The jobs of the future will be made in the high-tech industries that depend on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates. With our universities consistently punching above their weight in the global league tables, the UK should be in a position where businesses needing skilled engineers or schools needing passionate biology teachers have a ready supply of candidates. But this is not the case. Last month, the inventor James Dyson wrote to the Daily Telegraph to complain that his company struggled to fill 200 vacancies for engineers this year. The Royal Academy of Engineering recently said that over two million engineers are needed in the UK over the next decade to replace the huge numbers set to retire and to build for the future. With the Home Office not budging on its restrictions on overseas students staying in the UK after finishing their studies, it's clear that the UK is walking into a worsening skills crisis that can only have a negative outcome for our economy.
One way to tackle this problem is to try and encourage a group into STEM who have been more or less an endangered species in science and engineering to date: women. Female participation in the sector both at university and in industry is currently very poor. For example, the number of female academics in physics and mathematics has plateaued around 16% or lower for many years, and fewer women are in permanent or tenure-track positions than men. In business, only 8% of those in engineering occupations are female, with just 5% of this year's engineering apprenticeship places being filled by women. The result is a loss of human potential on a vast scale, with whole industries now severely imbalanced in their gender mix at a time when we need as many skilled workers inventing, building and innovating as possible.
The Business, Innovation and Skills select committee heard evidence yesterday from a panel of distinguished women working in science as part of our ongoing inquiry into Women in the Workplace. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE told the committee that the average undergraduate physics class in the UK is only 25% female; in Malaysia, as is common elsewhere in the Far East, women make up 60% of classes. Much of the problem in the UK is to do with ingrained cultural attitudes which don't see science and engineering as a profession for a woman. Kate Sloyan, doctoral prize fellow in the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton, also gave evidence to the inquiry, and told us of the importance of role models to make school-age girls aware of science as a possible career. Pushing against the historic imbalances resulting from gender stereotyping early in life is vital if we are to stop women being excluded from some of the most fast-moving and financially-rewarding industries our country has to offer. The economic benefits of greater female participation in the STEM industries are very large indeed. One recent study focussing just on Scotland estimated that doubling women's high-level skill contribution to the economy would be worth as much as £170 million a year for Scotland's national income. As the Royal College of Engineering told the committee, "women present a potential pool of talent that cannot be realised whilst gender stereotyping persists".
So why is the UK's track record of attracting and retaining women to science and engineering so poor? In many ways, the problems facing women in STEM are the same problems affecting women progressing in every industry. Costly childcare and lack of employer flexibility when women return to work after having children are issues that have been raised at every stage of our inquiry. In STEM in particular, leaders in academia and industry should tackle the leaking pipeline of female talent as a matter of urgency. The Athena SWAN Charter for women in science, which universities voluntarily sign-up to, is a step in the right direction. It acknowledges that a hands-on approach is necessary and that 'business as usual' won't create the change needed. The Charter stresses the importance of a commitment to gender equality in science from management and policy-making level down, in order to set a good example for staff at every level in institutions. Beyond changing the culture of an organisation or a whole industry, the charter also rightly acknowledges the detrimental effect of more concrete obstacles, such as the use of short-term contracts for early-career researchers - a growing problem in academia - on the retention and progression of female scientists.
The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee intend to make an important contribution to the ongoing debate. If you would like to contribute evidence on how equality and gender issues have affected your career in STEM, we would be very glad to hear from you. Written evidence should be submitted directly to the Committee. The level of interest in the inquiry means that the deadline for submitting evidence has been extended to Christmas 2012. Evidence should be sent to the Committee, as an MS Word document, by e-mail to email@example.com. For more information on submitting evidence, visit the Committee's website.
HuffPost Women sends stories about relationships, politics, sex, work, culture and body image, straight to your inbox three days a week. Learn more