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Science, Engineering and Technology (Women)

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2010

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss Government policy on support for women in science, engineering and technology, and that it has attracted such interest across the main parties in Parliament.

Science, engineering and technology are important areas, where we need to increase research and improve productivity, in order that the UK economy can achieve sustained economic growth. It is the view of many that, to achieve these desirable goals, we have to increase the number of women working in those fields. That increase should come from both encouraging young women to enter and supporting women getting back into those fields when they have been away for some years. To do that means continuing to support the work being undertaken by a number of organisations, including the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology, and the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Employers increasingly worry about the under-representation of women, as it is directly affecting productivity and growth. In the private sector, in all SET occupations, there are around 417,000 female employees. Women made up only 12.3% of the work force in 2008, and the IET 2010 survey of engineering employers found that only 5% of engineers and 4% of engineering technicians are women. In the IT industry, men outnumber women by four to one.

Government strategy for women in SET was laid out in 2003, and the key mechanism for taking the strategy forward is the UKRC, which was launched in 2004. The UKRC works with British business to maximise the opportunities for professional women in the relevant areas of activity, and close the skills gap that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says is damaging UK competitiveness. It also collates statistics on women’s participation in SET education and employment and funds individual projects that aim to improve women’s progression and profile. The UKRC analysed its work to assess its value and effectiveness using the social return on investment methodology, as developed by the Cabinet Office and others. The social value generated by the UKRC is nearly £12 million above its grant funding. That means that for every pound invested in the UKRC, £5.27 of social value is created for organisations, women and their families.

My first question to the Minister concerns its future. I consider the UKRC an organisation that we should be supporting at this time to ensure our future economic growth. Are there any proposed cuts to its budget? Public sector cuts could also have a long-term impact on women working in a wide range of science, engineering and technology-related roles. The UKRC’s assistant director, Jane Butcher said:

“Nearly 45% of SET graduates working in the public sector are females; this is much higher than in the private sector....The UKRC is concerned that many women scientists, engineers and technologists may lose their jobs, and this will impact on the quality of public services and on the long-term profile and presence of women in SET.”

One positive sign for the future is that more girls are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, otherwise known as STEM. Girls and boys enter GCSE exams in those courses in almost equal numbers. Furthermore, the overall representation of girls in those subjects has improved in recent years, especially in physics, chemistry and biology.

The hon. Lady is right. However, girls and young women are often pressured later into a more academic route, as it is seen traditionally as female. I am keen to pursue joint pathways, where young people, particularly girls, can take both partly academic and partly vocational qualifications. Does the hon. Lady not think that if we can achieve that in our schools, we will encourage many more of our girls to go on much further in these subjects?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Although we are not largely concerned today with issues in schooling and the like, it is still important in terms of what happens.

Overall, we know that number of girls taking further mathematics, technology subjects, physics and other science subjects at A-level has increased, and it has increased proportionately more than the number of boys taking those subjects. So there is an interest there. The girls perform as well and often better in their GCSE and A-level courses. In 2009, girls outperformed boys in grades A* to C attainment in six out of 12 STEM GCSE subjects. They also outperformed boys in A-grade attainment in all but two A-level STEM subjects and had a slightly better pass rate than boys in all A-level STEM subjects. That level of success is good, but where are those bright young girls going? More young women are studying STEM courses, but female graduates are not heading towards employment in those areas.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward such an important issue. I would like to declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the chemical industry and as a supporter of women in this area for the past 10 years. It is interesting that a new report has come out from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers to say that it is vital not only to guide girls through from age 11 to 14, but now to start to look at the progression from the age of seven to 11. I wonder whether the Minister would look to that for future policy.

These are important areas. It demonstrates that, while we have the Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills here today, other Departments also have a key role. It is a cross-Government issue. Less than 30% of all female STEM graduates—compared with half of all male graduates—are working in those occupations. Many of those skilled women work in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, and the economy is therefore operating below its potential. That is not a recent phenomenon, with 70% of women overall with SET qualifications not working in those areas. Encouraging women into higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs would help us to reduce the current skills shortage and ensure that women have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Unfortunately, in ICT there are particular challenges, with low levels of participation at GCSE, which fall further at A-level and subsequently degree level. Worryingly, participation levels of women and girls have fallen in recent years and that is reflected in a fall in female IT professionals from 25% in 2001 to 21% today. To be successful in the global economy the UK needs more technologists, more scientists and more engineers at every level.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to pay tribute to some of the engineers in my constituency, who are at the forefront of the Young Engineers project. They do not just take it into primary schools, they follow on through and are particularly keen on using the opportunity to go into girls-only schools. I know three ladies who worked incredibly hard on the engineering projects and are now at Cambridge doing engineering. Clearly, that is the future.

