Science and Diversity- “Its not just about gender”

In a recent post I described a visit by a local MP, Labour’s Chris Leslie, to the School of Chemistry at Nottingham. I was able to arrange the visit thanks to the pairing scheme RSC LINKS run by the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a result, I was invited to this year’s Parliamentary Links Day in Portcullis House. The Links Day is an annual event, currently organised by the Society of Biology, which brings together UK scientists and engineers with politicians of all parties. There is always a specific theme to the day and this year it was Science and Diversity. The formal part of the Links Day included panel discussions and keynote addresses by David Willetts and Shabana Mahmood, the serving and shadow Ministers for Universities and Science. This post summarises the day, which outlined the problem(s) around diversity in science and engineering and what might be done to rectify it. A Storify of tweets from the day was posted by the Society of Biology after the event. [Note: for brevity I’ve used “science” in most of this post when much of the day’s discussion also related to engineering and mathematics; to those engineers and mathematicians reading, please accept my apologies].

20130625_124355David Willetts MP finished the day by calling for the science and engineering community to reflect the society from which it emerges.

Science in the UK is simply not diverse. From conference programmes to academic staffrooms and the higher echelons of industry, science and engineering remains dominated by white, middle age men. If we aspire to possess a science and research community that reflects the society from which it emerges, then we are failing. Science should be accessible to everyone but there are many who feel like the odd-one-out in the research environment.

“Recruitment, Retention and Progression”

The debate about science and diversity often focuses primarily on encouraging and supporting women. Perhaps this was why nine of the ten panellists on LINKS day were women, although at least this rebalanced  previous speaker line-ups. However, Julian Huppert declared that science and diversity is “not just about gender” and most of the panellists were in agreement. As Shabana Mahmood put it, the barriers confronting women are reasonably well understood; whereas those faced by lower socioeconomic groups and certain ethnic minorities are not. There are also groups whose contributions to science risk being overlooked entirely, including LGBT (for example, why is no scientist on this year’s World Pride Power List?) and those with physical or learning disabilities. At least the professional bodies are taking equality and diversity seriously, as evidenced by the current president of the RSC, Lesley Yellowlees, making it the cornerstone policy of her tenure.

Statistics and sound-bites abound, but if one mantra stands out it is “Recruitment, Retention and Progression”. As catchy as this may be, it conceals a complex reality. Some disciplines, for example physics, struggle to attract girls to study beyond sixteen, but others, such as the biosciences, are more balanced between the genders even at postgraduate level. Yet all are afflicted by a “leaky pipeline”, with women in particular disproportionately “dropping out” of science later on in their careers. Consequently, senior positions in industry and academia remain unrepresentative- only 16% pharmacology professors are women (up from just 2% in 2002) and 99% of chemistry professors are white. Progress is being made, but slowly. Do we, as one panellist suggested, now need legally-enforced positive discrimination?

It all begins at school?

Education is critical in ensuring knowledge intensive subjects like science and engineering are accessible to all. Routes into STEM careers outside higher education still exist, but degrees and increasingly postgraduate degrees are necessary to rise to the top of the career ladder. To encourage young people into science we need teachers and school facilities fit for purpose, visible role models and higher education institutions that are perceived as being open to students from all backgrounds. The culture in schools must not promote the notion that certain subjects suit one gender more than the other; can anyone be satisfied that nearly half of all secondary schools have no girls studying A-level physics?

Good teachers and enjoyable lessons inspire people to study science, yet too few secondary school science teachers own degrees appropriate for the subject they are teaching. Maths and the physical sciences are particularly affected and the problem becomes more acute at primary level.  To entice highly qualified scientists into teaching, it must be seen as an attractive and valued career choice. It is not only the quality of the teachers that is important, but also the quality of the facilities and equipment they work with. As Jon Bercow described in his opening remarks, it is shameful that science lessons are still taught in classrooms that are no different to when he was at school.

Engaging children in science and engineering is about more than teaching. This is why the hugely successful STEMNET scheme, which now has over 20,000 ambassadors on its books, is so important. Teachers and schoolchildren often struggle to understand the career opportunities open for scientists and engineers, and STEMNET ambassadors can be important role models. The creation of smaller, targeted communities such as Science_Grrl, formed after the “Science, it’s a Girl Thing” debacle, are also to be applauded. Finally, the role the financially-threatened museum sector plays should not be underestimated.

