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Scotland takes up equality challenge

This month the Royal Society of Edinburgh released recommendations for improving gender equality in science careers in Scotland.

The report, Tapping All Our Talents: Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: a strategy for Scotland, found that, in Scotland, nearly 73 per cent of female graduates in these subjects don’t stay in the field after their studies, compared with 48 per cent of men.

This ‘leaky pipeline’, where women fail to reach the top of the scientific career ladder, isn’t unique to Scotland, says Sarah Dickinson, senior policy adviser at advisory group the Equality Challenge Unit. For example, in the UK, women represent around 50 per cent of chemistry graduates, but only around 6 per cent of professors.

“We’re not saying all women should stay, but if virtually three quarters of female graduates leave, you have to address it,” explains Jocelyn Bell Burnell, chairwoman of the working group that prepared the report. For her, the key is involving the Scottish government to create a defined strategy and appoint someone at cabinet level and begin to join up various smaller, regional initiatives.

Dickinson adds that she hopes the UK government will take note of the problem too. “It’s a massive loss of talent that, economically speaking, the UK can’t afford to lose if it wants to remain at the forefront of science,” she says.

However, the issue of diversity reaches beyond that of gender equality. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, based on the 2009-10 academic year, shows that in science, engineering and technology departments, 8.7 per cent of staff were from black and ethnic minority groups, and 2.4 per cent had a declared disability.

“Increasingly, research indicates that a diverse workforce is good for business, innovation and research,” says Ruth Wilson of the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET. Bell Burnell agrees: “More diverse organisations are more robust, more flexible and better able to cope with what life flings at them.”

The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society have recently launched a programme on increasing diversity in the scientific workforce, funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The programme, which is due to finish in 2015, will focus on understanding and tackling levels of under-representation in seven areas of diversity, particularly gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and disability.