Adonis report should address the innovation gender gap

Ivana Bartoletti

As Lord Adonis publishes his regional growth review today, it is very good news that Labour will devolve responsibility from central government for the spending of at least £6bn a year on transport, housing, welfare and infrastructure to boost regional growth. So too is the emphasis that Adonis is placing on innovation, which is essential for Britain to compete and prosper in a global world. His proposals include a threefold increase in apprenticeships for school-leavers in science, technology, engineering and maths and the creation of a new “Teach Next” organisation for successful people to switch career into teaching maths and science. These proposals are very important to ensure we invest in talent.

But can we go further in our manifesto and suggest that one way to achieve this is by tackling the gender gap to innovation? The statistics, albeit improving, are still dramatic: female participation in science and innovation drops off at ‘A’ Level, particularly in physics, and very few females take up apprenticeships in scientific areas. Of course, this then means that few women go on to work in innovation and technology – only 27 per cent of science and engineering technicians, 15 per cent of ICT professionals and 5.5 per cent of engineering professionals are female. The consequence is that the UK not only has very few women in senior roles in those professions, but very few start businesses in technology compared to in the rest of Europe.

All this is not just unfair on women. It is bad for our economy and our global competitiveness.

The Fabian Women’s Network has long been advocating that it is time to release this vast potential energy and tackle the causes underpinning the lack of women in science.

Some causes are cultural – and this is where we need role models. When FWN hosted an event to gather together young women interested in all areas of scientific research, they all highlighted the importance of ambassadors and the great role that mentoring can play.

And crucially, we need to change our approach to science, and embed a new narrative and positive cultural representation of science early on in primary schools. Much needs to be done to encourage girls to identify with science at a very early stage in life – essential to tackling stereotypes and gender inequalities in any field.

I believe we can go even further. Could Labour set a target of 30 per cent women in science, engineering and technology professions by 2030? And could we make it an essential criterium in public procurement? It is very encouraging that Adonis is proposing that 25 per cent of all government procurement contracts go to small and medium-sized enterprises, not least because that is where most women are. But I wonder whether we could make more of the fantastic role that public procurement can play in the economy, and set out incentives for businesses who take women on for apprenticeships. Finally, transparency is very important, too and tech businesses should be rewarded for how they perform on this matter.

There is a whole range of measures we could take to unlock the incredible potential of women in science.  If this were part of our manifesto for 2015, I think it would step up our vision for a balanced economy, and for a better society, too.

Ivana Bartoletti is Chair of the Fabian Women’s Network

1 comment:

  1. Peter Raven

    As I was searching for Fabian Society ideas on Education I came upon your 1st July note on the Adonis report and the gender gap, and your comments resonated with my ideas and experience.

    For the last 9 years I have been ‘assisting’ in primary schools here in Australia, with the goal of encouraging interest in science. My interest in this goes back a decade earlier, with the IEE, now Institute of Engineering and Technology, when we were attempting to foster interest in science and technology in senior school children in Merseyside.

    While I consider that my efforts here in Australia have been effective in an extremely small sphere, I believe the approach which I have used has been vindicated. I take the role of a mentor not a teacher, and the children and I explore various topics together. These topics range across physics, chemistry and computer science. I have not concentrated on helping girls more than boys, but have observed an initial reluctance on the part of some girls to ‘get into’ science, but when that barrier has been overcome, they have generally demonstrated a deeper understanding than the boys. So I’m left with question of what goes wrong, that causes the number of girls interested in scientific and technical subjects to decrease so dramatically. One hypothesis is that the initial reluctance I have seen, if not overcome in the primary school years, becomes fixed and their latent interest and ability is just swamped by other interests. One solitary example, which proves nothing, but which pleased me, was when one of the girls who had slowly become interested in science at primary school saw me at a state wide science fair, and excitedly told me that at her new high school she had been able to work with some class mates to put in a prize winning exhibit at the fair.

    I believe that the emphasis on rigid curricula is counter productive. Clearly there is need for some framework, but there is also a need for the children to be encouraged to explore, and that’s best done with a mentor. Working this way, I have observed that a powerful indicate of the child’s progress and ability are the questions that they ask.

    In a wider context I believe that educational goals should be to be producing citizens who can think for themselves.

    I was encouraged by your comments, other than I don’t think setting percentage targets can be anything other than short term fixes and possibly a distraction from the deeper issues.

    A source of mentors in schools in Australia is “Scientists in Schools” organised by CSIRO, which I believe is similar to STEMNET in the UK

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