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STEM Careers: Diversity

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2016

Would all those who are not staying for this debate please leave quickly and quietly? It is now the big moment for Ben Howlett—whom I barely recognise without his jumper on—and it is his job to move the motion.

(Bath) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered increasing diversity in STEM careers.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone—my new style consultant, apparently. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

Put simply, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector is largely dominated by white men and much more needs to be done to create a diverse and more balanced sector. I am sure that I do not need to explain to anyone why a more balanced sector will be beneficial to our economy and productivity, and to creating a much more equal society. I will therefore spend most of my time today discussing the lack of female representation in the sector, as well as the need to make it more appealing to the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, as well as disabled individuals.

As a man and as a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I must say that it is an absolute privilege to be leading this debate, as I believe strongly that it is not just a woman’s job to end up championing diversity in the sector; rather, it is for all of us to do so. I first got interested in this subject quite a while ago, but I saw a stark example of the problem last year, when I attended a school—which shall remain nameless—in my constituency to see an IT development class. There was a single woman in that class and a sea of men. To be frank, that is appalling in 21st-century Britain and we should be doing an awful lot more to change that.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on leading this very important debate. As someone who still is a chartered engineer, and who worked as an engineer across the world for 20 years before coming to this House, may I say how pleased I am to hear him say that this is the responsibility of everyone, including white men? Having men who talk about the importance of diversity—and not simply when they are being asked about it by women—and who raise it in the boardroom constantly is an important part of changing the culture. We need both men and women to speak up for it.

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I completely agree that it is the job of men and women to be championing this issue. Black, white, BME—from whichever sector of the community, it is important that we get that voice out there. I pay tribute to her for her work on championing this area, and particularly diversity in STEM, given her background. I have heard an awful lot from her over the last few months and I look forward to working with her on that in future.

Before I came here today, I was pleased to lead a digital debate on Twitter, alongside the House of Commons engagement team, using the hashtag #WomenInSTEM. As well as trending at No. 1 in the UK—it was the first time I have been involved in something like that that has been as successful, which was quite exciting—the debate was really insightful, with a huge number of ideas, which I will hopefully be able to reference today, although I cannot reference every single one of them. There were over 800 tweets altogether, and I will try my best to summarise as many as possible. I want to thank the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who took part in the debate—I hope many of them will be watching today’s debate—which shows that Parliament can really speak up for people out there who do not necessarily have a voice. I am sure that the hashtag #WomenInSTEM can be used throughout today’s debate as well. Sometimes Parliament can be seen as distant from people’s everyday lives. Looking at the debate yesterday online, I hope that we were able to show that this place was and is listening, and is working to improve the everyday lives of hard-working people.

There are some truly shocking figures that show the lack of diversity in STEM. For example, in 2012, a survey of girls between the ages of seven and 21 found that the top three careers they would choose for themselves were teacher, hairdresser and beautician. As I am sure we can all agree, these are often seen as “traditional” female roles. We need to ask ourselves why engineer, physicist, chemist and mechanic are not mentioned in that list. When it comes to engineering, only 3% of engineering degree applicants are girls and just 6% of the UK engineering workforce are female. Physics is the third most popular A-level for boys, but only the 19th for girls, and around half of all state schools in the UK have no girls studying physics A-level at all.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to start earlier? A lot of research shows that from the age of seven upwards, girls are ruling out such careers. We need to tackle that stigma in primary schools, not just when it becomes too late in secondary schools.

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. She is absolutely right, and I will come to that. We should be looking at diversity and removing gender biases even earlier, in nursery or even from birth—I will provide evidence to back that up.

It is not only science that has an issue with diversity. There is a lack of female academics in the English department of a very prestigious university—although I will spare its blushes by not mentioning which. An inherent misconception is putting girls off a career in STEM subjects, but that does not apply to other sectors. The figures speak for themselves. There is something about STEM subjects that appeals to boys but puts off girls. I want to look at various key stages throughout life before suggesting some steps to see more girls taking a greater interest in STEM subjects and, ultimately, STEM careers. The trend will not change overnight, but we must stop stalling and start to bring about real change.

This is an important debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is real value in mentoring women and young girls in STEM subjects so that they look forward to careers in those subjects? Does he also agree that we could and should be doing a lot more to encourage women to step forward and to help in this way?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right. Mentoring is a key and valuable part of helping girls into careers in STEM subjects and, when they are in such careers, helping them to progress. It is clear from all the evidence across all age groups that women, black, Asian and minority ethnic people and all groups that are under-represented in the STEM sector should also have improved access to mentoring.

