Greater investment initiatives are needed to increase gender diversity in the science, engineering and technology sectors, says Valerie Vaz MP.
With almost 1.1 million women currently unemployed in the UK and a continuing gender disparity in science professions, my adjournment debate on government policy on funding for women in science highlights the need for greater investment in initiatives to increase gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and science, engineering and technology (SET) sectors.
The intention of the debate is to draw attention to the growing importance of STEM/SET occupations to the UK economy. In engineering alone, the estimated requirement for employees over the next five to 10 years will be an additional 2.2 million people and the Science Council predicts that, within the science community, 1.3 million extra people will be needed by 2030. A dynamic, growing and diverse workforce will be needed to match these demands.
A recent study by the Biochemical Society showed that major barriers still exist for women in STEM occupations. Short term contracts and lack of flexibility to accommodate women employees who may be the main carer or parent responsible for children are cited as barriers to women's participation. This has created a rate of attrition in the sector which is not acceptable. Only 29.8 per cent of all female STEM graduates of working age in the UK are employed in these occupations compared to half of all male STEM graduates of working age.
The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) was set up in 2003 as part of a Strategy for Women in SET and STEM occupations to enable women to achieve their potential. The UKRC provides a valuable resource to tackle such issues. Since their inception, they have a strong track record of supporting women into STEM careers by providing practical advice to women and employers. However, the 2010 spending review withdrew funding for this work. Instead a much smaller sum was allocated for a more generic approach to increasing diversity through ambassadors. The Campaign for Science and Technology have asked for an increased transparency in the funding streams for all activities relating to diversity in science.
Women scientists have been at the forefront of major scientific breakthroughs from the discovery of pulsars by Jocelyn Bell Burnell to the structure of DNA by Rosalind Franklin. As the study published by the Smith Institute in collaboration with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers put it in their June 2011 report, "Unlocking potential", there is no shortage of women who want to take up the challenge. If the United Kingdom is to be a major force in the world of science in the future, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The organisation, evidence and the will exists to ensure that women are given this opportunity.
A solicitor by profession, Valerie Vaz became MP for Walsall South at the May 2010 general election.