I am delighted to pay tribute to the work they are doing. The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of role models. I shall shortly come on to talk a little about that.

We need people with the experience and skills; we need them for their positive impact on our manufacturing sector and to broaden our innovative capacity. How can we entice female graduates with the knowledge and skills into these sectors of the economy, sectors which are vital to our future? We need to change the culture of many organisations; we must have greater opportunities for women to enter and return to SET training, to education in this area and to employment. To attract, retain and promote women more actively, companies should support women through targeted programmes and improved opportunities. The UKRC runs innovative programmes to help companies understand unconscious bias, which can impact on their work, and to help them identify the practical steps that can help promote gender equality. We need employers also to recognise the benefits of keeping women with skills, through promoting the availability of senior, high-quality part-time and flexible roles. We lose far too many women who just cannot make a full-time job work with family life. They then find that, by the time they can return to full-time work, their skills are out of date.

Of course, it is important to note that some of the companies that are putting those programmes into action are themselves experiencing real benefits, as well as benefiting our economy. Atkins Global, E.ON, BT, Sony and PepsiCo are among more than 100 businesses and organisations that have signed up to the UKRC chief executive officer charter. Women taking part in this type of support project report real change in their job prospects, with more than 60% of them securing work or promotion.

One company where we can see a positive effect of the UKRC CEO charter is E.ON. Back in 2007, the EU Commission found that just 10% of board members across Europe were women, despite the degrees and training that women had. E.ON acknowledged that it was not an exception to those findings. At E.ON, 27% of the employees were female but only 11% held positions in senior management. E.ON wanted to change that and double the number of women in leadership positions in the medium term. It created the Women@Energy project in 2007 to support women. The first results from the research have already been put into practice. Gender issues are now part of the leadership training programme. After a year, more than 100 employees were involved in the group-wide IngE network for women in engineering—I am not sure if I have pronounced the name of that network correctly, but I will give the Hansard reporters the spelling. As well as being a fantastic networking device, the key objective of IngE was to find ways to support the prospects for women in technological jobs.

The effort at E.ON progresses. The female network for women executives, which was founded in 2008, provides six half-day seminars over the course of a year, giving focused advice and intensive leadership training to female managers. There is also the women into engineering programme and there are girls’ days. E.ON really is a company that recognises the benefits of having a more diverse work force.

I now come on to the issue of role models. The Institution of Engineering and Technology runs the young woman engineer of the year award. That award goes to the very best female engineer that the UK has to offer and highlights the achievements of women in engineering. There is no doubt that providing high-profile role models is an effective way to encourage women to become engineers. The institution supports the winners throughout their year in office and ensures that they get media coverage, highlighting what female engineers can achieve. I wonder if the Minister can commit to supporting this excellent scheme. He will be relieved to know that I am not necessarily talking about money. Rather, I am talking about raising its profile throughout the engineering industry, which would be a signal to young women that their talents and skills are seen as important.

I also want to mention the work being done in the charity sector. The Daphne Jackson Trust is an independent charity focusing on returning talented scientists, engineers and technologists to careers after a break of two years or more. The trust offers flexible, part-time and paid fellowships in universities and industrial laboratories throughout the UK. It has been highly praised by the Government and is acknowledged as running a vital returners scheme. It has a 96% success rate in returning fellows to SET careers. I hope that the Minister will join me in commending the trust’s work and thanking it for the effort that it has put into supporting women to return to the careers in which they were previously successful.

Finally, I turn to the women and work sector pathways initiative, which focuses on women’s career progression in industries where women are under-represented. For example, Aston Martin is putting 17 female employees through the programme. The company realised that women were encountering barriers and it wanted to equip female employees with the right skills to promote themselves within its engineering business. The company accessed £400 towards the cost of tailor-made training for each of those 17 employees, which was matched by its own contribution. Since the pathways initiative was established in 2006, £20 million in funding has helped more than 22,500 women and 3,200 employers. It is estimated that the value to the economy per woman helped by this scheme is between £900 and £1,300 per annum, and 93% of employers have stated that the initiative has met previously identified skills gaps within their industries.

However, I am concerned that that initiative is at risk of not being renewed as its final phase is due to end in March 2011. So, can the Minister reassure me that programmes such as this one will continue to receive the vital support that they require? I am sure that the Minister is aware that this project grew out of the Women in Work Commission, which looked at the gender pay gap. Interestingly, today is equal pay day, as designated by the Fawcett Society. The full-time pay gap means that effectively this is the last day on which women are paid in the financial year compared to men. So it is highly appropriate that we are having this debate in Westminster Hall today.

