Unlocking Potential?

Today I attended an event at the British Academy to launch a pamphlet produced under the auspices of the Smith Institute, a think tank which promotes progressive policies for a fairer society and named in honour of the former Labour Party leader John Smith. This pamphlet entitled ‘Unlocking Potential – Perspectives on Women in Science, Engineering and Technology’ deals with the perennial problem of the low numbers of women taking degrees in SET, entering the SET professions and possibly returning to the sector after a career break. It explores issues way beyond those I usually cover on this blog, considering a broad range of employment sectors other than HE as well as schooling and careers’ advice. Other organisations involved in the production of the report are the Institution of Engineering & Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Physics; overall it has been edited by the MP Meg Munn. The whole pamphlet (I contributed the chapter on the leaky pipeline in HE) can be found here so I won’t spell out the detail in this post. I would certainly recommend reading it. It makes an interesting read because of its breadth. Aside from my own, it has chapters on business, schooling, careers, returners, apprentices, work in engineering in Australia, the view of the employee and the view of early career researchers.

I was particularly struck by the following statement by Deidre Hughes in her chapter on career choices:

The urgent imperative is to open up new possibilities for careers aspirations to move beyond traditional stereotypes, while simultaneously providing UK plc with an increase in human capital in this sector.

At schools, few careers’ advisors have a background in SET subjects, which is in itself a problem. But the evidence is that information provided may tend to be very stereotyped. A recent OFSTED report highlighted that placements for work experience at school (typically around age 15) tended to be gender stereotyped, with few placements being facilitated which put girls into traditional male working environments, such as construction or plumbing. If schools are unable to provide information about SET careers, or encourage aspirations for girls to move beyond traditional fields such as hairdressing and childcare, we are not likely to see any substantial growth in girls entering SET – particularly the physical and engineering sciences – anytime soon. This was a message elaborated on by several of the attendees, the general feeling that careers’ advice is rarely helpful and – particularly from the engineers present – that there were too many companies that hid behind health and safety issues when it came to accepting children (boys and girls) for work experience so denying them the opportunity to find out what engineering actually is like.

However, another powerful and important message that came across, particularly from Arlene McConnell, the IET’s Young Engineer of the Year who also contributed to the pamphlet, is that we need to concentrate on the positive and not always focus on what is wrong. She is a passionate advocate for telling the world, and particularly the younger part, how exciting and creative the world of SET is. Perhaps that is a key message for us all to take away from the event as Meg Munn tries to put pressure on the Government to do a better job of mainstreaming the issue of women in SET, and reversing the damage done by cuts to the budget in this area in the last CSR.

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4 Responses to Unlocking Potential?

  1. A very useful report.

    I was drawn to the quote from Sandi Rhys Jones:

    “As the UKRC workplace cultures report says, work-life balance and flexible working opportunities are viewed as rhetorical and as a “women’s issue”, despite their availability to men, and as a result their take-up is perceived to have negative consequences on careers. A 2006 study of high-tech organisations in Ireland revealed that women believed that although their organisations provided family-friendly policies, the organisational cultures meant they were realistically unable to avail themselves of these policies. Rather, women perceived that to take up the policies would put them at a distinct disadvantage in relation to their men colleagues, who rarely used such policies.”

    We need to explore the idea of a cultural shift that enables men and women to share working and bringing up children. This is a particular challenge for science careers due to the long hours involved, but sharing the load has advantages for both employers (more efficient working, space to think) and families (benefits and joys of parental care over institutional care). Equally shared parenting is explored in more detail in a recent book by Marc and Amy Vachon. And I’ve written about valuing time away from science for both women and men.

    • I totally agree with you about shared parenting. We need to move away from the idea that parenting equates to the mother. The more men feel comfortable saying, I can’t come to that meeting I have to meet my children, stay at home with the sick child etc, the easier it will be for everyone to accept that parenting is important and has to take priority upon occasion. Bizarrely, around the time you were posting your comment I got an email from a senior male who said

      ‘Sorry I couldn’t catch up today but I am on childcare duties again.’
      I replied that the last thing he needed to do was apologise about this….but I’m pleased he felt comfortable telling me!

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