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Why diversity in STEM is critical for success – and especially for research

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton January 30, 2024
Diversity is often talked about in general terms. What are the facts and figures – and the impacts of its absence in STEM?

Diversity And Inclusion. Business Employment Leadership. People Silhouettes © Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock
(© Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock)

Just 21% of workers in UK science, technology, engineering, and maths careers are women, according to figures presented earlier this month at a Westminster eForum on STEM workforce diversity. In the US, meanwhile, just over one-third of STEM jobs (35%) are held by women – an increase of three percent from 2011, according to research by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES).

On both sides of the Atlantic, therefore, the sector remains overtly male, though the US has made better progress than the UK in fostering a more diverse workforce – doubtless helped by the presence of Big Tech players and wealthy investors.

In the UK, only 11% of STEM workers have a disability – despite many technology roles being open to them, and people with disabilities making up nearly one-quarter of the population. However, this is one area where the UK outpaces the US. According to the NCSES, just three percent of American STEM workers have a disability – a proportion unchanged in the past decade.

Yet the UK has few laurels to rest on. Sadly, the statistics are notably worse for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) employees, who form just eight percent of the STEM workforce, but 18% of the population. So, the UK STEM workplace is 92% white. 

By contrast, just under two-thirds of US workers (64%) are white, down from 74% in 2021. Hispanic and Latino workers are the largest ethnic minority in American STEM (15%), with Asian (10%) and Black or African American workers (9%) being the next largest. Again, those figures come from the NCSES.

However, some studies reveal that Asian workers have greater success in reaching senior positions. According to research organization Statista, for example, among US companies (of any kind) that have non-white CEOs, 49% of those leaders are Asian.

Meanwhile, reliable figures for LGBTQ+ workers in the sector are hard to come by, as they rely on tolerance, openness, and self-disclosure – a bigger challenge in the US than it is in Britain, given the power of the religious right. However, one US study suggests that LGBTQ+ people make up less than two percent of the STEM workforce. That is probably an underestimate – especially in Silicon Valley – yet even so, the figures are likely to be low.

So, despite signs of positive change in some quarters, STEM careers, including most technology jobs, are overwhelmingly the preserve of straight white males – more often than not young and from relatively privileged backgrounds. The US sector is more diverse than the UK’s, in general terms, yet still a long way from offering equal opportunities. Bear in mind, in both Britain and America women make up slightly more of the population than men – roughly 51% to 49%.

So, why is any of this important?

At a time when some right-wing commentators like to complain that white males are, somehow, under attack – rather than acknowledge the reality of a society seeking to offer opportunities to everyone – it is worth remembering that diverse companies and organizations outperform others. 

At least, that’s the view of Hannah Russell, who is CEO of august institution the British Science Association. Chairing a recent Westminster eForum on STEM workforce diversity, she said:

At the heart of what we do is a belief that science and STEM should include everyone and be open to everyone, regardless of background.

It is hard to argue with that. She continued:

The case for this is clear. Diversity and inclusion aren’t just the right things to do from a social justice perspective, they also make an excellent business case that it's the right thing for the UK economy. 

We know that organizations that perform better on diversity and inclusion tend to perform better financially, and are able to recruit from a wider talent pool to be better at problem-solving and creativity.

Hard evidence for this was not presented at the event, but I am not aware of any research claiming that a lack of diversity leads to better outcomes. Then she added:

[Despite diversity’s positive impacts, the lack of it] is a problem that we've been trying to solve for decades. So, if the UK is going to be a science and technology superpower, we really do need to shift the dial. There are significant skills gaps in the STEM sector that we need to fill.

Plus, as we have already explored, the burgeoning US tech sector – seven of the world’s top 10 companies by market capitalization are American technology vendors – is notably, and progressively, more diverse than Britain’s. And it doesn’t seem to have done it any harm!

Many of the challenges of “shifting the dial”, as Russell put it, were explored in my previous report on STEM diversity, which looked at the need for the UK to find new types of champion to inspire kids from different backgrounds.

However, it is important to remember that diversity is not just about equal opportunities for people entering the world of work and trying to progress in it. Or solely about the need for organizations to reflect socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, gender, age, and other differences. Diversity is also a factor in another key area for STEM: research.

Dr Izzy Jayasinghe is Head of Molecular Medicine at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and visiting academic at the University of Sheffield. In the UK, she has long championed inclusive workplace cultures in her roles in faculty leadership teams, and on the strategic advisory team at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). 

Speaking at the Westminster eForum earlier this month, she set out the opportunities, challenges, and pressures that coming from diverse backgrounds can often present:

At universities, research institutes, and some national laboratories […] opportunities and investments in people are among the things that attract diverse individuals to those workplaces. 

