Government must take the lead on STEM diversity

No single solution can increase diversity in the STEM sectors, says Science and Technology Committee, as it calls on government to take action

MPs have asked the government to clarify how the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will help to increase diversity and inclusion in UK STEM.  

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) first launched its inquiry in November 2021 to assess the reasons behind, and solutions for, the lack of diversity in UK STEM, and as expected found under-representation of certain groups across all levels of the STEM pipeline.

In its most recent Diversity and inclusion in STEM report, the STC stated increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM should be part of the focus for the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

It also said that once the new department has taken the reigns on this topic, the education and research sectors can then “follow [its] lead”.

The STC made several recommendations for working towards a more diverse future for STEM, but because of the widespread nature of sector and the many reasons the lack of diversity manifests, the STC acknowledged single interventions or policies are unlikely to solve the issue and instead a “systemic” approach should be used to solve lack of representation in STEM education and work.

Greg Clark, MP and STC committee chair, said: “Despite many well-intentioned efforts from government, research funders, universities and civil society over the years, STEM still has a diversity problem. No one intervention can solve this, it is a complex challenge that requires a systemic solution. As well as better data, we need targeted interventions that really make a difference.

“The nascent Department for Science, Innovation and Technology must take up this mantle to achieve its goal of making the UK a science and technology superpower. We are clear that diverse backgrounds, perspectives and ideas don’t just make business sense, they are essential to the fair and just society we want to live in.”

Many of the problems surrounding underrepresentation in STEM sectors begin in the early pipeline as school plays a large role in informing the career direction people take later in life.

The study of STEM subjects can be important, not just for STEM jobs but for other aspects of life, but these sectors will not be able to reflect the population they serve without appropriate diversity, and the STEM workforce is missing out on potential talent.

There is a lot standing in the way of diversity in the technology sector, including a lack of visible and accessible role models, a lack of support for teachers, a lack of access for people from a less privileged socio-economic background, and poor culture driving underrepresented groups away from STEM fields.

Girls tend to shy away from taking subjects such as maths, physics and computing past GCSE level, which the report speculated was partly down to societal stereotypes pushing girls down particular paths.  

Computing is one of the worst subjects for this, claimed the report – the number of girls taking GCSE and A-Level computing has been on the rise, but boys still outnumber girls at both levels. In 2022, only 17,264 girls took GCSE computing as opposed to 63,856 boys, and at A-Level girls only account for 15% of computing candidates.

The report also highlighted the reverse is true for many humanities, which boys are less likely to choose to study.

While girls on average attain slightly better grades than boys when choosing to do STEM subjects, the STC found attainment for students of different ethnicities varied. For example, it found through data from STEM Learning that for GCSE maths results, pupils with a Chinese background were high performers regardless of gender, whereas students from a Black Caribbean background performed lower than their peers, making it more difficult to increase representation in the STEM sector.

Similar trends were seen when looking at GCSE physics results, and STEM Learning claimed this led to some disparities in the ethnicities of students taking physics at A-Level. While there is more interest in computing at GCSE and A-Level from students from a Black Caribbean background, attainment for this group is still low.

The report highlighted the lack of female role models in certain subjects, with charity Teach First telling the inquiry: “Not a single woman’s name explicitly features in the national curriculum for GCSE science. And in a sample analysis of the GCSE double science specifications from three of the major exam boards, we found that only two female scientists were explicitly named. In contrast, over 40 male scientists were mentioned or had concepts or materials named after them.”

The STC said role models in STEM subjects are an important step forward for creating a more diverse sector in the future, stating that “all children” should be able to see examples of people like them in a particular field, and such representation can be easily added to school curriculums without much hassle.

Setting a target for all children to be taught by a teacher with a qualification in the STEM subject they are teaching by 2023 was one of the recommendations in the report, which said there are “benefits” to having subject matter experts deliver the STEM curriculum.

The STC also found that there is a lack of diversity amongst STEM teachers, saying 15,655 black teachers would have to be added to the general population of teachers for their number to match that of the number of black students in education.

Teach First, which is partnered with Lewis Hamilton’s Mission 44 Foundation, told MPs working towards making the teaching community more diversity would contribute towards better “pupil attainment”.

Both ensuring teachers have a background in the STEM subject they are teaching and increasing the diversity of STEM teachers can only be achieved through ongoing support.

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