STEM Careers: Diversity: 19th January 2016

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair)
If the Minister is able to keep her remarks to 10 minutes, that would allow Mr Howlett a few minutes to sum up the debate before I put the motion to the House.

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I will do everything I can to comply. I have taken out some large chunks of the speech that was helpfully provided by my officials. And I always say—there are some here this afternoon who have heard the usual line that I trot out, and I am looking at my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as I say this—that the usual rules apply. Anyone who I do not reply to by way of my speech will receive a letter that will answer all the points that have been raised in what has been an ​excellent debate, and I pay full credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing it. Truthfully, we could have gone on.

There have been some splendid contributions and perhaps most importantly of all there has been huge agreement across the House. It is not often that we hear that, but when these sorts of debates occur we hear people speaking in the way they have done today: free of party politics and not making daft points half the time; and speaking from experience but with shared common goals about wanting to make sure that more women and in particular young girls take up these STEM subjects and then do as well as any boy or man and flourish in them.

I will try to answer some of the points that have been made and obviously I will make the case for what the Government are doing. However, I begin by saying that I am getting very concerned, because I am becoming increasingly fond of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin). I am concerned that he is becoming the Scottish National party’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). [Laughter.] That is a compliment, because my hon. Friend is an outstanding historian and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is also a great historian, and I thought that his contribution today was very useful.

I just want to make a sensible point; I am now in my sixtieth year. I know that is difficult to believe; some would say that I look nearer 65 and it often feels it. The thing that slightly concerns me is that I think that when I was in my early 20s—almost 40 years ago—I heard this very same debate. What worries me and troubles me is that despite the efforts of all Governments to try to get more young women to break down these dreadful stereotypes, to get rid of the barriers and to open up all the channels of opportunity, I sometimes wonder whether we have made progress; I do not think we have made the progress that we all want. And trying to crack this problem is incredibly difficult. Yes, there are schemes and, yes, there is money going into it.

I praise the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, but actually he reflected what my hon. Friend the Member for Bath said—it is all about culture and changing culture. Yes, we can do masses in our primary schools, secondary schools and universities, but it probably begins long before that with the attitudes that we as parents impart to our children.

There were some great contributions. There was an intervention from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and I could not agree with her more; there was the contribution from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman); and I thought that the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) was particularly important, and I will just concentrate on one particular thing she said. That was when she talked, quite rightly, about the fine tradition within Portsmouth in relation to the Navy. When I was in the Ministry of Defence, one of the things that really struck me was the fact that so many young women are now going into the Navy. They are doing particularly well in those highly skilled jobs—they are all skilled in the Navy, as indeed they are in all our armed forces—and the number of women going into the Royal Navy really struck me.​

Those women are doing incredibly well, which resonates with the point that the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) made in her speech. I do not know whether hon. Members find this as they go round their constituencies, as I have done in my new role in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but often employers will talk about the quality of their apprentices and then they will produce the prize apprentice, and invariably they are women. So, we have those brilliant role models there; the trouble is that we do not have enough of them, and we all understand and recognise that.

We know that science is a universal culture; no one should face barriers to involvement in science because of their background. However, I will give what I suggest is a horrible statistic. The provisional figures for 2015 show more than 25,000 boys taking A-level physics; for girls, the figure is less than 7,000. And the United Kingdom has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe, at less than 10%. If those figures are accurate, they are not good ones.

In the research community, when we look at grant applications we see that men have higher success rates than women across all but one research council. White applicants have higher success rates than black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants. We know that there are barriers to achieving a diverse team at various stages of education and work, so as a Government we are committed to developing a strong, diverse STEM community, and we are working with the research councils, the national academies, industry and educators to deliver it.

There are some other facts that I hope will give people some encouragement that we are on the right track. We are investing £2.15 million in the Stimulating Physics network and £5 million in the Further Mathematics Support programme to help schools, academies and colleges to increase the take-up of maths and physics, with a particular focus on engaging more girls.

