Improving diversity and tackling inequality in science

This is an edited version of a post which first appeared at the British Ecological Society’s blog

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

Sarah Hawkes, Head of Scientific Engagement at the Royal Society (RS), gave a presentation about her work on the Society’s new four-year programme (scroll down), which focuses on removing the barriers to increasing diversity in the scientific workforce.

The science sector in the UK – and the RS 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 RS 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 (which the Biochemical Society co-funds) and actors within education.

The scheme has strong backing from Sir Paul Nurse, PRS, 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 RS’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 reveal 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 (I would propose that it certainly won’t any time soon, without more significant intervention).

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 used 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. This is an increasing focus in Europe too, as the recent Gendera conference brought to light.

Consideration will also be given to different measures of ‘excellence’ within science, as women are particularly affected by the challenge of maintaining a reputation through publications. This is due to factors including maternity leave and the potential loss of association with a publication record if names are changed in marriage.

The programme will focus initially on the academic sector but, building on Sarah’s previous experience working on the Athena SWAN Charter, it is hoped the RS programme will collaborate with the Charter to broaden its scope beyond universities to pilot work in research institutes and, perhaps in the future, industry. This will also help any best practices from industry be absorbed more widely. Unilever, for example, drew praise at the 2011 European Gender Summit for its active approach to diversity.

Of course, in addition to reaching out to pursue diversity externally, the RS 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 (at the Biochemical Society, we acknowledge a similar problem with our awards, which we are working to address). Although low, this is an improvement compared to previous decades and now with the significant support of Sir Paul, Sarah feels progress will be made 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.

Sarah 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 Sarah 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. This is definitely worth keeping an eye out for.

More details of the RS’s work on equality and diversity are available on their website. Our thanks again to Sarah for giving such an interesting presentation, which is available here, and for dealing with all of our questions, especially the toughies from me!

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