Now, if you are one of the people who have those opportunities presented to you, especially in the research space, you can rapidly find yourself in an upward spiral – of opportunities to develop skills, to be validated, to be recognized, to be visible, and to be promoted in academic institutions. And that unlocks yet more opportunities. 

But colleagues who have worked in this space also understand the bottlenecks and barriers that are faced by minorities and marginalized people in research environments, which can create a lack of opportunity, leading to a downward spiral. 

For example, if you have trouble accessing research funding for an extended period, that means your standing in the community begins to shrink and your visibility diminishes. And that often leads to an exit of those people.

In other words, being perhaps the sole representative of a particular community in the hyper-competitive research space, or one of only a small number, creates pressures of its own – not to mention unwanted attention, judgement, and criticism. Meanwhile, any perceived failings or missed opportunities may trigger a meltdown of confidence – not just among peers, but within that person. 

In short, a lot can be riding on being the first person to break through a particular ceiling, or to represent the hopes and dreams of a wider constituency. In Dr Jayasinghe’s experience, this certainly applies to many women in science, research, and academia. 

She explained:

The loss of that talent, the loss of those colleagues, is primarily down to the lack of opportunity. I highlight funding, in particular, because it is the primary currency that unlocks opportunities in research. And a lot of the conversations that I've had in the recent past have been about how funding opportunities are failing to unlock diversity, and how they are not inclusive or equitable.

Indeed, she made the excellent, if obvious, point that people from marginalized and under-privileged backgrounds have no choice but to rely more on grants than others do, and so any failure to secure scant funding can have a devastating effect.

In the UK, this creates challenges of its own, she continued:

What we have seen over the past few years is UKRI [UK Research & Investment, which includes Innovate UK], capping the number of applicants for each funding scheme. And so, the burden and responsibility of selecting the most deserving proposals falls back on universities and institutes. 

And this is where I have seen diversity being negatively impacted again, because processes are being implemented that are opaque, or are not fair, consistent, or transparent. There's also an over reliance on conventional markers of excellence.

What did she mean by that?

In most industries, we use metrics to tell us how an individual, team, or process is doing. But those are proxies, they are not a real measure of excellence. And when we offer opportunities, we measure if those individuals are deserving of them. So again, we rely on metrics that are outdated and often biased, and which play against people from marginalized communities and backgrounds.

A different approach 

So, what’s the answer?

One possible solution is that, in Australia, the number of grants that any researcher can hold is now capped, she explained, which means that people who are already privileged cannot keep securing more and more of the same funding pot. 

An imperfect solution, perhaps. But another seems more promising in an era in which the rise of technologies like AI is forcing policymakers to consider radical alternatives. Jayasinghe explained:

We have talked about the concept of a ‘Universal Basic Research Income’, where people from all walks of life who enter the research space would be able to access a basic level of investment or funding – if they can demonstrate a certain level of competence. That is aspirational, but we think it is a possible solution to tackling the reliance on traditional markers and metrics.

She added that Australia has also legislated to prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Employees can have companies investigated if they have created an environment that actively promotes discrimination. 

She explained: 

The next step from punishing poor behaviour is really preventing it! What I also observe in Australia is really strong legislation, and policies in universities that protect whistleblowers. There are a lot of measures to prevent corruption and to disclose conflicts of interest. And that makes the work environment a really transparent one.

However, Dr Jayasinghe acknowledged that effecting change is difficult:

The thing that has to happen is to really bring people along with the idea of cultural change, and to get buy-in to that. Changing governance structures, as the starting point, is probably easier said than done.

The difficulty will be in making this work, because – in the university sector, especially – the burden of monitoring, commenting on, and improving diversity often falls back on the individuals themselves who are from marginalized groups. But they already face higher workloads and often don't get the recognition.

My take

A challenging and thought-provoking presentation, with many useful insights – and intriguing ideas for the future, such as the concept of not only a Universal Basic Income, but a universal research grant, in effect.

Dr Jayasinghe’s final point is a telling one, especially for people from disadvantaged backgrounds at universities and colleges. Such students may already be struggling more than their wealthier, more privileged peers. Not because they lack talent, skill, and aptitude, and so have to work harder; but because they are forced to take on other jobs and out-of-hours casual work just to make ends meet. 

Recently I heard of a student from a difficult, disadvantaged background holding down six jobs at the same time just to pay her way through college. Imagine the workload, the stress, the reduced hours for her studies, the lack of sleep, and the absent time to just live, be herself, and get to know her peers. Such a person is burning themselves to the ground just for a chance to shine.

Me? Like most privileged, middle-class, middle-aged white men, I never faced an iota of that pressure. And above all, I had a free higher education, in the days long before student loans for tuition fees. I left university with a small overdraft, and paid it off in the summer. 

In STEM in particular, the playing fields are never completely level, and that is what needs redress if the industry is to thrive with the best available talent, and not just the people who, however brilliant, can most easily get to square one.

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