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Edwina Hart, Minister for Economy, Science and Transport

First published:
11 March 2016
Last updated:

This was published under the 2011 to 2016 administration of the Welsh Government

On International Women’s Day, Tuesday 8 March, I was pleased to launch the much-awaited independent report on women in science – Talented Women for a Successful Wales. It represents the conclusions and recommendations of a highly talented and motivated working group, ably led by two of our most senior female academics here in Wales – Professors Karen Holford and Hilary Lappin-Scott, both of whom are Pro- Vice-Chancellors at their respective universities of Cardiff and Swansea.

I commend this report and would like to repeat the thanks to all the Women in Science task and finish group members and others who contributed with research, evidence and drafting input. This report gives us a valuable view of the position of women in science in Wales and beyond. Its scope is ambitious and wide-ranging. It addresses the position of girls and women in education in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and then the issues faced by women in recruitment, retention and promotion within the world of STEM-related careers - in business and industry or in academia and education. We learn why the pipeline of female talent coming into the world of STEM-related work is ‘leaky’, losing women at every stage.

Most importantly, it makes a comprehensive set of recommendations for actions which will improve the position of women who have embarked upon STEM careers; have worked in a STEM-related field but are facing difficulties resuming their career or are striving to move up to leadership positions in their career. The recommendations vary in scope. Some are essentially implementing present best practice more widely. Others are major and will require Government funding input, at a time when resources are tight for all Governments in the UK. Detailed consideration and response will be for the incoming Welsh Government, in due course. Because recommendations are not addressed only to the Welsh Government, however, but to all potential actors in this field - business, academic and educational stakeholders can start to progress recommendations made to them as soon as they want to.

The report was commissioned by Professor Julie Williams, our Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales, who was concerned to provide us with up-to-date and robust information about the nature and extent of the problems faced by women in STEM careers and with practical suggestions as to what can be done to improve the position. We simply cannot manage without the available talent of around half of our population being applied to the scientific and technology-related activities, which drive the knowledge economy and contribute to sustainable prosperity for Wales.

The Welsh Government has been aware of this problem, which is of long standing. It is not one experienced in Wales alone. We can point to a range of positive actions already taken to start to improve things - particularly in the area of STEM education.

Our cross-Government approach to improving the supply of STEM skills is being set out in the STEM in education and training: delivery plan for Wales, being published this month. It is no surprise that girls in STEM is a key theme throughout that plan, which sets out what we have done and what more we will do. We have backed initiatives which are targeting improvement in the take-up of certain science subjects, particularly Physics and ICT, where female student numbers studying these subjects have lagged behind male student numbers for many years. We have also backed initiatives aimed at exposing girls and young women to the wide range of stimulating and well-rewarded careers in STEM-related fields they can aspire to. One such is our own Qualified for Life: Focus on Science campaign. This was launched by the Minister for Education and Skills in 2014 with the key theme of promoting science and STEM subjects more widely to girls from an early age, as well as actively promoting STEM-related careers. We are also funding Techniquest to deliver outreach provision which enhances girls’ engagement in Physics in the years leading to GCSEs. A pilot, extended later last year by the Minister for Education and Skills, sees 48 secondary schools across Wales all benefitting from teacher mentoring through the Institute of Physics’ successful Stimulating Physics Network programme, an approach which we know impacts positively on girls’ progression in this key subject area. Physics is a subject where girls have traditionally made up only around 20 per cent of the candidate total; it is time for that to change.

Techniquest and Techniquest Glyndwr’s education programme, which receives Welsh Government funding, is overseen by Gender Equality Project Coordinators, who check all programme elements to see that they encourage and inspire girls to take up STEM subjects. They also hold female-only STEM careers events. The gender split on activities they run is always carefully monitored, and I applaud them for this focus.

Businesses, backed by our Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Team, have for some time run successful schemes to highlight the opportunities open to girls in engineering. The Ford Saturday Club actively encourages girls to participate and Airbus’s Industrial Cadets Scheme has seen all female cohorts from schools in North Wales, who gain experience tackling a real industrial project and receive some 20 hours of mentoring support over a 10 week programme.

The National Science Academy last summer published a Strategy for STEM engagement, which sets out the principles it would use for its next round of grant funding. One of these is to welcome applications from projects which ‘actively encourage girls to continue to study STEM subjects where they are currently underrepresented and demonstrate to girls the interesting and well-rewarded careers in science and technology they can pursue.’ A number of the programmes funded cover this aspiration, such as a programme run by Engineering Education Scheme Wales. They deliver activities to develop STEM skills and encourage learners to consider engineering and manufacturing related careers. This includes the bespoke ‘Girls into Engineering’ scheme, to encourage girls to consider engineering pathways.

The Sêr Cymru II Fellowships launched recently as part of the Welsh Government’s wider programme to boost research capacity in Wales contains a ‘Recapturing Talent’ strand which aims to bring back up to 12 Fellows into university research careers, after a break. These are likely to be women, given that statistically a fair number of female researchers step out from their research careers to have a family. Many then find it hard to resume research in academic fields which are fast-moving and in departments where working practices and expectations are not always family-friendly.

Professor Julie Williams highlighted recently a Royal Academy of Engineering finding that the UK will need one million new scientists, engineers, technicians and mathematicians by 2020. For engineering alone this means a doubling of the current number of annual engineering graduates and apprentices. Given that the UK also has the lowest proportion of women in engineering in Europe (according to recent research published by the campaign group WISE), the Welsh Government remains keen to see many more girls and women accessing such high quality and stimulating posts with above average pay, to help make Wales prosperous and an exemplar for equality in STEM, to the benefit of us all.