The Lack of Women and the annual £170 million loss to the Scottish economy

Marlyn Glen

7 March 2013

There are no well-known female “mad scientists “ in popular science fiction works  , the stereotypical villainous, cackling, insane characters  on one hand , or the humorous eccentrics on the other so obsessed by their work that their shabby outward appearance to the world counts for nothing ( Christopher Lloyd as the “Doc”  in “Back to the Future”   springs to mind in the latter category )

Just as there are only male mad scientists, so there are only male mad professors as well.

Examined by its literature and by its practitioners, Science is for men, according to decades-long beliefs.

Women have been chipping away at this derisory doctrine for years, and the latest advance into the male stronghold were the results from the OECD survey publicised recently showing that 15 year old girls scored better science results than boys across the world  – except in the UK, the US and Canada where the relatively poorer performances were put down to “cultural” factors.

(Scottish girls have been demonstrating consistently their ability to out-perform boys in recent years. link )

Another venture, the PISA study (Program for International Student Assessment) , had found that, in a number of countries , 15 year old girls scored equalled or excelled the scores of boys in maths.

The researchers discovered a correlation – “countries with the poorest degrees of gender equality also have the widest gulfs between male and female mathematical performance".

None of the successful girls would have known about nor would they have been daunted by the lack of successful women at the top table of scientific and mathematical success – the last woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physics was in 1963, the last for woman winner in Chemistry was in 1964, and no woman has yet won the Fields medal -  the Maths equivalent of the Nobel Prize. 

However, performing well in a subject at school isn’t a solid predictor of a successful adult career in it a higher level.

And in the world of working today in the sector of STEM (  Physical and Biological Sciences, Engineering and Technology,Mathematics and Computer Sciences) the role models for women planning a working life there are not schoolbook scientists such as Marie Curie , but successful women working in STEM at all levels  - research, development, and administrative .

As in all other areas of employment, the impact of working environment and family responsibilities figure prominently for women.

 Research found that both men and women working in STEM businesses acknowledged family responsibilities could be a barrier to career progression, women more so.

It observed that “among women and men with families, women are more likely to report that they are the primary caregiver and have a partner who also works full time. “

Studies for WISE (British Women in Science and Engineering ) have examined the problem of the loss of high female drop out rates from the work with one major factor being the lack of sufficient part-time jobs in the female engineering/science labour market.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh has studied the problem in some depth and its analysis, in “Tapping All Our Talents”,  produced by the astrophysicist Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell , is worth quoting in full :

 “Scotland fails to realise the full potential of its research base, and will continue to do so if it systematically fails to cope with the debilitating loss of talent represented by the high attrition rate of highly-trained women from employment.

“Although our universities now graduate large numbers of women in science, technology,engineering and mathematics (STEM), 73% of women graduates are lost from STEM compared with 48% of male graduates, with a corresponding loss of researchers.

“In academia, expensively trained women are lost in larger proportions than men at every step of the postgraduate ladder and are under-represented in top positions across the spectrum of business, public service and academia.

Although this represents a loss of opportunity to individuals, it also represents a major, quantifiable loss to the economy and society.

“It is estimated that a doubling of women’s high-level skill contribution to the economy would be worth as much as £170million per annum to Scotland’s national income.

“It is an economic loss that Scotland can ill afford, but it also represents a loss of distinctive but less quantifiable qualities from key roles in the economy and society that women are demonstrably able to contribute.

 “This rate of loss of highly-trained women from the workforce is taking place at a time when, even though the country is in near recession conditions, many of Scotland’s employers in the science and technology sectors are unable to find sufficient qualified, skilled and experienced workers.

“We have analysed the factors that cause this loss of talent.

“Some are the practical hurdles of family responsibility, but many are cultural factors that relate to attitudes in the workplace, the organisation of science and technology with concomitant difficulties in accessing career resources and, inevitably with such a low female representation at senior levels, a lack of role models.”

So yet another high cost to the economy can be put to an outcome whereby a large  majority of women graduates are not working in their specialist field of study.

It’s public investment in the education of girls at school and women at university that cannot be realised.

 And it’s yet another barrier that women face in their working lives.


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