Get SET for women

Posted on 3 Nov 2010 by The Manufacturer

In advance of a Westminster debate on support for women in science, engineering and technology Meg Munn, MP for Sheffield Heeley, gives her views on how government could do more to exploit female potential.

Science, engineering and technology are areas where we need increased effort to improve productivity and achieve sustained economic growth. This could be achieved partly by increasing the number of women working in these fields, from both encouraging young women to enter and supporting women returners back to work.

In the private sector there are about 417,000 women employees in science engineering and technology (SET). They make up only 12.3% of the workforce in 2008, and a 2010 survey of engineering employers found that only 5 per cent of engineers and 4 per cent of engineering technicians are women.

The government strategy for women in SET was formulated in 2003, and the key mechanism for taking this strategy forward is the UK Resource Centre (UKRC) for Women in SET. The UKRC works with British business to close the skills gap that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says “is damaging UK competitiveness”.

The UKRC runs innovative programmes to help companies identify the practical steps that can help promote gender equality. Atkins Global, E.on, BT, Sony and Pepsico are among over 100 businesses and organisations that have signed up to the UKRC CEO Charter. Women taking part in this type of support report real change in their job prospects, with more than 60 per cent securing work or promotion.

There is also the Women and Work Sector Pathways Initiative which focuses on women’s career progression in industries where women are under-represented. Since being set up in 2006 £20m in funding has helped more than 22,500 women and 3,200 employers.

It is estimated that the value to the economy per woman helped by this scheme is between £900 and £1,300 per annum and 93% of employers have stated that this initiative has met previously identified skills gaps within their industries. I am concerned that the programme is at risk of not being renewed as its final phase is due to end in March 2011.

One positive sign for the future is that more girls are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. The girls perform as well, and often better, in GCSE and A levels but where are these bright young girls going?

Less than 30% of all women graduates who study science, technology, engineering and mathematics work in these occupations, in comparison to 50% of male graduates. Many of these skilled women end up in lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs.

Today’s debate will only scratch the surface of this issue. I have not discussed the important role that early school experiences have in encouraging girls in these areas or the role of work experience. Nor have I touched on the importance of career’s guidance, university funding or apprenticeships.

I acknowledge government has recognised the importance of science by protecting as much as possible of its budget. However, I also ask them to recognise the importance of supporting initiatives that help skilled women re-enter the SET areas, that encourage young girls consider them as worthwhile jobs. By helping them we help the UK economy grow and prosper.

Ms Munn originally addressed the comments recorded here to the government communications service where TM readers can gain more insight into current government thought on topical policy debate.