Women needed in science, engineering and technology

8 June 2011

There is enormous potential for the UK to meet the skills shortage in the science, engineering and technology (SET) sectors by increasing the number of women in the sector, says a new report to be launched later today, Wednesday 8 June, by the Smith Institute.

The report, edited by Meg Munn MP, is supported by three of the main SET professional organisations: Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Physics. 

Contributors to ‘Unlocking Potential: Perspectives on Women in Science, Engineering and Technology’ argue that to meet the skills challenge requires much greater effort by the professions, business and government to attract more young women into the SET industries, and in particular more family friendly polices to tackle the very poor retention record.

Meg Munn MP said, "Women have moved into many of the professions previously dominated by men. It is now time for science, engineering and technology to act to ensure they are not losing out on the skills and talents of half the workforce."

The contributors show:

  • In 2008, of the 620,000 female Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates of working age only 185,000 were employed in SET occupations. 100,000 were either unemployed or economically inactive.
  • A poll by the Institute of Physics showed that seven out of ten female physicists who took a career break did so to have children. While 34% of all physicists left jobs to start families only 14% returned to the same post.
  • Evidence shows that one of the main reasons why women are leaving the sector by their 40s is the poor work-life balance and the industry’s culture.
  • Technological change is one of the main reasons for productivity gains in developed countries and yet participation by women in the UK technology workforce has been falling (27% in 1997 to 21% in 2004).
  • The decision by government to reduce the overall funding of support for this important area, following the cuts to the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, whilst showing a determination to protect the overall science budget shows a failure to understand the importance of investing in both women and science.
  • Recommendations within the report include industry doing more to link up with schools; an effort to ensure careers for girls in SET are shown to be interesting, exciting and rewarding; the introduction of more flexible working practices; teaching of physics in schools in a way that engages with the interests of young people to make sure there is an expectation that anyone can do physics; improved careers advice; and, better workplace culture to end negative stereotypes.

Paul Hackett, Director, Smith Institute, said, “The report is a wake-up call to government, business and the SET professions - for too long politicians have paid lip service to the case for stronger incentives to attract more women into these key industries.”

Meg Munn MP has written to Rt. Hon David Willetts MP (Minister of State for Universities and Science) calling on government to establish a high-level commission on women in science, engineering and technology.

Clare Thomson, Curriculum Support Manager at the Institute of Physics, said, “It is a major cause for concern that the proportion of girls studying physics post-16 has remained around 22% for the past 20 years, as A-level physics, or its equivalent, is a gateway subject to a whole range of careers in the physical sciences, engineering and technology, as well as in many other areas of finance and business.”

Research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, due to be published in the next few weeks, is expected to show there has been no change in the number of women engineers in the UK.