Today’s debate will only scratch the surface of this very important issue. I have not discussed in any detail the important role of early school experiences, which some of my hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), have mentioned —I will call them hon. Friends today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]. I have also not mentioned the role of work experience in encouraging girls into these sectors, nor have I touched on the importance of careers guidance, university funding or apprenticeships. In this short debate, I have put briefly to the Minister some of the important work that has been started in this area during the last few years.

It is recognised by everybody that there must be public spending cuts and I acknowledge that the Government have identified the importance of protecting the science budget as much as possible. However, within that budget I ask the Minister to acknowledge the importance of continuing to support the initiatives that I have mentioned, which are making a difference to science, engineering and technology. By ensuring that women are encouraged to develop these skills and by supporting women with these skills to return to their professions, we can help our economy to grow and prosper.

I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for securing such an important debate and I also thank the Minister in advance for what I am sure will be a very positive response to it.

As an engineer myself for 23 years, this is a subject that I feel passionately about. During the summer, I worked with many organisations to look at ideas for encouraging girls into science, technology, engineering and maths. We have discussed the points that have been raised in this debate with the Minister for Equalities and I look forward to working on them with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley.

I agree with everything that has been said so far in the debate. Briefly, I want to make two additional points. First, although women are under-represented in all areas of engineering, only 3% of engineering apprenticeships are filled by women, which is a figure in the realms of statistical error. Therefore, I want to ask the Minister if he will develop an action plan to address that particular issue.

Secondly, as has been said already, it is essential to inspire young girls about the potential of engineering. There are many good pilots and projects that are running in this area, and I hope that the Minister is aware of and can confirm the funding for projects such as the Aim Higher and Stimulating Physics schemes, which are run by the Institute of Physics. I hope that we will go on to see a cross-party consensus in this area.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship and indeed to respond to this short but important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on bringing this issue to the attention of the House, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on her contribution to the debate. I know that both of them have relevant experience in this field. I know that the hon. Lady has a degree in electrical engineering from Imperial college, and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley has highlighted her own long experience in the field.

The subject matter of this debate concerns both women and science. To begin with, let me say a word about the first of those. It is absolutely right that we should provide opportunities for girls and women to fulfil their potential, wherever that takes them. The Government are wholly committed to the idea that people, regardless of where they start and of who they are, should be able to fulfil their potential. Of course, that includes science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM, subjects, about which I will speak in detail in a moment. However, it is perhaps worth putting on the record that women contribute to our society in all kinds of ways, not least in this place, and I make no apologies in your presence, Mr Hollobone, for highlighting the contribution that women are making to our national interest in Afghanistan and Iraq as we speak.

For too long, however, the public perception of science has been that it is a predominantly male field. The reality of the scientific professions has been and, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley pointed out, to some extent remains predominantly one of middle-aged men in white coats. However, even that reality must not be allowed to obscure the achievements of women who have dared to break the glass ceiling.

When women first battered down the doors of our universities, it was most often to study the most scientifically demanding of subjects: medicine. These days, more than a century on, young British women with a talent for science are not short of inspirational examples, including Dorothy Hodgkin, who won a Nobel prize, and Rosalind Franklin, who surely would also have won one alongside her colleagues Watson and Crick had she not died tragically young. Other great figures such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Nancy Rothwell happily remain with us as living proof that women’s aptitude for science is certainly no less than that of men. Why should anyone assume otherwise? After all, science is as bound up with the world around us as other subjects, if not more so. Rosalind Franklin wrote that

“you look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment.”

In my view, the case for women not just in science but in other supposedly male preserves is already made.

History is full of instances where the price of equality has been paid in blood, but in the case of women’s representation in scientific and technological subjects, it has tended to be paid in gold. The hon. Lady mentioned a number of schemes that have contributed toward that price. Some have been supported by Government funding; others rely on other sources. I will happily advertise those schemes, as she asked, and congratulate the people associated with them. By advertising such schemes, as this debate plays an important part in doing, we will encourage more people to participate. We need not apologise for amplifying remarks such as those made here today whenever we can.

On the hon. Lady’s understandable concern about the continued availability of public funds, although that is not the only issue, as she generously acknowledged, I point out—she would hardly expect me to do otherwise—that in the recent comprehensive spending review, the Government acknowledged the critical role that science plays by defending and protecting its budget for an extended period. That decision was not easy, for there are, of course, many competing priorities, but we fully understand the key role that science plays in contributing to economic growth, feeding social enterprise and networks, serving the common good and providing the competitive edge that our businesses need. Her assessment of the value of science is shared across this Chamber and in Government.

