Diversity doesn’t just STEM from gender equality

When you think about ‘diversity in science and technology’, what springs to mind?

Diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) often seems to be about gender equality. It’s about the fact that 84.4% of professorial roles in STEM are taken by men, when 48.4% of academic STEM staff are female. It’s about the fact that only 16.3% of those who do computer science as a first degree in UK HEIs are female. It’s about the fact that the career pathway of science is currently structured in such a way that the number of female researchers decline dramatically during post-doctoral positions.

But I want people to think more broadly about diversity in STEM. I hear people saying they don’t want ‘old-white men’ to be the only face of science we see, but apparently the alternative is a white, able-bodied female.

I get this is a step forwards, but for me it’s not enough. I don’t see grass-roots organisations displaying the same anger or focusing on the inequalities seen due to ethnic groups, disability, or socio-economic class.

I am surrounded by people who are rightly outraged about the gender pay gap, the number of women on STEM related speaking panels, and the number of girls taking physics at A-levels.

Yet, the issue of inequality in STEM runs much more deeply than gender.

0.3 % of UK-domiciled STEM professors are black/African/Caribbean/Black British and just 0.2% of Veterinary Science students, despite this ethnic group making up 3.3% of the UK population. That’s just 10 black Veterinary Students in the whole of the UK, and around 20 black professors.

Physical and mathematical undergraduate courses have a smaller proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic backgrounds than the average degree course, and this is before we consider that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to go to university in the first place. As a recent HEFCE report states, young people from the “most advantaged areas are three times more likely to enter higher education than those from the last advantaged areas”.

Equality at the STEM undergraduate level isn’t just about entrance to University. It’s about where you go (18 year olds in the most advantaged areas are between six and nine times more likely to go to institutions that have higher entry requirements than those in disadvantaged areas),  and it’s about how you do when you get there, (41.4 % of black UK-domiciled STEM students obtained a first class or upper second class honours degree in 2012, compared to 68.1% of white students – a gap of 26.7%).

If we just focus on gender equality we can miss details such as the fact that white working class males are the most under-represented group at university, and that in the most disadvantaged areas, 18-year-old females are 50 per cent more likely than males to apply to higher education.

It can lead us to forget that we don’t collect data that can accurately link socio-economic backgrounds to post-graduate participation rates – when postgraduate degrees are a requirement for many academic STEM jobs.

Or that it was only in 2012 that the ‘STEM Disability’ group was set up.

The arguments for gender equality in STEM include an upcoming skills gap, a basic principle of fairness, and the fact that diversity is proxy for ensuring a diversity of views, essential for any problem solving exercise.

These same arguments also apply for more broad diversity considerations.

I get that we all have biases, and individually our focus will largely be driven by the issues that we feel have limited us, or those around us. For obvious reasons, this equates to the large focus on equality for women in STEM; and this means there is a critical mass to make ‘women in STEM’ a prominent issue.

However, true diversity requires a broader focus than gender. It is not as simple as trying to improve gender equality at undergraduate, postgraduate, or post-doctoral levels. It’s much more complex than this, and we have to take into account disability, ethnic groups (recognising that ‘BME’ as a concept can be misleading, and often needs picking apart), and background, amongst other concerns. These factors often intersect with each other, and indeed often interact with gender

And when doing outreach, we need to make sure we take into account this complexity, and we need to be sure we aren’t just reaching out to the already reached, and we need to make sure we don’t exclude other groups. We also need to remember that not everyone will have the ability or interest in becoming a high-flying scientist, and we ought to be better at talking about technician or support roles!

Isn’t time we made our concepts of diversity in STEM a little more inclusive?

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9 thoughts on “Diversity doesn’t just STEM from gender equality

  1. An important point to make, well said. We have three of the 20 schools coming to Schools Day at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival coming from Special Schools. The children will have a range of needs – some children with disabilities, some children who are excluded. It takes some extra organisation to make sure we tailor our activities to ensure that they are safe and appropriate for all the students, but in our experience it’s always worthwhile in many different ways – for the participating students, for the students from participating mainstream schools, and for the many partners providing our activities.

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  2. Really interesting and timely post; I’ve been disturbed by some of the recent rhetoric (from well-followed Twitterers) on not wanting to see “anymore white men in power.” It’s in danger of becoming discriminatory in itself, especially, as you say, it ignores other inequalities.

    I have a criticism of your piece though, I don’t remember reading about LGBT diversity in science, ever – and this post follows that trend. While you’re widening the net, LGBTs should come into the conversation at some point.

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    1. I did think about including LGBT diversity in the piece, but decided against mentioning it specifically, figuring my post focussed enough on ‘inclusion for all’; perhaps this was a mistake.

      I can’t think of any research that looks at LGBT issues and participation in HE. Do you know of any, or feel that LGBT issues act as a barrier to progression into/through STEM careers within the UK (my post above is Western focussed)?

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  3. Well said. The current focus on cis-gendered inequality can be a bit of a distraction from the real inequalities many face in today’s societies.

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  4. Following up on comments – our Centre (Centre for Science Education) has a project called Science for All – that has developed STEM curriculum resources to help SEN youngsters engage with and enjoy science – and our toolkit does cover ALL strands of e&d including socio-economic.

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  5. A very thought-provoking post. “We also need to remember that not everyone will have the ability or interest in becoming a high-flying scientist, and we ought to be better at talking about technician or support roles!” Something that I have realised during my last three years of work on engineering education at http://www.thinkup.org is that little tends to be known by those who have gone through the HE system about FE training routes. Since it is often the HE graduates who are setting education policy, and doing the outreach work, I suspect that the non-HE routes aren’t getting the promotion – and the status – that they need.

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  6. Thanks Oliver. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot – in many discussions I have, the automatic assumption about ‘STEM careers’ are that we are talking about academic scientific careers… very little is around FE routes, apprenticeships, technicians etc. How do we change the dialogue around this and help broaden the focus? I’m unsure at present!

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