I want to thank a local councillor in Bath who has done a lot of work to increase diversity in STEM and lobbied me for this debate. He rightly pointed out that there is a huge benefit to our economy from having the best of all potential talent going into science, technology and engineering, and anyone who makes a career in these industries will be guaranteed excitement, satisfaction and opportunities that are unique and rewarding. I also want to thank a constituent, Danielle Workman from Ralph Allen School in Bath, who produced a superb report on the lack of women taking STEM subjects, which helped me to construct today’s debate. I thank her for her time and commitment.

We will never address the lack of diversity without addressing the very foundation of career choice. In 2016, children are still pressed to conform to gender stereotypes, with pink Babygros, Barbie dolls and ovens for girls, and blue rooms, cars and chemistry sets for boys. Children obviously do not make that conscious decision; they are guided by their parents, family and society from an early age. That guidance is not malicious, but I am concerned that some decisions are affecting the take-up of STEM careers later on. The Campaign for Science and Engineering produced an excellent report backing up that evidence.

Even children’s advertising exploits gender stereotypes. Adverts for toys targeted at girls commonly use words such as cuddly, magic, princess and glitter, and those targeted at boys use words such as adventure, battle, action and launch. Yesterday’s Twitter debate on the “Let Toys be Toys” campaign, which campaigns to de-gender children’s toys, said that just 4% of adverts for toy vehicles feature girls. When so much of what children are exposed to seems to be so gender-biased, how are children expected to take a neutral look at future careers?

My hon. Friend is making some interesting points. Does he agree that much of the problem is about role models and that if children cannot see a role model they can identify with, their career choices will naturally go elsewhere? Torquay Girls Grammar School in my constituency has had STEM days with STEM ambassadors from the Met Office. Does he see a role for local employers to go out and ensure that technology is seen as an attractive career choice?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that that is one way in which schools can work better with businesses to help to de-gender the STEM career field. I pay tribute to him for his work in his constituency to help to promote that.

I want parents to encourage both their sons and daughters to look at all available careers options. That means acceptance by parents that their daughters can consider a profession in which females may be in a minority. If young girls are encouraged to get excited by chemistry sets and to enjoy thinking about space, more might start to dream about a career in STEM, rather than some of the more stereotypically female sectors.

By the age of six, children are already beginning to classify certain jobs as male or female, and by 13 many limit their career aspirations to fit in with these artificial boundaries. That is shocking and shows why the problem has been so difficult to overturn. Any action at older ages is potentially redundant unless these early misconceptions are challenged. As well as taking further steps to encourage retention of STEM subjects and uptake of STEM careers, those early preconceptions need to be altered.

If young girls have parents who think they should enter a gender-stereotypical career when they have grown up, how are they expected to look at STEM careers with an open mind? To increase uptake of STEM subjects and ultimately careers, we must remove this hugely inaccurate preconception, and that has to be reflected in the way these careers and subjects are treated both at school and at home. I hope the Minister will explain not just what the Government are doing to change the mind set in early years, but how we are going to take these arguments and change the minds of parents.

Following on from the development of early opinions on the gender of particular careers and subjects, the next key step is the choice of A-levels. At the age of 15 and 16, pupils are given the option to choose their A-levels and think more carefully about their future careers. Of course, some will have a clear career path in mind, but others will try to pick subjects that they enjoy, which could lead to a wide range of careers when they have decided what they want to pursue in life. It is important that young girls are reminded at this stage that a STEM career may be limited if they choose restricting subjects.

It is key at this point, when girls may turn their back on STEM subjects, that as many as possible are encouraged to consider STEM careers. When it comes to educational attainment, girls often outperform their male counterparts in STEM subjects, so that is not putting off girls. A large variety of careers advice is given to students and it is key that female role models are used to show where maths, biology, chemistry, physics, IT, and so on, can take girls. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) alluded to that.

Examples of successful women in STEM careers would hopefully see more girls continuing with STEM subjects and looking further into a career in the sector. That point was brought up repeatedly during the online Twitter debate yesterday, with many people agreeing that a mentoring system to support girls who have an interest in STEM subjects and show them where such careers could take them would help them and could see the industry change for the better. Some involved in the debate said they would support such an initiative. I urge schools to get in touch with local businesses to see whether they can help with giving young girls role models in STEM subjects. I hope the Minister will explore the various ways that the Government can facilitate and help to develop an alumni and mentoring scheme across the UK to encourage young women into the sector.

