Senior Lecturer In HRM Westminster Business School
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Diversity in the science workforce – successes and failures

23rd Sep 2014
Senior Lecturer In HRM Westminster Business School
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Science careers face diversity challenge

Recent research conducted by Westminster Business School for the Royal Society’s Leading the way programme – aimed at increasing the diversity of the science, technology, engineering, maths and medical workforce (STEMM) to increase opportunities for women, minority ethnic and disabled people – finds that science is less diverse than other areas of the economy.

Outside of the health service science employers are less likely to take diversity initiatives. While the potential business and social benefits and desirability of achieving a more diverse workforce were well recognised by the individual and organisational research participants who took part in this project, this did not always translate into effective action.

What strategies to increase diversity in STEMM are being utilised?

While a range of strategies are being adopted - such as targeted recruitment, measures to improve access to STEMM careers, encouragement of awareness and belonging amongst staff, mentoring programmes, establishing networks, and flexible working hours – there are few measures of success.

Most of the action is focused on increasing gender diversity, although some of the organisations researched did have ethnicity and disability initiatives, especially those employers with a broader clientele base.

Even so, despite drives over recent years to increase the representation of women in STEMM, the effectiveness of such initiatives must be questioned because statistics indicate that there are still too few women working in STEMM occupations - only around 13% of people working in STEMM are women.

Strategic central co-ordination

Our research suggests that the piecemeal and fragmented basis on which the range of actions is being taken is because different STEMM professions have different perspectives. More strategic central co-ordination of both initiatives and information would be beneficial. Government, the Royal Society, professional bodies and employers need to act in a co-ordinated way to set standards and perhaps establish a Centre of Excellence to support employers wishing to increase the diversity of their workforce. Accountabilities for action should be allocated in order to ensure effective coordination.

To further these aims positive experiences of the diversity award scheme in Universities - Athena SWAN -can be built upon to aid organisations to become diversity ‘employers of choice’. Specific work related to this could include:

  1. Development of consistent and comparative benchmarking frameworks
  2. Creating a benchmarking league table to aid the collection of data about diversity and providing an element of ‘competition’ between organisations to improve their diversity performance.
  3. Increased monitoring of information on employment practices and career progression
  4. Encouragement of networking, sponsorship and mentoring – the creation or encouragement of social networks accessible to people working or aspiring to work in STEMM careers, the establishment of buddying and mentoring schemes and matching mentees to mentors at varying stages in their careers
  5. Reduce emphasis on class of institution
  6. Focus group participants (individual scientists) wanted action to reduce the distinctions between the perceived ‘class’ of educational institutions. Encouragement should be given to foster (or make visible) employment opportunities to potential recruits who are studying at universities that are not routinely targeted by employers.
  7. Test the effectiveness of diversity training and develop effective programmes -
  8. Some organisations are actively training leaders staff on issues associated with diversity and this is showing some promise, but the effectiveness of these programmes (such as unconscious bias training) is not fully verified.
  9. Creation of a STEMM Employers’ Good Practice Forum to increase co-operation and coherence of diversity initiatives between professional bodies operating in STEMM professions thereby increasing communication and raising awareness of diversity issues.

What can HR do?

The research points to some critical actions and issues that employers need to take into account to increase gender, ethnicity and disability diversity:

  • Leaders of organisations must be fully signed up to the diversity agenda –making  the diversity ‘project’ a fundamental part of the way the organisation operates
  • Organisations need to examine all aspects of their employment practices to ensure they do not act counter any stated intention to increase diversity – some problem areas uncovered by the research include fixed-term contracts being used in ways which form a barrier to the promotion and progression of women in science; and the lack of embedding flexible working practices into management practices.
  • Consider  some strong targeted action linked to organisation performance outcomes – for example, as in the actions of the Chief Medical Officer in making research grants dependent on diversity actions
  • Ensure that diversity (of lack of it) is monitored carefully and then evaluated at a senior level to ensure actions result.

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