A Shocking Waste of Talent

This piece first appeared in Fabiana, the magazine of the Fabian’s Women Network, on May 21st 2012, in an issue devoted to Finding the Way to Growth.  The whole issue can be found here.

Much has been made of the importance of innovation through science and technology as a means of putting the economy back on its feet, although the current Government’s record on translating this into a coherent policy is patchy. The UK is also frequently cited as an economy which fails to translate its excellent science base into new products and industries.  The UK University sector is strong in research and is increasingly willing to set up spin-outs to develop their novel ideas, but the financing of these is left dangerously to the free market, which is not (at least currently) equipped to take on the risks implicit in progressing early stage ideas. As David Willetts, the Universities’ Minister, said recently when comparing the UK with the US

“The land of free enterprise has an innovation and research system which depends on federal and state government just like everywhere else in the Western world.”

But the UK has for many years been resolutely non-interventionist in this area, weakening our nation’s ability to translate the basic science into the technology for successful products which can boost our ailing economy.

There is a second aspect to this, which is not usually coupled with our innovation track record. We have a remarkably wasteful pipeline of talent into the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) fields, particularly as far as the physical sciences and engineering are concerned. The numbers of women who enter these fields is low, the attrition rate along the pipeline deplorable. The low numbers of women entering these professions mean a shocking waste of talent, a waste for both for the individuals concerned and for society. The situation is not homogeneous, however, and different parts of the STEM landscape face different problems. In the biological sciences there are actually a majority of women studying the subject at university, yet the professoriat consists of only around 15% professors, whereas in my own field of physics, the percentage of women who choose to study the subject at university hovers stubbornly around the 25% level. Here the problem obviously lies in attracting girls at school to study the subject in the first place, whereas in the biological sciences it is keeping them there once they’ve started.

Culturally, our society gives out the message to young girls that physics and engineering are not for them. It does this essentially from birth, in the toys children receive (increasingly segregated by gender in toy shops, as well as colour-coded to make it easier for unwary parents to make these stereotypical selections) and in the role models the media casually displays. We may see female medics on our TV screens, but not many female engineers turn up in the soaps or even in documentaries. The loaded term ‘geek’, with its connotations of introverted and anti-social individuals lurking in a bedroom adorned with Star Trek posters, may also make these subjects unattractive to the adolescent girl. For those girls who do aspire to pursue a scientific/technological career, because the numbers are small they can find themselves feeling isolated and peer pressure or a teacher’s negativity can contribute to this discomfort, reinforcing cultural stereotypes with comments along the lines of ‘girls can’t do maths’,  thereby discouraging them from taking these subjects further.  Let’s not be coy, this sort of passive discouragement persists. Further up the career ladder, minority status inevitably persists, but now coupled with the pressures of the biological clock. An oft perpetuated myth is that scientific careers can’t be combined with having a family. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, this myth survives and acts as a further deterrent. Hence our female scientifically-equipped workforce leaks out, gives up and seeks ‘easier’ careers.

Why does this matter? It matters in just the same way as it matters in a boardroom. A diverse team is likely to look at problems from broader perspectives than a team made up of near-identical individuals. The collective societal decisions about which products turn out to transform a market or are just what the consumer needed (but didn’t know) will be influenced by the 50% of the population who are female consumers. The values that the consumer may appreciate may not always be equally appreciated by a design team unrepresentative of the population. Hence, in simple economic terms, we need diversity to drive innovation in ways that match the public’s desires and needs and so lead to the success stories of tomorrow. But it matters, too, that the talents and aspirations of half our young may be squashed and lost irrevocably.

In the same vein, a discussion event will be held at Portcullis House on June 19th on this subject. Entitled ‘Time to release the UK’s potential energy’, the panel will include Chi Onwurah (Shadow Minister for Innovation), Dr Laura Nelson, Paul Jackson and myself.

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12 Responses to A Shocking Waste of Talent

  1. Ralph Lucas says:

    The problem, as you say, seems to be deep and early and intractable. The best chance of change seems to me to be for an all-ages girls’ school to decide to change the world, but the age of the great female education pioneers seems to have passed.

  2. Pingback: Science Defies Stereotypes « Speech and Science

  3. Laura says:

    There’s an obvious practical argument for increasing female participation in STEM: Increasing the pool from which scientists are drawn is likely to either increase the number of qualified scientists (assuming the number of available positions increases) or improve the qualifications of scientists (if it doesn’t). (This is also an argument for lowering barriers to migration of talented students and scientists.)

    There may also be a moral or aesthetic argument for increasing female participation in STEM: As a (western, Anglo-Euro) society, we feel that gender balance is pleasing for its own sake.

    But the argument that science is somehow improved by including a so-called female perspective is dangerous nonsense. Science is the antithesis of perspective. It is about proof and correctness, about measurement, about universality, about reproducible experiments as the gold standard for advancing knowledge.

    There is quite validly a female (or male or transgender) perspective in the arts or business or social issues: Multiple human perspectives are useful because these are largely questions of opinion and intuition, about profit and risk, about understanding customers, about trade-offs, about societal values and priorities.

    But it seems foolish and dangerous to suggest that the quality of a scientific result is affected by personal attributes of its creators.

    • Laura
      I quite agree with you and I’m not sure why you think I am talking about a female ‘perspective’ to science. This was an article about innovation and economic growth, and was referring to the boardroom and design teams, for which my position holds. I do believe the way individuals – men and women – approach science differs however. Stereotypically this is said to mean women prefer team-working and men the lone genius route, to put it in its starkest term. and that can lead to different ways of tackling problems which may be more or less effective. But the laws of nature are unchanged whoever is approaching them.