I want to make it clear that the uptake of STEM subjects at A-level and university is important. Apprenticeships are a key part of our economy, and a fundamental part of STEM careers. They are a fantastic way to get into the sector while earning, and millions of people are accessing apprenticeships. We need to tackle the fact that under 5% of engineering apprenticeships are being undertaken by women. Increasing the uptake of women in STEM apprenticeships is another route to improving the gender balance within STEM careers and ultimately changing the misconception that they are careers just for men.

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that encouraging women and people from ethnic minorities into STEM careers will not only improve diversity, but alleviate the bigger problem of the skills shortage in the industry throughout the country? It is a ticking time bomb in areas such as Chippenham, because companies will leave if they cannot find the right skills there.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It seems outrageous to me, or at least incredibly strange, that the understanding that a woman can be as productive as, or more productive than, a man is not part of the mindset of many businesses in the sector. The skill sets that should be created to help to grow the economies that are important to us—the tech economy, in particular—are simply not being built. We need to be generating a whole new pool of talent, which can, obviously, come from women. There is no reason why it cannot; there simply seems to be a culture out there that prevents women from being able to access the sector.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Part of the culture that he has just mentioned may well be the idea that science and engineering are somehow separate from arts and creativity, and that people must choose between the two. The great thing about engineering and science careers is that the best and the most productive involve creativity and imagination, which are the sorts of skills that we need for our future.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. There is no difference between the two. Some of the most creative women I have met work in professions in the tech economy, and I do not know why the separation that she mentioned exists. The application of a particular type of STEM, whether it is science, technology, engineering or maths, seems to be missed in the wider debate. Women would be much better able to access the sector if they knew that science or technology would help them in their future careers and that they would be accessing a very creative sector.

Once women have chosen a career in STEM, we must work to make sure the sector retains them. I was saddened to learn of a former constituent of mine, one of Bath’s only female IT developers—given the fact that we have a huge tech economy, I find it absurd that we had literally one IT developer who was a woman—who needed flexible working and found that her only option was to move to London. Sadly, we have lost her now. The tech economy in the west of England, and elsewhere in the UK, should learn from that, understand the reasons why it happened and encourage more women to access the sector. I hope that example will shift the mindset of many employers.

It should not be difficult to allow women to work flexibly and pursue a career in STEM. I am not saying that every company that contributes to the STEM sector is not flexible or accommodating of women with families, but a sizeable number are not. All sectors need to step into the 21st century and be flexible. The STEM sector is no different, and I hope that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work to encourage that.

I did say that I would touch on the importance of extending STEM to be more inclusive of the BAME community and disabled people. Just as we need to work to break down barriers for women, we need to break down any barriers that exist for the BAME community, and even more so for women BAME community members. There is much information available about female uptake of STEM, but for some reason far less when it comes to the BAME community. To create an appropriate strategy to combat any issues, we need to monitor the uptake of subjects and careers, and highlight trends, which policy can work to mitigate. We need to focus much more on workplace adjustments in STEM careers to help disabled people to access roles and further their careers in the sector.

I am pleased to say that there are success stories, which we need to hold high and use as models to improve the diversity of STEM in the future. Athena SWAN, as I am sure many Members are aware, is a national scheme that recognises a commitment to supporting and advancing women’s careers in STEM within higher education and research. Members across the country sign up to its charter, which contains principles such as

“To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation”,


“The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address”,

to name but two. Athena SWAN grants awards to organisations for good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in higher education. Universities proudly display their certificates, which no doubt help when they are competing to attract the best staff and students.

In the last Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) was a strong champion in this area, and I pay tribute to her for her work on increasing diversity. I direct the Minister’s attention to the excellent report published by the Select Committee on Science and Technology during the last Parliament, which included a range of recommendations to improve diversity in STEM. Other sectors need to look at Athena SWAN and bring in similar charters to ensure that they are doing all that they can to put increasing and maintaining a diverse workforce at the centre of their work.

I am pleased to see that the Government have committed to addressing the lack of diversity in STEM, and I would like to suggest, as I am sure other colleagues will too, ways in which we could start to de-gender STEM careers and ensure that the sector is as attractive to young girls as it is to young boys.

I rise as someone who has three daughters and has failed with two of them, in spite of intense parental pressure, to get them to do STEM subjects. It is important to recognise that one area of STEM is medicine, which is increasingly dominated by women. Perhaps the propensity to do medicine, as opposed to engineering, can be an issue.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There has been a propensity to encourage women to pursue careers in biology and medicine, but that has not been the case in maths, science, manufacturing and technology for generations.