Moving in the wrong direction

Sadly, a recent report on social mobility suggests that the UK’s research intensive Russell Group Universities have become more, not less, socially exclusive over the past decade, a worrying trend if we want to create a representative science and engineering workforce. Even in the 21st Century, the same old story is true– state school students fail disproportionately to achieve the necessary grades, while some of those who do are put off from applying. The risk of higher tuition fees discouraging even more students from lower income backgrounds means the widening participation industry will undoubtedly grow, but how much are Universities responsible for social mobility? 

It was apt that the House of Parliament, which has struggled for years to become more representative of the society it serves, should host a discussion on Science and Diversity a day before the Comprehensive Spending Review was announced. Currently, science and engineering are being pushed as the basis for economic growth and sound political decision making. It is, therefore, crucial that the science community shows it is serious about putting its own house in order. There may be a strong economic case for a diverse workforce but, fundamentally, it boils down to whether as scientists, mathematicians or engineers we are happy working in an environment that many talented individuals decide is “not for them.”

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5 Responses to Science and Diversity- “Its not just about gender”

  1. Liz G says:

    Great post. Some very interesting points.

    I think there IS an issue with Russell groups becoming more elitist. I’m at the University of Manchester where we do a great deal to widen participation in higher education. Despite this I was disgusted to read in an alumni magazine the average entry grades in Life Science is AAA A-levels. The undeniable fact is that if you go to a private school or a school in a more privileged area you are far more likely to achieve those kind of grades.

    I went to a state college where attainment was relatively low compared the national averages and my conditional offer to come to Manchester was BBC, whereas others I knew at university who went to ‘better’ schools needed to get AAB. Was that wrong? Well I was far less likely to achieve AAB based on the college I attended and maybe wouldn’t have got into this university if that had been my offer. Eight years on and I’m about to finish a PhD, so I don’t think my lack of AAA attainment reflects my ability to enjoy and pursue Biology and research.

    Maybe universities do still take the school/college average grades into account when processing submissions but the AAA average suggests they probably don’t. Perhaps it would be positive discrimination. Maybe that’s wrong.

    To me it seems that when universities are doing such great work to widen participation and raise young peoples aspirations, levelling the playing field in terms of entry grades is the obvious extension of this work.

    • Ali TT says:

      Thanks for your comment. I can relate to your comments about grade boundaries. When I began my Chemistry degree, the entry requirement was BBC (AAB if not Maths, with A in Chemistry), but one of my friends at UG level squeaked in with BCD. Now, it won’t be long before you need AAA minimum to do the same course.

      I think the change reflects many things including loss of confidence in the A-level grades & more competition for places (more interest+fewer Unis running chemistry degrees).

  2. RowenaFW says:

    Liz G, I’m not sure your reasoning about school-related grade deflation as evidence for widening participation is accurate…

    When I was applying for unis and was given an BBC grade requirement, I was instantly put off those universities, assuming that if the entry standard was lower, so would be the standard of teaching. I came from a state school and was on EMA. My Oxford offer was AAAA (in specified subjects), whilst I knew others who were asked for AAA or AAB in anything and went to private or public schools. In fact, I haven’t met anyone who had as tough and directive an offer as me.

    • Liz G says:

      That’s interesting Rowena. Perhaps my offer was based on predicted grades rather than which college I attended. In the interest of full disclosure I did actually attain higher than BBC in the end.

      I think maybe universities don’t want to drop entry grades as they want to keep perceived standards higher. As Ali TT says, it does seem like more people used to get into Russell group universities with lower grades than they do nowadays. And I agree that it plays into the notion that A-levels are easier than they used to be, which I’m not sure is true.

      You were clearly an exceptional student Rowena 🙂 but I do think there are a lot of school students out there who have the potential to excel at university but do not have the same drive you had at such a young age. Of course personal accountability is key but I do think it can be partly due to a lack of the right encouragement from home or maybe even school. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of amazing state schools, but for the children who are in schools that aren’t as good at preparing students for university applications and exams, I feel like there should be some assistance.

      The ‘Extended Project Qualification’ where post-16 learners can work with students and researchers from the university is supported by Manchester. It allows students to design and execute their own independent projects and this boosts their university applications. I think the enthusiasm and commitment to a subject taking part in these projects displays is more of an indication of how suited a student might be to university than the passing an exam. Maybe more initiatives like this would be a good thing.

      Although I do think it contributes to widening participation issues, I don’t think the entry grade system is the be all and end all. I think the most important aspect is challenging preconceptions and attitudes to HE and raising aspirations, which is something I know most universities are heavily involved in (especially after the coalition axed AimHigher). I guess when a student’s aspirations is higher, they will strive more to get that AAA.

  3. Pingback: Chemistry Careers-What’s Next? | attheinterface

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