The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) state that diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) will drive future innovation. With a growing world population, and increasing environmental demands and challenges, future innovation is imperative, not just to maintain our existing lives, but perhaps even to human life as a whole.
Innovations resulting from STEM fields have positively touched nearly every aspect of human life. Scientific innovations however do not arise on their own, each occur through the hard work and ingenuity of scientists collaborating.
What is Diversity?
Diversity is the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc. An individual alone cannot be diverse. Diversity in science refers to attracting and cultivating talent with a full inclusion of excellence across the social spectrum – including those both traditionally represented, and traditionally underrepresented.
The STEM sector has faced challenges in the uptake of diversity, with STEM subjects often heavily male dominated. In the U.K, the latest UCAS statistics show that the percentage of female students studying engineering and technology was just 19% of all students.
In 2012 I undertook a Civil Engineering degree at the University of Nottingham, and these statistics sadly seem comparable with what I experienced.
The Impact of a Lack of Diversity
A more diverse team is more likely to outperform a more homogenous team, with diversity critical to excellence. A lack of diversity represents a loss of talent. There is no evidence that the ability to develop into a scientist differs across our socially constructed lines of identity. Thus, the large and persistent underrepresentation of certain social groups represents the loss of talent.
A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean. Those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean. In a global analysis of 2,400 companies by Credit Suisse, organisations with at least one female board member yielded higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those that did not have any women on the board.
Diversity in STEM
Diversity in STEM is now seen as so important that in November 2021, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee launched a new inquiry ‘Diversity in STEM’ to investigate the extent of underrepresentation amongst those working in STEM, and ask what policies the Government, industry and academia could use to address it.
In November 2020 UKRI (UK research and innovation) Chief Executive Dame Ottoline Leyser emphasised the importance of diversity in research and innovation, stating that people with ‘different ideas and different backgrounds’ needed to come together to make ‘extraordinary things happen’.
We know there is a skills shortage within STEM. The Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that UK engineering employers need to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand and suggested that firms need to double their recruitment of graduates and apprentices to meet the shortfall. Without promoting diversity, the UK (and world) is missing out on key talent.
A Lack of Role Models
When investigating personality traits, a considerable number of those working in STEM are likely to be task-focused introverts, concentrating on accuracy and high standards. These personality traits match well with STEM, however it leads to a shortfall in media exposure for STEM successes as the individuals are usually embedded in their work. This lack of exposure can lead to a lack of interest, and the cycle continues. I’m sure we could all name at least one famous female sports person, yet would probably struggle to name a famous female scientist or engineer (even if their work had life changing benefits).
The lack of exposure makes the sector feel smaller than it is. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) published a Data Analysis Brief on the diversity and representation in the STEM (including health) workforce as it stood in 2019. The key findings included: Out of a workforce of 32.8 million people, 5.9 million (18%) worked in STEM occupations. This is a large proportion of the workforce and as such deserves better representation and exposure. STEM needs championing, which will no doubt lead to an increase in interest, uptake, and diversity.
How do we Improve Diversity?
Increasing diversity in STEM is a complicated task that requires work in many areas, such as education, recruitment, and awareness. Studies suggest the key to doing so is by creating a more inclusive environment.
On 20 July 2021, the APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) published the ‘Equity in the STEM workforce’ report following an eight-month inquiry. The main outcomes were as follow:
The UK Government and STEM organisations, across the private, public and voluntary sectors should commit to leading a ‘STEM Diversity Decade of Action’ to tackle the historic and systemic underrepresentation of minority groups at all levels in the sector.
The Prime Minister and UK Government should set a bold vision for a diverse and equitable STEM sector at the heart of their ambitions for the UK to become a ‘global science superpower’.
STEM leaders from organisations from across the private, public and voluntary sectors should work together to form and co-fund an Employers’ Coalition for STEM Diversity to address the structural inequity in the STEM workforce and drive long-term change.
The UK Government must deliver a statutory workforce data strategy and drive forward changes in policy and legislation to support employers to improve equity for minoritised communities in many sectors of the UK workforce, including STEM.
The UK Government and STEM organisations must quickly look to address and reverse worsening inequity within the STEM workforce as a result of the pandemic.
Alongside work by the government, individuals and companies must all play their part. There are various fantastic charities doing amazing things to help promote diversity in STEM. One such organisation is Tomorrow’s Engineers, led by Engineering UK. Tomorrow’s Engineers’ ambition is to inform and inspire young people and grow the number and diversity of tomorrow’s engineers. Their ‘Big Assembly’ is broadcast to 50,000 students nationally and promotes uptake in STEM. We must however all strive to do more. We need to make STEM more inclusive and have diverse role models. Alongside this we need the media to better represent STEM and showcase the truly amazing feats of engineering humans have achieved.
We must encourage children to consider STEM, and ensure it isn’t just promoted to boys as a career option. If you work in a STEM field, please consider volunteering at a school, or charity which supports future leaders in STEM. There is such a breadth of roles in STEM, with something to suit everyone.