Medicine and chemistry are intertwined. Chemistry is slightly less behind maths, technology and science; indeed, it seems to be positively favoured. We need to learn why more women are coming forward to do medicine, and we must apply that knowledge to maths, engineering and science. A range of different organisations has published recommendations about how to do that. We need to stop so many 16-year-old girls walking away from STEM. Some level of science is compulsory until that age, but we need to stop girls abandoning it just as they are getting started. The more girls choose to take STEM-related A-level subjects, the more will consider studying a STEM subject at university, and so on. To make sure that happens, I would like to see more female role models to show young girls the success that can be had in male-dominated areas.

Finally, I would like to add my voice to those who have called for a link between STEM research funding and a university’s progress in Athena SWAN. That would lead to an increase in research funding for universities that have successful diversity strategies, and it might encourage more universities to reconsider STEM policies and encourage diversity.

It is so important that we get women into these areas. Does my hon. Friend agree that one big driver should be the fact that people who enter STEM industries attract wages that are significantly higher—up to 20% higher—than those in other industries? In my constituency, NXP Semiconductors, which is a big manufacturing exporter in a big industry, is looking for people to come and work in its industry. We want to see more women doing so.

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution, and for the work she is doing in her constituency to champion this area. From my conversations with her, I know that it is high on her agenda. There are two angles. First, we need to improve careers advice and explain to many women that entering a STEM career will give them a higher earning potential. Such advice is not necessarily available, although careers advice in the UK is getting better. My experience was that I was told to go into the Army when I left school—that was the only career option available to me in rural Colchester. Secondly, we have to explain to companies that they can increase productivity and grow into much more profitable businesses by employing more women. It is quite clear that women are incredibly productive members of whatever sector they are in, and we need to break down the stereotypes that exist in the business community.

I know that the Minister cares deeply about the issue and that she understands the need to improve diversity in the sector for the sake of increasing productivity. We must live in a more equal society, and if we do nothing, we will be damaging the opportunity to fulfil every woman’s potential.

Order. The debate finishes at 5.56 pm. The Front Benchers will be called at 5.33 pm and will have five minutes, five minutes and 10 minutes. With four Members standing, I will have to impose a time limit of three and a half minutes, which will include interventions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate. It is good for a representative of Aberdeen to be thinking about this subject. The oil and gas industry is one of the major employers in Aberdeen, if not the biggest employer in the whole city—it certainly has a huge ripple effect. The other thing that we do quite well is academia. We have a major issue with the lack of women in STEM careers.

As an MP, I travel through Aberdeen airport quite a lot. I am there twice a week most weeks. It has the world’s busiest heliport, and it is the UK’s fifth-busiest airport in terms of total movements. There is a huge number of oil-related movements. There are very few women in the airport. Almost all the women I see at Aberdeen airport are going on holiday or are there with a male partner. Very few of those women are travelling on business in their own right. I have mentioned the two major industries in the city, and from the airport alone I can see that there is huge under-representation. OPITO, the oil and gas training body, did a survey in 2011 on the proportion of female employees in the industry as a whole. The survey found that more than 50% of those employed in the admin sector are women, and in all other sectors, including marketing, communications and engineering, it was less than 20%. Women are woefully under-represented in the whole oil and gas industry, particularly in higher-paid jobs, and not just in STEM careers.

I am beginning to wonder why that should be. I tried to find evidence for it, and all I could come up with was that these jobs are “not for women.” If we start with the entrenched cultural position—the hon. Gentleman said that there is a culture around this—that jobs in the oil and gas industry are not for women, women will not go into those jobs, and when they do go into them they will not be promoted because it will be assumed that women will not do very well. Actually, we are just as good—some of us might be better.

We are doing a couple of things in Aberdeen. At the weekend I visited Satrosphere, which is basically Aberdeen’s science centre. I went with my children, and it was fantastic. The boys and girls were equally involved in all the activities, and it was totally non-gendered. There was no place where there were more women or more men. Even the staff were pretty representative—they were pretty fifty-fifty—which is good for people to see. Aberdeen does some of those things well.

Aberdeen has TechFest, which is also encouraging young people to get into STEM subjects. Again, there is no bias towards either women or men at TechFest, and it will be interesting in a few years’ time to see whether these young people begin to choose STEM careers as a result. I studied advanced higher applied maths with mechanics in my sixth year of secondary school, and I was the only girl doing that subject. As the hon. Gentleman says, we also have a huge lack of women studying physics. Hopefully, talking about it can improve the situation.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate. He is passionate about this topic, as I am, and his debate on Twitter yesterday was seen by 2 million people. The STEM agenda is very important to us in Portsmouth, where we have a history of naval engineering and are moving into high-tech industries. One graduate of Portsmouth University, Tim Peake, is now working on the space station, which I hope is inspiring a new generation of scientists.

