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Labour Conference: More women in science should be a no-brainer

It makes no sense to miss out on the potential talents of 50% of the population, writes VALERIE VAZ

Since I last wrote for the Morning Star for International Women’s Day some six months ago, the case for women in science has been given a push forward. 

I hosted an event to celebrate the end of the two-year tenure of Professor Lesley Yellowlees, the first woman president of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Not only was she the first woman president in the RSC’s history but also she has undertaken ground-breaking research into electron transfer reactions which are central to many diverse areas of chemistry such as solar energy conversion and catalytic processes. 

More importantly during Yellowlees’s term, she focused on the engagement of science and the promotion of women in science. 

A 42-strong group from academia, the private sector, learned societies and NGOs came up with a series of action points in education, employment and statistics on how to promote women in science. 

For this to work there needs to be a “cradle-to-grave” approach to science, they said. 

It should start as early as primary school where not all the teachers who lead in science have a science degree. 

The RSC in its campaign has recommended that all post-14 chemistry students should be taught by a chemistry specialist. 

Many attendees also felt that the rhetoric around part-time/flexible working needs to change. 

This should be seen as a benefit, not a burden that the employee needs to be “accommodated.” Alongside this, the national culture, especially relating to men and childcare, needs to change. 

Women who return to work after childbirth should be provided with grants to return, and there was a suggestion that funding should be linked to Athena Swan status. 

Developed by the Equality Challenge Unit, the Athena Swan Charter encourages and recognises commitment to addressing the underrepresentation and advancing the careers of women. 

The Athena Swan Charter covers women in academic roles, the progression of students into academia and the working environment for all staff.

There was also a call for the government to co-ordinate the data on the scientific workforce and any policy must be evidence-based. 

This needs a proactive measure to collect, publish and monitor the data. And the government can look at the use of public appointments to promote women in science. 

But the government needs a bigger push. Last week I asked the minister at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills why, according to the government office for science, the chief scientific adviser posts are vacant in two key government departments — Energy and Climate Change and Transport. 

How can the government say it takes science seriously when the science budget has been cut in real terms by £800 million since the 2010 spending review? 

Since 2012, Britain decreased spending on research and development for the first time since 1995, while other countries such as South Korea, Germany and Singapore are all increasing their spending on science. 

And it could all start in primary education where there is a teacher who has a science degree rather than a teacher who “co-ordinates” the science in school. 

Moreover the A-level results this year show that for maths and science subjects, the uptake is increasing but continue to be dominated by male students, except in biology and psychology. 

Worryingly, nearly half of the state schools did not have a girl studying A-level physics. Some have argued for a move away from the over-specialisation of our A-level system to a baccalaureate system where all students have to study at least one science subject. 

Taking the message to schools and colleges is the aim of Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (Wise) which is co-ordinating events throughout the country. In June, Wise held an event at Walsall College for Girls for parents and teachers to meet young women who have chosen a career in engineering. 

It was attended by 50 girls but it seemed that only two were aware that there were apprenticeships for engineering. The Black Country University Technical College, Walsall College and employers came together that day to ensure that the message went out to the girls in Walsall that engineering is a career option. 

In the UK only 4 per cent of engineering apprentices are women. 

Perhaps another step is to address dyslexia or physically making laboratories accessible. 

For other students engineering gives a greater emphasis on spatial skills. So when the coalition government was planning to cut the disabled students allowance, one of the concerns raised was that this could set back diversity at higher education institutions. 


DSA may be cut by two-thirds. Those students who are dyslexic make up 55 per cent of people claiming DSA. They would be adversely affected and higher education institutions may have had to stop running the degree courses. Students need support, both financial and with the provision of support workers. 

This support is about recognising the different talents of students and not excluding them from higher education. 

The government announced in a written statement before the conference recess that it would give higher education institutions until 2016-17 to enable them to “develop mechanisms” to support students. 

Many students would have been disadvantaged and higher education institutions had said they would have been unable to meet the obligations to those students who needed the support the most as the cuts were immediate. 

Other countries with more secure research paths have many more women in senior academic research roles. 

In Britain, only 16 per cent of the most senior scientists are women. With organisations such as the Equality Challenge Unit and Wise providing the practical support and encouragement, future programmes must include providing grants for women returners and no short-term, expedient decisions such as cuts to leading science posts and the knowledge bank at Kew Gardens. 

Harness the talents of half the population through early encouragement and support and retain those already trained equals a dynamic inclusive and productive society — a simple equation.


n Valerie Vaz is MP for Walsall South.


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