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Diversity and inclusion in STEM – data, culture and social benefit

In a recent government Science and Technology Committee meeting, a number of experts shared their opinions on the current barriers to increasing diversity in STEM, as well as ways the sector can move past them

Collecting relevant data, creating an inclusive culture, and focusing on how science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills are relevant outside of STEM careers are ways the UK could help to build equality, equity, diversity and inclusion (D&I) in STEM, according to a group of experts.

During a government Science and Technology Committee (STC) meeting about diversity in STEM, experts in various STEM roles claimed that data collection and sharing should be a focus when it comes to advancing D&I in the STEM sectors, alongside creating a better industry culture to attract and retain diverse talent, and ensuring STEM education is not solely focused on encouraging people into STEM careers.

“The underrepresentation and variety of groups [in STEM] means a loss of opportunity and talent for them, but it also is a loss of opportunity for society as a whole,” said Jeremy Sanders, chair of the Diversity Committee for the Royal Society.

Taking action with data

Measuring progress is an important way to determine not only if equity in the STEM sectors is growing, but also which initiatives are making the most difference in working towards this goal.

On the surface, it may seem like diversity in STEM is progressing, but the data tells a different story when broken down further.

Those at the meeting gave examples that showed while science may seem to have a good gender split overall, women tend to gravitate more towards biological sciences and are underrepresented in physics.

There should also be more focus on intersectionality and how this affects those going into STEM careers – for example, there may be statistics surrounding the number of women in tech, or black people in tech, but do we know how many black women there are in the technology sector?

The ambiguous nature of using BAME as a blanket descriptor for black, Asian and minority ethnic people in STEM has been discussed before when it comes to matters of intersectionality and insightful data.

At the STC’s diversity in STEM meeting, Sanders said that the number of black people dropping out at each stage on the path to academia – university, to PhD, to post-doctorate, to obtaining an academic position – is much larger than for some other ethnic groups. “We really don’t understand the details of why that is,” she added.

Clare Viney, CEO of the Careers Research Advisory Centre (CRAC), cited a statistic that there are currently only 25 black male STEM professors in the UK.

Without knowing what roles these people are in, which of the STEM sectors they work in, and what level they are in their respective organisations, it’s hard to know what the focus should be or where interventions are most needed. Sanders added that the Royal Society and Warwick University are working on developing “standard occupation classification codes” to better answer some of these questions.

Sanders went on to say that there is currently “no agreement on how we define the STEM workforce”, making it difficult to collect accurate data surrounding the current diversity landscape, or what is working to shift the dial, especially when “every country looks at these things a different way”.

The “utopia” of data sharing and collection, according to CRAC’s Viney, would be “joining [data] sets” with other countries, especially those that may have better results than the UK.

Viney added that when developing initiatives aimed at improving diversity and inclusion, it’s important to be clear about what the end goals are.

In regard to the lack of diversity of black people in STEM, she said: “We are spending a lot of effort and time as a community, we are all very passionate about diversity and inclusion in STEM, but something is not right.”

Inclusive culture

Over the past 10 years, there has been a lot of focus on increasing diversity in STEM, especially when it comes to the number of women in the field.

Viney pointed towards efforts to increase academic funds and grants for women in STEM. Meanwhile, Sanders spoke of the 30% Club aimed at increasing diversity on company boards and in senior management, as well as better policies surrounding maternity and paternity leave.

“There are lots of interventions that are well meaning and done with good intentions that are perhaps not as effective as they could be,” said Viney.

There were several suggestions made for increasing STEM diversity, such as to include people from minority groups in the creation of initiatives aimed at increasing their numbers in STEM.

Culture is another area that needs a large amount of work. Viney pointed out that girls often outperform boys at every academic stage of STEM education, but “there’s something that happens when they go into industry”, and women are dropping out of STEM at every stage of the pipeline.

Anna Zecharia, development board member of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health (EDIS), said that organisations, and the STEM industry as a whole, must ask: “Is there something about our institutions, our culture, that’s keeping people out?”

Poor culture, especially in the technology sector, can be a huge deterrent for many people – and even more so if they are in the minority in the workplace.

Those at the meeting shared so many examples of problems preventing diversity throughout the STEM sectors that it became clear no single issue is to blame – and no single solution is the answer.

Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association, said that some people have more obstacles in their way when it comes to joining the STEM sector.

“The nature and the extent of the underrepresentation [in STEM] is systemic and it’s present at all levels, therefore it’s been a challenge for a single policy or a single intervention to cut through and make a significant difference,” she said. “We need to consider an emphasis not only on representation, but on inclusion.”

To make a systemic shift, this could include many different interventions at every level of the STEM talent pipeline, suggestions of which included a “bold” vision from government to support the STEM pipeline, as well as working to make D&I more embedded in organisations.

When it comes to education, Rebecca Montacute, senior research and policy manager at Sutton Trust, said that the barriers some children face when joining the education system may prevent them from pursuing STEM careers, including restricted access to teachers, limited availability of subjects at various stages of education, and lack of careers guidance.

To work on improving diversity in STEM, she suggested improvements at each level of education. For example, improvements in early years education include a reform of the 30 hours of free care policy; better teacher recruitment and retention for STEM subjects, including access to STEM-qualified teachers; an investigation into why some university courses have the worst access rates for minority groups; and more funding of foundation courses for access to degrees.

Jake Anders, deputy director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, pointed out that the UK education system can be “unforgiving”, adding: “Once you’re off track from a way you’re interested in going, it’s quite hard to get back on it.” 

STEM skills for all

People should be exposed to STEM throughout their lives not just to encourage the development of future STEM talent, but because it plays a huge role in life – and no-one should be left behind.

Access to basic digital skills has been an ongoing societal issue, with many people left without the basic digital skills needed to do tasks such as shop online, and others not even having the skills to perform work tasks.

The British Science Association’s Mathieson said: “We should not only be thinking about the role of STEM in a workforce and career setting. STEM has an importance to all of us beyond our careers.”

According to Mathieson, STEM is often considered something “done by other people somewhere else”, and the lack of knowledge about it affects society as a whole – we should be helping people to understand STEM and use those skills as part of their daily lives.

She added that people’s understand of, and level of trust in, science could affect decisions such as whether or not they choose to have vaccines, or the public’s role in discussions surrounding issues such as sustainability.

With STEM playing a huge role in the lives of every person, it’s important to ensure that all types of people are involved in STEM organisations, and EDIS’s Zecharia asks why the industry limits itself by hiring from such a narrow talent pool, adding: “If you’re only looking in a small section [of society], we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

Read more about diversity in STEM

  • Inquiry will assess the lack of diversity in UK science, technology, engineering and maths and will measure current attempts to improve representation.
  • BCS report says the UK can take an international lead in AI ethics if it cultivates a more diverse workforce, including people from non-STEM backgrounds.

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