To me, however, STEM does not necessarily mean academic subjects; to me, STEM is about a range of careers. That is one of the reasons why I invited the university technical colleges to look again at setting up in Portsmouth, and I am pleased that they will be setting up in 2017. The college will not only be doing maths and sciences but technical engineering, training draughtsmen and teaching craftsmanship in areas such as carpentry and other vocational subjects.

Many STEM subjects are perceived as boring, with little practical relevance. I remember being interested only in the space shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles, rather than in the equations that got it into space. My daughter started doing engineering at university only to find it boring. She changed to natural sciences and is now training to be a doctor. Members will be glad to know that my other daughter also did science at A-level, but my sons did not.

I agree with many of the things that my hon. Friend said, but my wish is that plumbers, electricians and other technicians, whom I consider to be part of the STEM agenda, will be invited into schools. How much more interesting would it be to learn electricity from an electrician in the classroom and to learn about angles and the movement of water from a plumber? Architects could come in and show how everything fits together. Those jobs need a lot of trigonometry and maths. Would children not feel more engaged if they could see the everyday practical consequences of technology? As has been mentioned, this needs to start in primary schools to inspire children and to increase participation. Children all learn differently, and I suspect that we would get more women and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds engaged in STEM subjects if we made them more relevant in the classroom. I encourage schools to use their imagination in the way that they teach STEM subjects, using people from the community to come in and show practical applications of why STEM is important to life. I guarantee that it would also lead to more diversity.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing this debate and on setting an excellent scene. In Northern Ireland our society is not as ethnically diverse as in some parts of England, but with the rest of the country we share a lack of gender diversity in STEM careers.

We have made some giant steps forward. The hon. Gentleman mentioned role models, and what better role model is there than to have Arlene Foster as the leader of our party? I am immensely pleased to see that happening. I supported her when she was an Ulster Unionist. She is now a member of the Democratic Unionist party, and I am pleased to see her in place. Not only is she the leader of our party; she is now First Minister, too. If someone wants a role model, they should look no further than Arlene Foster. The sky is the limit for what can be achieved. It is good news to have ambition, drive and a target to aim for.

Nationwide, just 9% of people in non-medical STEM careers are women, despite women making up more than half the population. We could consider quotas to address the situation, but with such a low figure there clearly needs to be a much more thorough and comprehensive approach. Last week the House debated space policy, and the idea of introducing young girls and ladies to engineering and STEM careers was raised. There are obviously great possibilities for space policy, too.

With public spending in Northern Ireland still stubbornly high at a staggering 77% of GDP, STEM careers will be an integral part of future growth. It is essential that a STEM sector emerges that reflects the population. We must be more proactive in addressing the gender imbalance both here on the mainland and back home.

We also have a disabled population, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to that, because it was in my mind to do so. We must highlight that disabled people also need to benefit from any moves to address the lack of diversity in STEM subjects and STEM careers. There are 5.2 million disabled adults of working age in the UK, and almost half of them have a degree-level qualification—the same as for those without a disability—yet a small number are in employment. There have been noticeable steps forward since 2008, particularly on resources for disabled students and employees in STEM. The STEMM Disability Advisory Committee was founded in 2011, which is a welcome step. Both the Northern Ireland Executive’s programme for Government and the skills strategy for Northern Ireland, “Success through Skills—Transforming Futures,” recognise that the Northern Ireland economy’s future success will require increased numbers of skilled workers with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics qualification.

In engineering in Northern Ireland, I am encouraged by the number of young girls who are interested in apprenticeships at Bombardier, Shorts and Magellan. I am keenly encouraged by those who are taking up engineering opportunities, and I have advised many young girls when going around schools and universities, “There are opportunities in engineering for girls in Northern Ireland. Take the course now, get the university degree and get the job.” We can move forward very positively. We just need to focus on the right way to do so.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome this debate and both the fact that it has been secured by a fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee and that he is a white man. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate—he is setting an example by doing so.

We have a lot of work to do in this country. Only 14% of all STEM roles and jobs are taken by women, and only 9% of engineering jobs, the lowest proportion among European countries. My constituency is home to a large number of employers that depend on technology, information and communications technology and transport roles. One of those is GlaxoSmithKline, which is headquartered locally. I congratulate GSK on the successful work that it has done to recruit women into STEM apprenticeships: 34% of its STEM apprenticeships are taken by women, against a national average of 16%. GSK has done so through a number of initiatives, particularly by promoting role models, ensuring that female apprentices and other staff attend careers fairs and feature in promotional videos, and talking to young women who might consider taking up a career in a STEM field.

