MPs and Peers report the state of diversity and inclusion in STEM workforce

The UK's economic recovery provides an opportunity to address structural issues in the STEM workforce

Marginalised groups in the STEM workforce have suffered disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic, finds an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM (APPG on D&I in STEM).

The group of cross-party MPs and Peers believe that without urgent action, the UK faces losing a generation of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workers, preventing this vital sector from fully contributing to the Prime Minister’s science and technology agenda.

The APPG on D&I in STEM launched its inquiry in November 2020 to detail the current state of equity in the UK’s STEM workforce, highlight the experiences of minoritised STEM workers and shine a light on positive sector-led initiatives and practices.

A beleaguared STEM workforce

Hearing from over 150 institutions, businesses, networks and individuals, MPs and Peers learned how extreme the impact of COVID-19 has been for people of marginalised groups in the STEM sector, largely preying upon the existing inequity seen in the workforce – from finances and career opportunities, to health and wellbeing, to recruitment, retention and the loss of vital funding and research.

However, while the evidence has shown the pandemic has exacerbated historical and systemic disadvantages for certain groups, the recovery provides an opportunity to address structural issues in the STEM workforce. It may also allow for the Government to work with the sector to tackle underrepresentation, creating more sustainable economic prosperity and opportunity for those impacted by the pandemic as well as future generations.

In summary, the key findings of the report are:

  • The STEM workforce is less diverse than the wider workforce but consistent data collection and sharing is lacking
  • There is a need for the Government to take a multi-pronged approach to drive equity in the STEM workforce
  • Intersectional barriers continue from STEM education into the workforce
  • There is awareness of structural inequity in some large STEM organisations, but no consensus on solutions
  • There is considerable inequity in STEM but COVID-19 is making it worse

Key recommendations

The report makes three key recommendations:

  • The Prime Minister and Government must lead on a bold vision for a diverse and equitable STEM sector at the heart of their ambitions for the UK.
  • The Government must improve equity by delivering a statutory workforce data strategy to drive forward changes in policy and support employers.
  • The Government must quickly look to address and reverse the worsening inequity within the STEM workforce which has been brought about by the pandemic.

Chi Onwurah MP, Chair of the APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, commented: “From the development of the vaccine and our heroic NHS to driverless cars and renewables – it is clear the STEM sector is critical to our future national economy and therefore, the key to our recovery from the pandemic.

“Having worked as an engineer before entering Parliament, I know too well the barriers that minoritised groups in STEM face. Sadly, diversity and inclusion in the STEM workforce was bad before COVID hit and our inquiry’s findings show how the pandemic has preyed on this disadvantage and exacerbated it even more. Regrettably, the result is that a generation of STEM workers from diverse communities, in particular, Black people, women, disabled people and those from the LGBTQ+ community, will be lost from the STEM workforce unless the Government takes action.”

Advocating for change

By taking the three key recommendations in the report , the Government will be supporting this vital sector to repair some of the damage caused by the pandemic and create a more sustainable and equitable footing for future generations.

Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, which acts as Secretariat for the APPG on D&I in STEM, said: “Lack of representation in STEM has been a known issue for the sector for a long time. Over the last few decades, there have been countless initiatives, programmes and schemes designed to improve the diversity, and in some cases, the inclusivity of our sector.

“However, there has been very little shift in the make-up of the STEM workforce as a result of this effort. And unfortunately, this latest report from the APPG highlights how little progress has been made. Moreover, the inquiry has uncovered just how disastrous the pandemic has been for many already disadvantaged members of the STEM workforce. The severe disruption has meant many people from minoritised groups have had to leave their research and their jobs.

“Along with my colleagues across the sector, I fear that unless we take collective action now, we risk losing a generation of talented STEM professionals who could be instrumental in the country’s COVID recovery plan over the coming decades.

Mathieson added: “With the recommendations and evidence in our report, the Government has the opportunity to act to help mitigate the devastation caused by the pandemic and create equitable economic prosperity now and for future generations. But it is also up to us, in the STEM sector, to do better – to work collaboratively, to deliver joined-up solutions and to share best practices if we are to make any progress on the underrepresentation in our workforce.”

Dr Alfredo Carpineti, Chair and Founder, Pride in STEM, commented: “Pride in STEM is a charitable trust, and we are run by an independent group of LGBTQ+ scientists and engineers around the UK. We take pride in ourselves and pride in our work.

“The report shows clearly how unfortunately prevalent discrimination and harassment are in STEM. It’s disheartening knowing that 29% of LGBTQ+ people won’t even consider a career in STEM for fear of discrimination. We should pause about the {fact that] 28% of the LGBTQ+ workforce are considering leaving their workplace because of a hostile environment. While 20% of trans physical scientists considering it often. It’s unacceptable that 16% of LGBTQ+ people in STEM have experienced harassment and that the percentage more than doubles for trans and non-binary people.

“The report shows that the level of discrimination across all protected characteristics is beyond the pale, and people with intersectional identities suffer the most for it. That said, we are confident that by shining a light on the issues, we can start making the necessary changes. We call on the Government and other stakeholders in the sector to work together and take positive steps towards breaking down historical barriers and creating a more inclusive and diverse workforce.”

Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive Officer, Business Disability Forum, commented: “The UK is a global power when it comes to the STEM sector, but despite its size and importance, what we have learned in this report is that disabled people continue to be marginalised within it. They have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with the disruption derailing employment prospects and career opportunities. Too many disabled employees have fallen out of the workforce altogether.

“This is about talent. Every sector needs to access the widest possible talent pool if we are to build back better and repair our society. We are pleased to have contributed to this extremely important report and would like to thank everyone who has been involved in producing and developing it. I look forward to the Government carefully reviewing the recommendations and taking action to ensure a fairer recovery with diversity and inclusion at its heart.”

Kayisha Payne, Founder, Black British in STEM, said: “If you ask most young people to draw a scientist or engineer, they will often draw an old white man with mad hair. The APPG report on Equity in the STEM workforce highlights that you can’t be what you can’t see. However, it’s not just about seeing the diversity; there needs to be more to actively give people from underrepresented groups support.

“As a Black, female Chemical Engineer, I know I am in the minority, but this report highlights that Government and the STEM sector need to work together to improve equity in the STEM workforce. BBSTEM supports the APPG’s call for a ‘STEM Diversity Decade of Action’ to tackle the systemic under-representation of minoritised groups at all levels in the sector. Now is the time to act. If not, future generations will continue to draw scientists and engineers as people that don’t reflect or represent them or society – and that will stop them dreaming and aspiring to become the innovators of the future.”

Kay Hussain, Chief Executive Officer, WISE Campaign, added: “As a lifelong STEM enthusiast and someone who is passionate about making a difference, I am delighted to see this report published today.

“It’s disappointing but unsurprising to read about how women in STEM have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. At WISE, we believe the pandemic has provided an opportunity to reflect, reset and rebuild in a more equitable and sustainable way.

“To do this will require far greater creativity and innovation, which can only come from greater diversity. This means that a gender-balanced, diverse, and inclusive workforce representing all parts of our society is now more important than ever before because, without it, we would be missing out on potentially game-changing talent. Harnessing talent in this manner would not only benefit our economic recovery in the short term but also make a profound and lasting difference for generations to come.”
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