Beyond that, I hope to satisfy the hon. Lady on several specific issues and to offer reassurance. I mentioned the ring-fenced support that we have given to science in the CSR; she will know that it amounts to about £4.6 billion a year. That will continue to support research in higher education and remains a substantial commitment of taxpayers’ money, as well as a vote of confidence in the science base. This Government need no convincing that scientific and technological excellence have a big role to play in renewing economic growth.

The hon. Lady rightly mentioned employers such as E.ON and charitable organisations such as the Daphne Jackson Trust, which are important, in particular, to women entering or returning to careers in science, engineering and technology. I assure her that such initiatives have and will continue to have the Government’s full support and encouragement.

In her concluding remarks—though she said that she did not have time to discuss it in detail—the hon. Lady mentioned the importance of high-quality careers guidance. She is right; it is critical in setting young women’s feet on the path towards careers in areas that have traditionally been largely male preserves. She is also right that the advice that young people get at school shapes the pattern of their subsequent progress in both learning and employment. It is therefore important that such advice is empirical, independent, up-to-date and gender-neutral, and is not about where people start from but about where they might end up. To that end, I shall set out this week, in a speech in Belfast, plans for improving careers advice and guidance.

The hon. Lady will know of my personal commitment to apprenticeships. She is right that they too involve a gender imbalance. She will be pleased to know that, mindful of that imbalance, I wrote this summer to the Skills Funding Agency asking how we can take steps to improve access to apprenticeships, particularly in fields such as engineering, for young women. I am anxious to ensure that that access enables young women with an interest and passion in and a talent and taste for STEM subjects, particularly applied science, to enter apprenticeships at all levels. I will speak more about apprenticeships in the coming weeks and months, but suffice it to say at this juncture that our extra investment in apprenticeships—£250 million in the CSR, with the potential to increase the number of apprenticeships by 75,000—must include a proper concentration on the opportunities available to young women and those who want to return to the workplace, change direction or upskill.

On that point, I will say a word about adult community learning, which we also protected in the CSR settlement, as both hon. Ladies will know. Adult community learning is important, in particular, for returning women who have taken time out from learning or the workplace and want to improve their chances of re-engagement by updating their skills. It is an important bridge to subsequent learning opportunities and employment.

It is not necessarily the case, nor should it be, that few young women, properly and professionally advised, should make their way into science, engineering and technology. I do not accept that we must leave things as they are. To that end, as I think the hon. Lady is aware, the Government have taken and continue to take steps and support initiatives to break down perceptions among young women, employers, training providers and educational institutions that the battle that she has fought for some time cannot be won.

The case for bringing more women into science and technology studies and careers requiring excellence in those fields is, in my judgment, unanswerable. It is impossible at this stage to promise new investment. I do not think that the hon. Lady expects me to—indeed, she almost acknowledged in her speech, generously, that I would be unlikely to do so—but it is important to promise on the record our continued commitment and effort in the direction in which she wishes us to travel, not merely as a Government but as a nation.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has rightly described the Government’s task as bringing our economy back from the brink. Let no one be in any doubt that we are fully aware that a strong science base has an indispensible role to play in accomplishing that task. Without it and the skills of our scientists—both men and women—Britain’s ability to use scientific and technological innovation to promote growth would be greatly diminished.

I am trying to pin the Minister down on two specific points. Can he say anything today about the UKRC and its funding, or about the future of the women and work sector pathways initiative?

I considered both those points in anticipation of this debate, as the hon. Lady would expect. I cannot give a definitive answer, but I can tell her that we take those matters seriously and are debating them carefully. The fallout from the CSR in all areas of Government is such that we are working through exactly what we will fund and how. Even within the ring-fenced science budget, it is obviously imperative to ensure maximum cost-effectiveness. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science is considering the issue closely and that he is particularly aware of those two initiatives, as I discussed them with him before I entered this debate to speak on his behalf. The hon. Lady’s point has been heard and taken note of. That is as far as I dare go, given that I am standing in for the Science Minister and am interested in keeping my job by not falling out with the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The hon. Lady is right to say that it is partly an issue of culture and of what we expect and anticipate. It is also partly about the perceptions of young women. She made an interesting point about the early promise in STEM subjects shown by many young women that is not fulfilled. Our job, on the back of this debate and inspired by examples such as hers, is to ensure that that promise is fulfilled for many more young women in future. It will benefit them, our society and our economy, and I think that we will all grow bigger as a result.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.