Alice Brown: Why we all benefit when gender is on the agenda

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Women are vital to science and technology, writes Alice Brown, and the female brain drain simply cannot go on

The report highlighted the fact that the majority of women with qualifications in STEM subjects – some 73 per cent – do not work in STEM areas.

Many highly-qualified women are leaving the sector early in their careers, while those who stay are under-represented in top positions in academia, government, business and industry.

Loss and under-representation have consequences for the individuals concerned. It also impacts negatively on Scottish business and the Scottish economy – it is estimated that it costs the Scottish economy about £170 million per year in terms of lost income.

At the same time, women are leaving the sector and some major employers are facing difficulties in recruiting people with STEM qualifications.

It is imperative that Scotland addresses this issue. In order to sustain Scotland’s strong international reputation and to be a smart economy, we need to invest in and make best use of the skills and talents of all our people and support the flow of knowledge from our schools, colleges and universities into wealth creation.

The causes of this problem are multi-dimensional and include family pressures, the organisational structure of the sector, cultural factors and a lack of female role models at a senior level.

The report – Tapping All Our Talents – makes the case for a coherent and comprehensive strategy for change aimed at retaining and promoting women in STEM.

Such an approach will require political will and leadership, and we are calling on the Scottish Government to commit itself to a national strategy, an action plan. But it is not the job of government alone. It will require the commitment and engagement of individuals and organisations – across academia, business and industry – working together.

The report, therefore, includes specific recommendations addressed to the different partners involved.

For example, it asks the UK Government to extend parental leave legislation to recognise the equal responsibility of mothers and fathers for parenting; business and industry to address the issue of job design and introduce high-quality part-time employment at all levels for men and women; funders of universities and of research to link funding to gender equality measures; universities and research institutes to obtain the minimum standard of an Athena SWAN award (or equivalent) for their STEM department; and academies, learned and professional bodies to set standards that help to change the culture.

To make the kind of culture change that is needed, it will be necessary for all those involved to pursue the types of practical policies we have outlined. If they do, there is the potential to make a real difference.

It would also send strong signals to talented and well-qualified people working in STEM sectors throughout the world that Scotland is at the leading edge and is an attractive place to work and develop a career.

The report has been well received, and the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, welcomed the findings, observing that: “Often women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths can be overlooked and undervalued.

“For too long, many women’s potential in these areas has been cut short. In the modern Scotland, we must ensure that the talents of all our people are recognised and used for the benefit of all.

“That is why . . . the Scottish Government will work with key partners to find solutions that benefit women and our wider economy.”

Over the next few months, the RSE will take the key messages from the report to government at Scottish and UK levels with a view to making progress on the recommendations.

If Scotland can make progress on this issue we can secure two prizes – the economic benefits of making full use of many talented women scientists and engineers, and the enhanced opportunities for women themselves.

Many glass ceilings have been broken – this is one more that needs to be breached for the benefit of all.

n Professor Alice Brown is the General Secretary of Royal Society of Edinburgh