vitae’s Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers recommends that research posts should only be fixed-term when there is a “recorded and justifiable reason”. It also says the research councils’ shift to providing longer, larger grants could have “benefits … in terms of contract length”.

It notes that figures suggest the percentage of full-time research-only academic staff on fixed term contracts has fallen since 2003, but if further “significant progress” is not made the government will “consider undertaking a review of the academic career structure”.

It adds that RCUK will soon publish an updated briefing on its policy regarding maternity and paternity pay. Kirsty Pringle, a research fellow at the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, laments in this week’s Times Higher Education that only the Economic and Social Research Council has a clear policy on the provision of maternity pay for researchers funded by fellowships or studentships.


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