Other Members have addressed gender stereotyping, an issue for which we all need to take responsibility, particularly employers and the Government. The small proportion of female teachers of STEM subjects is concerning. Teachers play such an important role in the career choices that young women make, and it saddens me that in the 21st century, we still have gender differentiation in the career choices of young people in our schools. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, because I believe that the Government have a significant role to play in taking action and leadership on this important issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on raising this important issue.

I wish it were hard to believe, but 40 years ago I did a study of women in politics. For more than 40 years, I have had an interest in gender divides in society. I was particularly interested in the issue raised by the hon. Member for Bath, which I think is fundamental: this is predominantly a cultural matter. It is about our society and how we view one another. I was intrigued, too, when he raised the issue—if I recall his speech correctly—of the difficulty of getting an IT developer in his constituency, and the small number of women involved in that scientific area. It reminded me of the daughter of Lord Byron.

Lord Byron’s daughter began to study and show an interest in mathematics as a young child. She was fortunate for the 19th century in that she was strongly supported by her mother, who was keen for her to move away from the romantic and emotional interests of her father and take on something rather more practical, in her view. But, of course, it was difficult. Women had few rights to enter such areas at that time.

She began to correspond with Charles Babbage, the mathematician, who asked her to translate from the Italian a memoir describing his analytical machine, which was one of the first to carry out computations. Not only did she translate it, but she made her own notes about the machine, which even included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. Because of that, she is acknowledged as the world’s first computer programmer. The world’s first computer programmer was a female from our society, but she had to fight against many odds and break down many barriers to get there.

Hopefully, it is much easier for young women to break into such areas today, but they still face the same cultural biases. I am pleased that in Scotland we have a programme called Improving Gender Balance Scotland, which involves not only young people and teachers but, centrally, parents. They are the people who carry many of the myths, values and prejudices in our society. These matters will not be resolved by dealing with them through curriculum alone; we need to look much more widely at the things that create cultural influences in our society.

I was therefore pleased when the hon. Member for Bath mentioned the role of television and the like in the modern era—the types of adverts we get, and how they can discriminate, perhaps unwittingly, by characterising some things as only for girls and some as only for boys. That must be tackled from the earliest stage. It is too late to leave it to secondary school, and probably too late to leave it to primary school. We must think about influencing people from the earliest days, which means that parents are crucial in the campaign, as are nurseries and other people who come into contact with young children.

I mentioned Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. She faced many barriers to her rights. I thought that, since this is January and I am a Scot, I would perhaps say a few words on the rights of women by one Robert Burns:

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,

The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;

While quacks of State must each produce his plan,

And even children lisp the Rights of Man;

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on obtaining this debate. We have heard about the Campaign for Science and Engineering report. Yes, the statistics are indeed depressing, although I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) that there are exceptions. However, we must consider what we are doing to harness the enthusiasm for the subject that young people, both girls and boys, have from an early age. In primary school, at the age of eight, they are equally enthusiastic about STEM subjects, but by the time they reach 16, that enthusiasm has waned.

We have heard a lot about gender stereotyping, and some of it is down to that, but we must also consider the teaching methods used. A science teacher said to me, “It’s all big bangs and noise.” STEM subjects can put off young women by being seen as a bit dirty. The impression still exists that engineering and science are dirty and that it is about men in hard hats and is not for young women. Hairdressing and beauty are still the apprenticeships of choice for young women.

I have some questions for the Minister. First, what work is being done with the Department for Education to improve the quality of careers advice and, crucially, to involve parents? In areas such as mine, apprenticeships in Heinz, as they say, are for the boys, and apprenticeships in hair and beauty are for the girls, and teachers sometimes encourage that. A young woman came to me who is apprentice of the year at MBDA. Her maths teacher said, “Why are you taking an apprenticeship? You’re far too bright to be taking an apprenticeship. Go to university first.” She has a degree now, through taking up that apprenticeship.

I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that more role models are needed. We must ensure, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) said, that high-quality jobs are available to young women as well as young men. We also need to consider career progression. Only 19% of young women working in the private sector are in engineering or STEM subjects. For all STEM occupations, only 13% employed in them are women, and only 10% of STEM managers are women.

