Boardrooms of engineering firms have fewest number of women and some academic societies have one female member for every 75 men
Women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are more under-represented at senior levels than in any other business sector, a new report says.
Boardrooms at science and engineering companies have some of the lowest proportions of women, while some top academic societies have as few female members as one for every 75 men, a study by the Royal Society of Edinburgh has found.
The report was revealed to MPs on the business select committee, who are looking at how to boost women’s representation in the workplace. It showed that just 4.9% of fellows at the Royal Society of Chemistry are women. At the Institute of Physics, it is 4.7%; the Royal Academy of Engineering has 3.8%; and the Institution of Civil Engineers has just 1.5%. These disciplines already attract relatively few women – but female representation is even lower in the top ranks.
Last month Vince Cable, the business secretary, wrote to the eight FTSE 100 companies with men-only boards to encourage them to improve their diversity. The eight – Antofagasta, Croda, Glencore, Xstrata, Kazakhmys, Melrose, Randgold and Vedanta – are largely mining and natural resources companies with HQs outside the UK.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysics professor at Oxford University, told the committee the biggest problem for women in these industries was culture: “This is not biology, this is not women’s brains. This is the culture in the country of what is considered appropriate for women to do.
“It is my impression that it’s our sisters, our cousins and our aunts that determine what we do to a large extent. They influence the early decision of girls and then their progress will be determined by the people in power – which are often men.”
The report, Tapping All Our Talents, which she co-authored, also revealed that women represent just 8% of those who have either a controlling interest in or own a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) firm. By comparison, 41% of non-Stem businesses are owned or controlled by women.
Adrian Bailey MP, chairman of the committee, said: “I was aware there was a lower level in science and engineering, but I didn’t realise it was quite so low.
“Nobody seems to have ownership of the problem and are very willing to pass responsibility on, which helps no one.”
He added: “Whilst there is a parental attitude suspicious to science and engineering it may well offset anything done by the schools or industry.”
The EU has been considering legislation to force companies to have women make up 40% of the boardroom, although the proposals are now expected to be watered down or made voluntary.
The report found that of the 10,755 projects which received funding by the directorate general for research at the European commission, only 17% had a woman as “scientific co-ordinator” and 16% as “scientist in charge”.
It also found that the UK came 17th in a list of how well women are represented in the field of astronomy.
Argentina came top, with women making up 37% while women make up 12% of UK-based astronomers.
Institutes in the UK have introduced various initiatives to try to increase the number of women in Stem industries, but some admit more can be done to address the historical problem.
Matthew Harrison, director of education and engineering at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “We have to make our profession more welcoming to women and go out of our way to make that happen, and when we’ve got our own house in order we need to look at schools. The problem starts in the choices young people make at the age of 16.”
Institution of Civil Engineering director general, Nick Baveystock, said: “At ICE, we have a dedicated under 19s programme that involves mentoring, competitions and other engagement with schools to ensure we are promoting engineering to both girls and boys at an early age. We are seeing some positive results with female graduate and student members increasing every year.”
Director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, Professor Peter Main, said: “This problem stems from a long historical legacy. The number of female physics professors is increasing all the time, which we are delighted by, and we are actively working to recruit a greater number of female fellows. In fact, more than 13% of those elected to fellowship over the past three years have been female, which is substantially higher than the percentage of female professors.”
A spokesman for the Royal Society of Chemistry said: “Our new president, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, has been outspoken on this matter and has talked publicly about the need to have more female scientists in chemistry and in science more widely. Diversity in all its forms is of great importance to the RSC.”