Gender inequality in STEM: women risk being locked out of the jobs of tomorrow
It was 4 August 1883 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A young Scottish woman, a single mother abandoned by her husband after they both left Dundee to start new lives in America, concluded her paper for the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal by expressing her hope that women can prove themselves to be as “equal” as men.
Just a few years earlier, the closest connection Williamina Fleming had to the field of astronomy was working as a maid at the home of Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory.
But here she was, just a short time later, the leading female astronomer of her day, after Pickering recognised her aptitude and employed her at the observatory.
In her paper entitled ‘A field for women’s work in astronomy’, Fleming wrote: “… while we cannot maintain that in everything woman is man’s equal yet in many things her patience, perseverance and method makes her his superior. Therefore let us hope that in astronomy which now affords a large field for woman’s work in skill, she may, as has been the case in several other sciences, at least prove herself his equal.”
Nearly 140 years later, that desire to prove that women and men can – and should – be equals in science is still as strong, but gender equality has not made an awful lot of progress in that time, with women still vastly underrepresented across all STEM subjects.
Last year, the Royal Society of Edinburgh published a progress review of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in Scotland.
Tapping All Our Talents 2018 revisited an earlier report, published in 2012, to look at what progress had been made in that six-year period.
The findings of the 2012 report were described as “a call to action” and identified a need for an “urgent focus on the issue”.
“Six years ago, as Chief Scientific Advisor within the Scottish Government, I was pleased to engage with the Royal Society of Edinburgh on its first report on women in STEM, Tapping All Our Talents,” Professor Dame Anne Glover wrote in her foreword in the revised report.
“I was concerned about the wasted talent presented by the leaky pipeline which saw almost three-quarters of female graduates lost from STEM and women significantly underrepresented in top positions across business, public service and academia.
“On becoming president of RSE, I was therefore delighted to learn that the report was being revisited to see what change had occurred over the intervening years and what more remains to be done.
“I want girls and women to know STEM is for them both as a subject of study and as a career choice. Since I began my career in science much has changed, yet we still have some way to go to create a positive working environment for all women.
“It is imperative that we do so; not only is it important that as a nation we harness the talents of all our citizens but there is now a clear body of evidence that diversity in the workforce not only allows individuals to fulfil their potential, but that more diverse teams are more effective.
“While this report represents a significant contribution to the debate on women in STEM, we know it is not the end point and we stand ready, as Scotland’s National Academy, to support a continuing conversation and further work with education providers, business, government and wider society on how we can truly tap into the talents of all our workforce to the benefit of Scotland and its people.”
The group reviewing the report found that some progress had been made in certain areas.
For example, the proportion of female STEM graduates in the UK working in the sector increased slightly, from 27 per cent in 2012 to 30 per cent in 2017.
In industry, UK-level figures indicated that the proportion of women in core STEM professions rose from 13 per cent to 23 per cent in the same period.
The review group also found that at the current rate of progress, STEM FTSE 100 companies are expected to meet a voluntary target of 33 per cent of women on boards by 2020.
In academia, the number of Scottish STEMM (including medicine) departments holding Athena SWAN awards, which recognise efforts to enhance gender equality, reached 73 by spring 2017, up from a total of five awards in 2012.
And the proportion of female professors in maths trebled from three per cent in 2012 to 10 per cent in 2017, and in chemistry doubled from five per cent to 10 per cent.
But the report also highlighted that progress has been slow, or non-existent, in other areas.
In education, the proportion of young women studying for computing-related qualifications at SCQF levels three to five has fallen from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent in 2018.
In most STEM subjects across colleges and universities, the proportion of female students has seen, at best, incremental improvement (from 11 per cent in 2012 to 13 per cent in 2016 in undergraduate engineering) and at worst, further decline (from 54 per cent in 2012 to 43 per cent in 2017 in college-level IT frameworks).
The number of female executives in FTSE 100 companies remains below 10 per cent, while the overall gender pay gap in Scotland has seen little movement, standing at 18 per cent in 2012 and 16 per cent in 2017.
The report states: “What has become increasingly clear in the years since the publication of Tapping All Our Talents 2012, is that gender equality in STEM can only be achieved through a fundamental shift in societal perceptions of gender ‘norms’ more generally.
“This is a significant and complex challenge: stereotypes are introduced at birth and consistently reinforced by families, carers, peers, media, social media, educators and employers. But it is a challenge that must urgently be tackled if Scotland is to eradicate the harmful impact of such stereotypes on the wellbeing of all its young people and enable them to reach their full potential.
“It is within this societal context that the Tapping All Our Talents Review 2018 considers what must be done to achieve a step change in progress towards gender equality in STEM.
“Every individual and institution involved in educating children and young people in Scotland, and in shaping STEM workplace cultures and practices, has a role to play in breaking down the barriers that girls and women face.”
This view is shared by Talat Yaqoob, director of Equate Scotland, the national expert agency in gender equality throughout the STEM sectors.
She says progress has been slow because any issue on the underrepresentation of women in STEM is about a wider institutionalised inequality that women and girls face.
“Equate Scotland has been working on the participation of women in STEM since 2006, we work with employers and educators to tackle inequality and bias within workplace cultures, through training, consultancy and often difficult conversations,” explains Yaqoob.
“We support women working in or studying STEM subjects through workshops, one-to-one support and paid placement opportunities.
“For Scotland to be globally competitive across the STEM sectors, we need to challenge dated misconceptions around who science, engineering and technology is for and we need to create workplaces that are inclusive and progressive.
“The majority of the jobs of the future will require STEM skills, if we are not bolder on the issue of women’s participation in STEM, we risk locking women out of the jobs of tomorrow.”
Let’s hope it’s not another 140 years before the STEM gender gap that Williamina Fleming wrote about finally closes and a woman can “at least prove herself [man’s] equal.”
Join Holyrood on 20 March for our 4th annual STEM in Scotland conference, as we examine the key issues facing STEM skill delivery in Scotland