    • Sarah says:

      “Science is the antithesis of perspective. It is about proof and correctness, about measurement, about universality, about reproducible experiments as the gold standard for advancing knowledge.”

      That’s what the results are about, but we all know that the scientific process involves a mix of creativity, deep thinking, and testing. The fact that diverse groups–diverse here in terms of skills and disciplinary backgrounds–often accelerate this process is well established empirically and in theory (Scott Page’s work springs to mind for the theory side). But another result is that the presence of women can shift group dynamics in a way that, as Athene wrote, literally increases the diversity of ideas (by evening participation). This is useful.

      The real tragedy and most important issue is that heaps of socialization prevent many women from making a contribution. The resulting stereotypes further limit the contributions of women who remain in the game.

    • Mary says:

      But this is about turning science into marketable innovation. Science may be immune to perspective (though, really, science *aims* to be immune to perspective – it certainly doesn’t have a 100% track record on succeeding!), but understanding how to apply a scientific discovery to a problem and turn it into a marketable product absolutely requires perspective.

  4. Tom Hartley says:

    First of all I agree with the thrust of this article. It is a shocking waste of talent that women are it seems systematically discouraged and excluded from participation in science. So I am fully in support of efforts to put this right. I think it is possibly part of a wider cultural problem in science. When I wrote about a “waste of talent” in an earlier post, here’s what you said…

    “But I still don’t like the use of the word ‘waste’ when these people are discussed, because education is (in my view) a public good, and these people – as long as they don’t end up so embittered they give up any attempt to use the skills they have learned along the way by opting out completely – are likely to continue to contribute massively to the economy in many different ways. Becoming a school teacher, a festival organiser or a freelance writer (just to name some random roles they might assume) may not equate to their dream of continuing as a bench scientist let alone a PI, but I don’t believe it amounts to a waste of their education and training.”

    Can we apply the same argument to women who are excluded from science for whatever reason? No, I think. When trained scientists are lost from the talent pool, science loses out and this is a waste. I think there is a great deal of waste in the current structures, and as well as addressing discrimination against women, we need to address the deeper issues with recruitment, training and selection of research scientists. We have a very narrow pyramid-shaped career structure which identifies a select few (mainly men) at each stage, and wastes the talents and abilities of other very capable individuals who are pushed out. The danger is that the structures we have built values the urge and ability to compete in a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, political rat race above scientific skills, teamwork, and contributions to knowledge.

  5. Athene I think it’s really great that you are pushing this agenda forward at a national level as I agree entirely with you on its importance. My focus is more on the sub-national level given the variation in cultural stereotypes that prevail even within individual schools and neighbourhoods. This can be shaped by all kinds of factors and I want to get under the skin of these at a micro level so am trying to put together a project with others that would enable this to happen. Picking the right local case studies is the difficult part in all of this. After all, what is a culturally (non)typical part of the world, UK, England, London etc ? How significant is sexual typecasting by parents and how much does it depend on their own experiences as children or the neighbourhood they currently live in? What role does post16 education have in all of this as the key stage between school- and home-driven learning and the opening of wings to greater independence of thought within an adult life?

    • And also to note that a 2011 Institute of Leadership and Management report on ambition and gender said: “There is little or no difference in the capabilities of women and men. In 2009/10 women made up 57% of first degree graduates from UK higher education institutions. Almost half (49.4%) of the UK workforce are women. Female enterprise contributes £130 billion to the UK economy each year. Yet the further up the corporate hierarchy you look, the fewer women you encounter, especially in large organisations.”

  6. BB says:

    I am still in shock after pink lego.

    And tired from endless arguments on mumsnet with women who complain that they wish they had had a daughter instead of a son so they had someone to go shopping with, or men that wish they had had a son instead of daughter so they could play football with them.

    Play football with your daughters….take your sons shopping! Let children find their own interests instead of assuming you know everything about them based on the less than 3% of their genetic code found in that extra X or Y chromosome.

  7. Mary says:

    >>An oft perpetuated myth is that scientific careers can’t be combined with having a family. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, this myth survives and acts as a further deterrent. Hence our female scientifically-equipped workforce leaks out, gives up and seeks ‘easier’ careers.

    I’m intrigued by this statement – what is the clear evidence to the contrary? I know lots of women who left academic science after their PhD or their first postdoc because they wanted to have children and felt it simply wasn’t compatible with pursuing a career in research, and took non-science roles rather than moving into industry. They weren’t dissuaded by a myth: they were working in science, looking at the environment they were in and the expectations placed on them, and decided that it wasn’t a realistic option for them.

    A few women managing to have children and pursue science careers isn’t “clear evidence to the contrary” if significant are leaving because the pressures they face in the workplace aren’t compatible with the kind of family life they want. So I’m wondering why you think it’s a myth and what evidence you’re thinking of?

  8. XY says:

    As far as academic careers go Tom Hartley has nailed it. There is a systemic failure to nurture talent and retain expertise that would not be countenanced in any other knowledge-based industry (perhaps with the exception of showbiz). It is extraordinary that people who have spent 7+ years developing their knowledge and skills are considered expendable and where more experience reduces the likelihood of being retained. Add to this the cut-throat dog-eat-dog political (and cronyistic) culture that Tom describes and it seems to me that women are acting rationally by opting out in greater numbers than men.

    It is a myth that a scientific careers cannot be combined with having a family – the evidence being the majority of male scientists who have children. However the perception is (and this applies to both women and men) is that if you step off the publication treadmill by taking time out of research then you have effectively ended any chance of landing a faculty position.