What is being done to identify and address the barriers to women once they have entered these careers? We know from research that one barrier is the fact that if someone takes a career break, they tend to lose their immediacy of research. How can we identify that and help with that?

I would also like to know what strategy there is for the black, Asian and minority ethnic community to break down the barriers that members of that community face, and to explain why BAME men are 28% less likely to work in STEM careers than white men.

Finally, I would like the Minister’s comments on what is being done to break down barriers between employers and the employment of people with disabilities. I no longer want to hear from someone with a disability, as I have already heard, that they were not taken on in a factory as an apprentice in a STEM subject because they were a fire risk. Education matters, and again role models, to provide practical examples of how people with disabilities are forging forward in these careers, would be extremely useful.

We all know that these are the high-quality jobs. They range right from under the ocean to the moon, and we need to do a lot more to encourage people from disadvantaged backgrounds—young women, members of the BAME community and people with disabilities—to take full advantage of all the opportunities offered by these wonderful careers.

If the Minister is able to keep her remarks to 10 minutes, that would allow Mr Howlett a few minutes to sum up the debate before I put the motion to the House.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I will do everything I can to comply. I have taken out some large chunks of the speech that was helpfully provided by my officials. And I always say—there are some here this afternoon who have heard the usual line that I trot out, and I am looking at my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as I say this—that the usual rules apply. Anyone who I do not reply to by way of my speech will receive a letter that will answer all the points that have been raised in what has been an excellent debate, and I pay full credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing it. Truthfully, we could have gone on.

There have been some splendid contributions and perhaps most importantly of all there has been huge agreement across the House. It is not often that we hear that, but when these sorts of debates occur we hear people speaking in the way they have done today: free of party politics and not making daft points half the time; and speaking from experience but with shared common goals about wanting to make sure that more women and in particular young girls take up these STEM subjects and then do as well as any boy or man and flourish in them.

I will try to answer some of the points that have been made and obviously I will make the case for what the Government are doing. However, I begin by saying that I am getting very concerned, because I am becoming increasingly fond of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin). I am concerned that he is becoming the Scottish National party’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). [Laughter.] That is a compliment, because my hon. Friend is an outstanding historian and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is also a great historian, and I thought that his contribution today was very useful.

I just want to make a sensible point; I am now in my sixtieth year. I know that is difficult to believe; some would say that I look nearer 65 and it often feels it. The thing that slightly concerns me is that I think that when I was in my early 20s—almost 40 years ago—I heard this very same debate. What worries me and troubles me is that despite the efforts of all Governments to try to get more young women to break down these dreadful stereotypes, to get rid of the barriers and to open up all the channels of opportunity, I sometimes wonder whether we have made progress; I do not think we have made the progress that we all want. And trying to crack this problem is incredibly difficult. Yes, there are schemes and, yes, there is money going into it.

I praise the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, but actually he reflected what my hon. Friend the Member for Bath said—it is all about culture and changing culture. Yes, we can do masses in our primary schools, secondary schools and universities, but it probably begins long before that with the attitudes that we as parents impart to our children.

There were some great contributions. There was an intervention from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and I could not agree with her more; there was the contribution from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman); and I thought that the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) was particularly important, and I will just concentrate on one particular thing she said. That was when she talked, quite rightly, about the fine tradition within Portsmouth in relation to the Navy. When I was in the Ministry of Defence, one of the things that really struck me was the fact that so many young women are now going into the Navy. They are doing particularly well in those highly skilled jobs—they are all skilled in the Navy, as indeed they are in all our armed forces—and the number of women going into the Royal Navy really struck me.

Those women are doing incredibly well, which resonates with the point that the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) made in her speech. I do not know whether hon. Members find this as they go round their constituencies, as I have done in my new role in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but often employers will talk about the quality of their apprentices and then they will produce the prize apprentice, and invariably they are women. So, we have those brilliant role models there; the trouble is that we do not have enough of them, and we all understand and recognise that.

We know that science is a universal culture; no one should face barriers to involvement in science because of their background. However, I will give what I suggest is a horrible statistic. The provisional figures for 2015 show more than 25,000 boys taking A-level physics; for girls, the figure is less than 7,000. And the United Kingdom has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe, at less than 10%. If those figures are accurate, they are not good ones.

In the research community, when we look at grant applications we see that men have higher success rates than women across all but one research council. White applicants have higher success rates than black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants. We know that there are barriers to achieving a diverse team at various stages of education and work, so as a Government we are committed to developing a strong, diverse STEM community, and we are working with the research councils, the national academies, industry and educators to deliver it.

