Improving diversity and tackling inequality in science

Equality and diversity in science was the focus of last week’s Policy Lunchbox, run monthly at Charles Darwin House by the BES and the Biochemical Society.

Sarah Hawkes, Head of Scientific Engagement at the Royal Society, gave a presentation on her work under the Society’s new 4 year programme focusing on removing the barriers to increasing diversity in the scientific workforce.

The science sector in the UK, and the Royal Society itself, have been the subject of criticism for the notable lack of women amongst their ranks, particularly in more senior positions. In the UK, men are six times more likely than women to work in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) subjects, and of the 46 Fellows appointed at the Royal Society in 2012, only two were women.

The RS’s new programme, funded by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, aims to address this gender imbalance – as well as tackling other issues of diversity incorporating ethnicity, disability and socio-economic status – across both academia and industry. The idea is to learn from and build upon the number of equality initiatives which already exist to work towards three objectives:
1. Defining and understanding the scientific workforce;
2. Identifying barriers to entry and progression within the scientific work force, which a view to removing them, and;
3. In the long-term, increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce
The programme will involve data gathering and a large scale policy study, significant work to engage with the scientific community, organising diversity events and activities, and engaging with the ATHENA swan initiative and actors within education.

The scheme has strong backing from Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, who made a statement recently saying that ‘we must have an environment in which all scientists, including those from previously underrepresented groups, have an equal chance to excel’.

Much of the work so far has been to establish the programme and begin to embed it within the Royal Society’s work. An initial scoping study has been carried out to identify existing data on the diversity of the scientific workforce and knowledge gaps that need to be filled. As part of this work, the programme is exploring the possibility of joining up existing datasets to generate long-term trends which may indicate whether the suggestion of some commentators – that it is ‘just a matter of time’ before equality will come about in science anyway – is true.

A consultation and engagement conference held at the end of March also provided vital feedback from the scientific community identifying the barriers and issues people working in the field experience. Areas including careers guidance, career trajectories, improving awareness of STEM careers, the importance of role models and widening Athena SWAN were suggested and will be adopted to shape the RS programme’s work. Further consultation and a large scale policy study this summer will also investigate whether the diversity issues in science are replicated in other sectors and help identify evidence to make a ‘business case’ for improving diversity, such as an MIT study in America which suggested greater team diversity led to better innovation.
Consideration will also be given to different measures of ‘excellence’ within science, as women in particular find it challenging to maintain a reputation through publications due to factors including taking time off for maternity leave and loss of association with their publication record if they change their name when they get married.

The programme will focus initially on the academic sector, but, building on Ms Hawke’s previous experience working on the Athena SWAN Charter, it is hope the RS programme will collaborate with the Charter to broaden its scope beyond universities to pilot work within research institutes and, perhaps in the future, industry.

Of course, in addition to reaching out to pursue diversity externally, the Royal Society must address the significant gender imbalance within its own Fellowship which in the last 10 years, has elected only 43 women as Fellows out of a total of 438. Although low, this is an improvement compared to recent decades, and now with the significant support of the President Paul Nurse, Ms Hawkes feels progress will move faster. A major barrier to overcome is the fact that Fellows are elected based on nominations by existing Fellows, which means the demographic is likely to perpetuate without interventions.

Ms Hawkes suggested that Learned Societies can help the RS programme, and more broadly make progress with addressing diversity issues, by participating in satellite expert groups which the programme is hoping to establish and informing Ms Hawkes of their own diversity initiatives, or providing examples of role models and case studies. There may also be the opportunity to work collaboratively, to run joint mentoring schemes for example, and the RS may provide some funding for this.

See the BES website for information on the BES’s own Mentoring Scheme for Women in Ecology. More details of the Royal Society’s work on equality and diversity are available on their website.