From 2014 to 2016, we will invest £11 million in the maths hubs. I pay tribute to the one in my own constituency of Broxtowe, which is at the George Spencer Academy, and I know that the academy’s brilliant principal—its headteacher, who is an outstanding woman—is determined that she will get more young women taking up maths. We are also investing £7.2 million in the Science Learning Partnerships to support better teaching in schools.

There are some other interesting statistics. I put my hand up to ask, “Please don’t tweet out in an adversarial way about this”, because I had not heard—it is not within my departmental responsibility, I quickly add, so I am grateful to be able to come along and respond to this debate—of the Careers & Enterprise Company. It is an employer-led, Department for Education-funded organisation that strengthens links between employers, schools and colleges. It will inspire young people—of course it will—and it has a £5 million investment fund. I shall certainly contact it, because I am finding in my own constituency a real willingness by schools to engage far more now with the business community and to bring people in.

We have heard from a number of hon. Members today about some of the work in their own constituencies, and their encouragement of schools and teachers to engage far more with businesses. Some really sensible ​and good points have been made about bringing in the engineers and the plumbers—it does not matter—to break down these stereotypes and to open the minds of all our young people to the fact that there is a full range of opportunities available to them, and to break out of those stereotypical opportunities of fashion and beauty.

I do not know what it is about our culture, which seems in some ways to be going backwards; whether that is because of the predominance of the personality culture, I do not know. So I pay full tribute to the fact that we have the first woman First Minister in Northern Ireland—fantastic—and the first woman First Minister in Scotland. Do you know what? I do not care what Nicola Sturgeon’s clothes are like; I am not interested in her hair, any more than I am interested in whether the Chancellor is on the 5:2 diet. [Laughter.] It really is so totally, utterly irrelevant, is it not? What matters much more is what they do; the Chancellor, of course, is brilliant, and Nicola Sturgeon could do an awful lot more. No—I am making a cheap political point. But we all know what the point is. We have an obsession now with the way people look, with what they are wearing and how they dress, but it does not matter; it is what they do and say that matters most. We have moved backwards in that respect, and changing that would encourage more young women to get involved in STEM subjects.

You will probably be pleased to know, Mr Hollobone, that I fear hugely that I will be unable to deal with all of the speech. In any event, it is far too long to deal with in the time available to me.

I pay full credit to the Secretary of State for Education, who is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, for the work she does and her absolute determination to ensure that girls and young women have all possible opportunities. For example, in 2014 we set up the Your Life campaign, which aimed over three years significantly to increase the numbers taking A-level maths and physics. It has a strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which is the way of communicating with young people, even if at times it drives people like me completely bonkers, because of the trolls and the abuse.

Regarding the levels of misogyny, I do not know whether the number of attacks on women in public life has increased, but certainly on social media we see that sort of abuse, and it is absolutely not acceptable in a modern world and does nothing to encourage women to step away from the stereotype.

I want to say just one other thing, and it is about mentoring. We have a great scheme to ensure that we get mentors into schools, and we have STEM ambassadors. In BIS we support more than 32,000 ambassadors to go into our schools, and I want to find out more about them when I go back to my Department. That really is the future, but it is also about changing the culture.

Ben Howlett
I thank the Minister very much for her closing remarks. Her passion for the subject is clear. She is obviously looking to take on board the recommendations and the issues raised in the debate today and report back to us later, to carry on the good work that the Government are doing to address this culture.​

Members on both sides of the House are right to say that there is a cultural problem. We have talked about role models that need to be rolled out, and we need to ensure that the 5.2 million disabled people are not left to one side and forgotten about. They are hugely productive members of our community and we should do everything we can to encourage them into STEM careers as well. In addition, we have heard about the Improving Gender Balance Scotland project, and I will go away and read about that and find out what work has been done there too.

In particular, I hugely congratulate everyone who was on Twitter yesterday—I have to say that there was a limited number of trolls. The debate has been amazing, incredibly sensible and forthright and has shown how wonderful this place can be when we focus on an issue ​that has cross-party support. I hope that this will not be a single debate but a long-term campaign to ensure that we change our culture, so that in a number of decades’ time we will not have to talk about these same problems. I thank everyone who has taken part today, and particularly the millions of people out there who were watching the Twitter debate yesterday.

Question put and agreed to.