Chi Onwurah: Cultivate an inclusive STEM sector to benefit society and the economy
We’ve endured decades of slow progress toward diversity in STEM – so join me now in supporting a new APPG that is determined to make change happen, writes Chi Onwurah
When I say Parliament is the most diverse organisation I’ve ever worked in, it surprises people: our representative body is not known for its representativeness. Then I explain I was a professional engineer before coming into politics and everything is clear – Parliament may still have a long way to go but it is still closer to representing our nation than science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
According to the Women’s Engineering Society, women still make up only 11% of the UK’s engineering workforce – the lowest in Europe, and according to the Association for Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) Engineering, BAME people make up only 6%, despite them accounting for 25% of graduates. This only touches the surface. It’s not only a gender and ethnicity issue, but one for all under-represented groups and STEM sectors.
The decades of effort that have gone into diversifying STEM seem to have achieved little – the dial has barely budged since I entered Imperial College to study Electrical Engineering almost thirty years ago. I want change to happen. That’s why I am working with the British Science Association to establish a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM.
We need a diverse STEM sector for economic growth. The Government is prioritising STEM as a key enabler to keep the UK competitive. Businesses report that they are experiencing shortages of skilled STEM workers and this may worsen as migration restrictions are imposed post-Brexit. Diversity will also accelerate innovation. The risks of groupthink are well-known. Involving people from diverse backgrounds will help us to tackle the intractable problems of today.
Building STEM skills among under-represented groups also contributes to improving life chances. STEM jobs tend to carry a salary premium and to be of relatively high status, which could help improve social mobility and the gender pay gap.
And then it is also an issue of fairness – STEM research is funded in large part by taxes and everyone should share in scientific advancement, as it weaves through countless aspects of our lives from health to technology, transport to the environment. A population with the ability and confidence to question, challenge and participate in discussions around STEM is vital for a flourishing democracy.
Many STEM organisations are working on issues of diversity and inclusion. However, there is not yet a focal point within Parliament for cross-party discussion around the topic, which is why I’m delighted to Chair this new, prospective APPG. We want to encourage government and other stakeholders to work towards a representative STEM sector. We need to influence policy changes that will lead to this outcome, and it must happen now. It’s not the responsibility of underrepresented groups to fix the problem. They can identify the issues, rally support, and generate ideas, but we need you to make the change.
The first meeting of the prospective APPG was held on 23 May and focused on the education system. The British Science Association’s Chair, Lord David Willetts, spoke about the problems with early specialisation in education; neurodiversity advocate, 15-year-old Siena Castellon, spoke with insight about bright young people with learning difficulties falling through the cracks; and Professor Louise Archer talked about her ground-breaking research into young people’s science career aspirations. It was a huge success, with standing room only and a flurry of discussion and social media activity. This shows that there is the appetite to solve the problem. People care.
There is a window of opportunity to make strong, positive change. We will be having our AGM in the next few weeks to form officially, and then next meeting will consider Industrial Strategy. This will take place on 26 June. We want to know how the government’s Industrial Strategy can work for people from different groups and improve diversity and inclusion in STEM. We need your support and we need you there. Will you join us?