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Lack of women in science, engineering and technology is a huge problem for UK economy, says equality minister

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Equality minister Lynne Featherstone has called for more women to work in the key sectors of science, engineering and technology (SET) at the launch of a groundbreaking new report at Westminster.

During a speech at the launch of the UKRC’s Women Mean Business: Why Women are Essential to Science, Engineering and Technology report, Feathterstone said the fact still only 5.3% of working women work in SET in the UK represented a huge problem for the prosperity of the British economy, one that she was committed to tackling.

She said: "It is as simple as this: if we don’t promote women in our organisations we are missing out on 50% of the available talent in this country, at a time when demand in science has never been so high. And that has serious repercussions for society and the future strength and prosperity of our economy, to which science plays such an invaluable part.

"There unfortunately exists a culture in some circles of science – reminiscent of how workplaces were 20 or 30 years ago – which puts off women from pursuing a career in the industry, and makes it extremely hard for those who work in these occupations to progress.   

"While there are some excellent examples of good practice, in some companies maternity leave provision and flexible working practices are limited and lag far behind other workplaces.

"As a result, the majority of female scientists choose their children and alternative careers instead of struggling with the hurdles of long hours and old boys’ networks."

The problem of women reaching the top is highlighted by McKinsey & Company research, which found that in 2008 women held only 9% of board directorships in SET FTSE 100 companies, and exclusively male boards still existed in 35% of SET companies.

Featherstone added while the new Government is determined to change things for women, not just in science but across the board including possible legislation, there needed to be a concerted effort to change mindsets all round.

"And that starts with Government," she said. "I want Government to show some leadership. But we also need other leaders in our society to give out the right message as well.

"We have already committed ourselves to an historic extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees. We will work with education providers from pre-school to universities to make sure girls and young women are encouraged to make more ambitious career choices and we will work with employers so they understand the business benefits around gender equality so that we see more family-friendly policies, networks and support systems being implemented in workplaces."

Jane Butcher, the UKRC’s assistant director, added: "Our new report summarises the key reasons why women are essential in science, engineering and technology. Research increasingly shows that gender equality is not just a matter of fairness – it is good for business.

"For example, a 2009 UK government review on employee engagement showed that in some cases the cost of replacing an employee is equal to their annual salary.

"Our report is a practical resource for business leaders, employers, policy-makers and others wanting to build innovation and enterprise in science, engineering and technology. The UKRC is the Government’s leading organisation working in this field: we are committed to working with employers and others to build organisational performance through gender equality."