Marginalised Groups in STEM

It is very easy to say that equality is necessary. To say equality is desirable for the population as a whole, to list its many tangible benefits to the economy, to creativity and art, to society. We all want this thing to happen but as easy as it is to say it, it’s very difficult to know where to start to bring this about.

However, it’s difficult to deny that the UK has not achieved equality with the statistics staring you in the face. In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields, there is, across the board, a lack of Under-Represented Minorities (URMs). What this means, in real terms, is that the vast majority of STEM jobs, especially those in leadership or senior roles, are taken up by white, able-bodied men from middle to upper-class backgrounds. And since STEM jobs make up around 20% of the workforce, this is a big deal. It means that, even when there is a 40,000 shortfall in skilled STEM workers per annum, we are still not making the steps to actively bring URMs into STEM. This is nonsensical.

There are many factors to consider into this generalised statement. It’s an extremely complicated question to consider, and different roles and specific careers have different balances of people, but overall a distinct pattern emerges. BME men are 28% less likely to work in STEM than their white counterparts. 6% of professional engineers are BME, even though they make up 14% of the UK population.

Change is slowly happening, and many major scientific organisations have published diversity reports over the last 5 or so years. Groups such as the Royal Association of Engineering (with only 9% of its workforce being female!) are recognising that, for example, even though girls do as well as or better than boys in school exams, they quickly drop off in university. They are less likely to be hired. They are more likely to leave work and to not come back into the rewarding careers they were trained for. Cumulatively, this contributes to the worrying statistic that in all STEM and skilled trades fields, including the traditionally female-dominated health sector, only 13% of professionals are women.

There are many valid reasons why individuals may decide to make these choices, and this is not to shame people to leaving challenging STEM jobs when they may find more fulfilment in other fields. What is worrying is the overall trend, whatever the reason, that leaves us with such a gap between talent in school and adults finding rewarding, interesting and safe environments in which to work.

Our team has proposed a solution to do our part into bringing about a change in this problem. We have decided to focus on one of the first places that people are brought into contact with STEM: primary school classrooms. Our more specific solution is to lobby for mandatory, rigorous, and up to date equality training for all teachers (in time across all tiers of education, but presently starting at this level), prompting them to confront and work through any unconscious biases and provide a learning environment that is free of stereotypes.

The reason why we chose this route is due to the fact that many studies have shown that teachers, despite their best intentions, do not leave their prejudices at the door of the classroom. Although we may think of the black-white divide as being a US sentiment, teachers (who are overwhelmingly white) regularly mark down black students for the same work as white students. BME kids are punished more harshly for the same rule infractions, working-class children are made to feel self-conscious about being in lower class sets, and girls lose interest in Physics and Maths A-Levels. We have a problem, confidence-wise, grades-wise, in our classrooms, that is severely inhibiting the ability of children to learn and reach their full potential.

Children need to be able to learn all subjects, not just STEM, in a place that will not prescribe to them the limits of their own abilities. In the manner of “genders treated” Swedish education policy, where gender equality has been built into all manners of policy (thus creating a remarkably gender unsegregated society), we hope to build, starting with this work, educational arenas that recognise and work against the biases of the educators.

At the moment we are beginning to understand what shape this training will take. Some charities, such as Women In Science & Engineering (WISE), already take an active role to “inspire girls to choose maths, physics and computing”, also offering short courses for organizations (of which the UoE is one!) to encourage members to “improve awareness and knowledge of unconscious bias.” Stakeholders such as PTAs and teachers’ unions are being contacted to find out what work is already being done. This is not a project we can do alone.

Although there is currently equality training operating in schools, it certainly has its limits. One is that it is on a mainly voluntary basis — with resources being provided, but not mandatory, leading to the obvious conclusion that busy primary school teachers will not usually take time out to research what may seem like an obscure topic. Secondly, what does exist mainly focuses on gender discrimination. This is, as I have discussed, a major topic, but does not make up the whole of the minority debate in STEM. Issues such as race, disability, and gender identity cannot be allowed to be sidelines any longer, even in a mainly white country such as Scotland.

In conclusion, our team strongly believes that the only way to change this problem is to start at the bottom. The UK needs these people of the future, and we have to make an effort to bring them into spaces where they are not currently made to feel welcome because their talent and ideas can and will change the world.