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Universities told to ‘pull socks up’ over women in sciences

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By Mary Isokariari

Shortage of women in the profession continues to be a worldwide challenge

Universities are being warned to “to pull their socks up” to retain women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers.

Andrew Miller MP, the chair of the Science & Technology Committee said it was “astonishing” that women still remained under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline.

He said: “It’s time for universities to pull their socks up.

“Some are doing a great job at improving working conditions for women scientists, but others are not.

“The system of short term contracts is hugely off-putting for many women scientists.”

The committee was disappointed that BIS funding for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), had been significantly cut during the 2010 Spending Review.

This indicated the government efforts appeared to be largely focused on recruiting girls to study STEM subjects rather than on supporting women to stay in science.

Miller added: “It is commendable that the government wants to inspire girls to choose science at school because this is when major decisions about future careers are made.

“However, such efforts are wasted if women scientists are then disproportionately and systematically disadvantaged compared to men.

“The government now needs to monitor the effects of its decision to cut diversity funding and pay more attention to the retention of women in science.”

Evidence of this can be seen from as early as the secondary school level where a large gender imbalance can be seen in the take up of A-level physics.

In 2012, only 21 per cent of physics A-level students were female and only 15 per cent took up technology and engineering related degrees.

To combat this issue head on, the organisation Parents Of Black UK Pupils, an open group inspired to participate and empower children’s educational development, said: “The key to encouraging girls to consider male dominated careers was to show them females who have done it [achieved success].”

Nigerian-born Nike Amiaka, 36, of south London, knew she wanted to be an engineer from a very young age.

She said: “In Nigeria, by 14 years old, you are split into different classes, either the sciences, arts or business and commercial.

“The oil industry in Nigeria is a very lucrative, so most kids are good at sciences and want to be engineers. All of your uncles and aunties around you are role models.”

Amiaka agreed there needed to be stronger emphasis on maths and science in primary schools.

“Here [in Britain] we are a nation of finance, musicians and footballers. Our children don’t get to see engineers or scientists to aspire to,” she said.

The mother-of-two believes that changing the perception of science and maths as being “boring” would help as well as “educating children when they are young, so they know what the difference is between a chemical or civil engineer.”

According to the European Association for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, in 2010/11 only 5.5 per cent of engineers were female.

The number enrolled in engineering apprenticeships was less than four per cent.

Although the shortage of women in the profession is a worldwide challenge, UK figures are said to be the lowest in Europe – a crisis that many blame on the field’s reputation as a man’s game.

Consumer affairs minister Jenny Williot recently warned that companies and shops marketing toys as either for boys or for girls were damaging the economy by causing fewer women to take up science and engineering jobs. The Lib Dem Minister explained during a debate in MPs’ secondary debating chamber at Westminster Hall.

“There are skills shortages across the science, technology, engineering and maths sector, but as long as girls continue to feel that that world is not for them, our businesses will continue to miss out on vital talent that they need for future development,” she said.

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