Diversity in STEM – key issues and future directions

The lack of diversity within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and the problems that a number of individuals face in pursuing STEM careers have been highlighted recently by a number of reports. After holding a diversity forum with interested stakeholders in February, CaSE have this week released their ‘Improving Diversity in STEM’ report. Along with calls to action for government and other groups, they outline changes since their last diversity report in 2008 and highlight key issues that still need to be addressed. This follows on from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into women in STEM and the Royal Society’s ‘Leading the Way: increasing diversity in the scientific workforce’ that were released earlier this year. The BES also carried out a survey of its own membership to highlight current issues relating to diversity in ecology last autumn.

As stated in CaSE’s report, a diverse STEM workforce with equal opportunities for all has the potential to benefit businesses, maximise individual opportunity and meet a national economic need. It is clear that this is currently not the case. CaSE’s report highlights that improvements could be made across all areas. Currently, disabled individuals are less likely to work in STEM occupations than those without disabilities, only 8% of British engineers are women, and pupils in schools with high numbers of students receiving free school meals or with special educational needs are less likely to be taught science by a specialist teacher for each of the sciences.

Issues relating to diversity at a school level, throughout an academic career, and in government policy are highlighted by CaSE. Throughout, the need for government and others to show leadership in tackling diversity is recommended. In addition, the organisation also argues for a fully equipped and diverse teaching workforce, and better reporting and monitoring of diversity data.

Similarly to the BES’s equality and diversity report, specific issues – disability, gender, social disadvantage, and ethnicity – are also focused on by CaSE. Key background figures in these are highlighted and specific actions are generated. Major milestones presented by the report include:

  • By the end of the next term of Government, every English primary school should appoint a science subject leader;
  • Higher Education Institutions should conduct exit interviews with staff leaving academia to assess the issues surrounding STEM academic careers;
  • The opportunity to receive a fee loan for retraining in STEM should be extended to students returning to higher education on a full-time basis;
  • In developing a race charter mark, the Equality Challenge Unit should work with government and STEM sector to ensure lessons are learned from Athena SWAN and university departments should proactively engage with the mark when it is launched.

From CaSE’s report and others, it is clear that there is a long way to go to ensuring a fully diverse science sector, with equal opportunities for all. The BES’s 2013 diversity report highlights that similar issues are present in ecology. Currently, 39% of BES members are female and only 0.5% of attendees at last year’s INTECOL meeting were of a black ethnicity. For some ecology careers, work experience is vital. This is often voluntary and requires time in the field, which can be a barrier for those with disabilities. Over the next year, the BES will be developing future strategies to improve the accessibility of ecology to all.