I recently read an article written by Imran Khan, Director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK, an organisation whose aims I am in complete support of. In his article Imran comments on the lack of diversity in science and engineering in the UK.
“Science and engineering have serious institutional problems when it comes to diversity.”
But how much is this caused as Imran suggests, on “serious institutional problems”, and how much is down to a historical legacy of a male-dominated environment and simple demographic realities? Are there in fact other significant factors to blame for this discrepancy?
Now, whilst I accept that diversity is not necessarily a strong point for our professions, I am always a bit wary of using a few headline statistics to emphasise a problem.
“Disabled people make up 5.9% of the total workforce, but only 3.8% in science, engineering, and technology.”
I definitely won’t claim to be an expert on this (!) but I do wonder whether this accounts for the education and/or training required for typical jobs in these sectors, and those disabilities that effectively prevent people from undergoing those sorts of experiences – I want to make clear that that’s not in any way meant to be a disparaging comment, but it is true that there are certain disabilities which prevent people from having any chance of a higher education, for instance.
“Only one in twenty chemistry lecturers isn’t white.”
Again, a pretty disturbing figure it seems – except that over 90% of the population are in fact white according to the last Census, meaning the discrepancy is actually only a few percent, and it’s not too difficult to find some other reasons why this may be the case.
A major one (and one which arguably may get a lot worse after the Government tripled university tuition fees the other week) is the fact that university applications are skewed towards those from higher income backgrounds. This adversely affects many minority groups, who are often amongst the poorest in our society. As the science and engineering sectors are so heavily dependent on university-educated graduates, factors such as this could be more to blame, than “serious institutional problems.”
In short: diversity in science and engineering is a problem that we must continue to tackle. However, whether it’s an institutional problem, or due to a number of other external factors is certainly up for debate. I’d be keen to hear if people have any experience of ‘institutional problems’ – more specifically, what can we do about them?