There are some other facts that I hope will give people some encouragement that we are on the right track. We are investing £2.15 million in the Stimulating Physics network and £5 million in the Further Mathematics Support programme to help schools, academies and colleges to increase the take-up of maths and physics, with a particular focus on engaging more girls.

From 2014 to 2016, we will invest £11 million in the maths hubs. I pay tribute to the one in my own constituency of Broxtowe, which is at the George Spencer Academy, and I know that the academy’s brilliant principal—its headteacher, who is an outstanding woman—is determined that she will get more young women taking up maths. We are also investing £7.2 million in the Science Learning Partnerships to support better teaching in schools.

There are some other interesting statistics. I put my hand up to ask, “Please don’t tweet out in an adversarial way about this”, because I had not heard—it is not within my departmental responsibility, I quickly add, so I am grateful to be able to come along and respond to this debate—of the Careers & Enterprise Company. It is an employer-led, Department for Education-funded organisation that strengthens links between employers, schools and colleges. It will inspire young people—of course it will—and it has a £5 million investment fund. I shall certainly contact it, because I am finding in my own constituency a real willingness by schools to engage far more now with the business community and to bring people in.

We have heard from a number of hon. Members today about some of the work in their own constituencies, and their encouragement of schools and teachers to engage far more with businesses. Some really sensible and good points have been made about bringing in the engineers and the plumbers—it does not matter—to break down these stereotypes and to open the minds of all our young people to the fact that there is a full range of opportunities available to them, and to break out of those stereotypical opportunities of fashion and beauty.

I do not know what it is about our culture, which seems in some ways to be going backwards; whether that is because of the predominance of the personality culture, I do not know. So I pay full tribute to the fact that we have the first woman First Minister in Northern Ireland—fantastic—and the first woman First Minister in Scotland. Do you know what? I do not care what Nicola Sturgeon’s clothes are like; I am not interested in her hair, any more than I am interested in whether the Chancellor is on the 5:2 diet. [Laughter.] It really is so totally, utterly irrelevant, is it not? What matters much more is what they do; the Chancellor, of course, is brilliant, and Nicola Sturgeon could do an awful lot more. No—I am making a cheap political point. But we all know what the point is. We have an obsession now with the way people look, with what they are wearing and how they dress, but it does not matter; it is what they do and say that matters most. We have moved backwards in that respect, and changing that would encourage more young women to get involved in STEM subjects.

You will probably be pleased to know, Mr Hollobone, that I fear hugely that I will be unable to deal with all of the speech. In any event, it is far too long to deal with in the time available to me.

I pay full credit to the Secretary of State for Education, who is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, for the work she does and her absolute determination to ensure that girls and young women have all possible opportunities. For example, in 2014 we set up the Your Life campaign, which aimed over three years significantly to increase the numbers taking A-level maths and physics. It has a strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which is the way of communicating with young people, even if at times it drives people like me completely bonkers, because of the trolls and the abuse.

Regarding the levels of misogyny, I do not know whether the number of attacks on women in public life has increased, but certainly on social media we see that sort of abuse, and it is absolutely not acceptable in a modern world and does nothing to encourage women to step away from the stereotype.

I want to say just one other thing, and it is about mentoring. We have a great scheme to ensure that we get mentors into schools, and we have STEM ambassadors. In BIS we support more than 32,000 ambassadors to go into our schools, and I want to find out more about them when I go back to my Department. That really is the future, but it is also about changing the culture.

I thank the Minister very much for her closing remarks. Her passion for the subject is clear. She is obviously looking to take on board the recommendations and the issues raised in the debate today and report back to us later, to carry on the good work that the Government are doing to address this culture.

Members on both sides of the House are right to say that there is a cultural problem. We have talked about role models that need to be rolled out, and we need to ensure that the 5.2 million disabled people are not left to one side and forgotten about. They are hugely productive members of our community and we should do everything we can to encourage them into STEM careers as well. In addition, we have heard about the Improving Gender Balance Scotland project, and I will go away and read about that and find out what work has been done there too.

In particular, I hugely congratulate everyone who was on Twitter yesterday—I have to say that there was a limited number of trolls. The debate has been amazing, incredibly sensible and forthright and has shown how wonderful this place can be when we focus on an issue that has cross-party support. I hope that this will not be a single debate but a long-term campaign to ensure that we change our culture, so that in a number of decades’ time we will not have to talk about these same problems. I thank everyone who has taken part today, and particularly the millions of people out there who were watching the Twitter debate yesterday.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered increasing diversity in STEM careers.

Sitting adjourned.