Women in STEM are still an afterthought
As an engineer, I was often the only woman in the room and the only black person in the room, writes Chi Onwurah MP. | Alamy
Increasing women representation must be at the heart of our STEM education, employment practices, policy development and digital economy if we are to thrive.
Growing up, I suffered then from what I now call Marie Curie Syndrome – the inability to name more than one female scientist.
Of course, female scientists had been leading and contributing to major scientific breakthroughs for many years, but their work was often obscured. We didn’t know then about Alice Ball who discovered the treatment for leprosy, or Esther Lederberg whose work enabled the study of antibiotic resistance, or Jocelyn Bell Burner, who first discovered pulsars in the sky. Why? Because men got the credit.
While I had no public role models then to inspire or help give me confidence that science might be for someone like me, I was lucky; I had great teachers at my local comprehensive who helped me understand that girls could be just as good at maths as boys, and supported me in my choice to have a scientific career.
Still, even as I took maths, further maths and physics for my A levels, I made sure I learnt to type too. That was considered a safer career choice for a woman at the time!
When I entered Imperial College in 1984 to study electrical engineering, only 12% of engineering students were women. Nearly forty years later, the dial has barely moved and now stands at 14%.
Less than 10% of STEM students at Russell Group universities are from minority ethnic backgrounds, and only around 8% of engineering professionals. Our country has the lowest percentage of female engineers in all of Europe. At university, some men said the women were just there to find rich husbands. And as a black, female engineer, there were plenty of times I was referred to as “Mr” in emails or times when male engineers assumed I was a PA.
This is deeply unrepresentative of our country and means many people are not accessing the high-wage, high-skill job opportunities offered in STEM. The low representation of women in STEM jobs is also entrenching the gender pay gap.
Having real world engagement with engineering and science is particularly important for girls who have to overcome cultural barriers
Science and technology are at the heart of how we build a better society. Nothing illustrates the importance of science more clearly than Covid-19, which has seen the work of scientists taken out of the labs and into the limelight and the development of the vaccine providing hope for us all after an extremely difficult year.
From climate change to disease to inequality, science will be at the heart of how we meet and tackle the challenges facing us. The UK is already leading the way in many cutting-edge technologies that could transform society. But unless those working in science reflect the make-up of our country, neither will the solutions.
A good example of a ‘blind spot’ caused by a lack of representation is Apple’s Health app, which extracts data on indicators of wellness including on exercise, diet, sleep, temperature and pulse. Unfortunately, the app initially forgot to factor in something that can affect these things – periods – because nobody in the design team experienced them.
This kind of exclusion happens all the time when those working in science, technology and engineering are not representative of society.
Too often diversity is an afterthought or an optional add-on, bit it’s an economic imperative. We need a broad range of skills and more STEM workers to meet the needs of society.
As well as more role models in the classroom and media, we need to build bridges between schools and industry. The evidence shows that having real world engagement with engineering and science is particularly important for girls who have to overcome cultural barriers. There are fantastic groups already doing this – from the Association for BME Engineers to Primary Engineer – but we need government to play a role too.
I chair the APPG for Diversity and Inclusion in STEM and our recent report emphasised the need for a joined-up approach from government in tackling inequity in STEM, including improving careers education. Unfortunately, the government’s lack of investment in lifelong learning means that if you don’t take the STEM route in your childhood, it’s increasingly hard to change track later in life.
As shadow minister for science, research and digital, I will continue pressing hard to stop diversity and inclusion in STEM from being an afterthought. Increasing representation must be at the heart of our STEM education, employment practices, policy development and digital economy if we are to thrive.
Representation matters, because everyone deserves these opportunities, and because the people who design our world should reflect the experiences and needs of us all, not just a few.
As an engineer, I was often the only woman in the room and the only black person in the room. It meant I stood out, but it was ultimately a lonely and isolating experience. I’m happy to have put my foot in the door for other young women dreaming of working in the scientific world – but it’s time the door was pried open. I don’t want any other women to stand in a room full of scientists and feel alone.
Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and shadow minister for science, research and digital.