The future of the left since 1884

Why science and technology needs women

Women in science and technology have to work hard to ignore sexist pigeonholing. This government needs to acknowledge that talent is diverse, from education and onwards. Much has been made of the importance of innovation through science and technology as a means...


Women in science and technology have to work hard to ignore sexist pigeonholing. This government needs to acknowledge that talent is diverse, from education and onwards.

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 Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM) fields, particularly as far as the physical sciences and engineering are concerned. The number of women who enter these fields is low, and the attrition rate along the pipeline is deplorable. That so few women enter these professions indicates 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.

This article was originally published in Fabiana, the Fabian Women’s Network magazine.

Athene Donald is speaking at the Fabian Women’s Network event “Time to release the UK’s potential energy” taking place on 19th June 2012.

Athene Donald

Dame Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

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