Sparks fly over Royal Society gender study

As a new inquiry prepares to look at sexism in British science, one PhD student says it is asking the wrong question

MPs have launched a formal parliamentary inquiry into whether British science is institutionally sexist. Concern at the high numbers of women scientists abandoning their careers has prompted the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to look into why Britain is failing to stop females dropping out of science.

Only 13 per cent of the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) workforce are women. While more young people are studying Stem subjects up to GCSE, female participation drops off at A-level. Further up the career ladder, women are increasingly under-represented. A 2012 European Commission study found that, although around 42 per cent of UK academic staff are women, the figure for the most senior research grade is only about 17 per cent, below the EU average.

The Royal Society, which advises the Government on science, has launched a separate investigation into whether greater gender diversity would lead to better science. Such is the sensitivity around the issue that the study's announcement provoked a public spat when a critic claimed the research would result in the need to make a business case for equality when solid moral arguments already existed.

Beverly Gibbs, a PhD student at Nottingham University, claimed the Royal Society study "will help move the goalposts from where diversity is the 'usual business' that we expect to where diversity is the exception, where it has to be justified in terms of increased output". She warned the government-funded study would mean future diversity debates will be dominated by economic rather than moral arguments.

Her criticism prompted two of the institution's senior female professors to defend its work. Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University, while not directly involved with the project, described Ms Gibbs's criticism as "naive" and "misguided". "Gibbs genuinely seemed to find it inappropriate that anyone should seek to do any more than accept the moral position that equality should be a given," she said.

Ms Gibbs responded: "I did my engineering apprenticeship and worked my way through the piles of run-of-the-mill misogynist crap that was daily life as a female production engineer. So, yes, I know we have a diversity problem."

In lively online debates, commentators were divided. Wynn Abbott, director of the London Science Festival, accused Professor Donald of "gross misrepresentation". "The subtext to all this seems to be the assumption that research into the business case for diversity will bring in a positive result. What if it doesn't? What if the research suggests diversity is not good for business? This would support discrimination and undermine equality."

The Royal Society believes the business and moral case for diversity cannot be separated. Its project, "Leading the way: increasing diversity in the scientific workforce", aims to reduce barriers within education, training and employment. The project's chair, Professor Dame Julia Higgins, said the policy study was a strand of a wider programme. "We will produce practical things that can be done. We can learn from what has been successful so far and really build on that."

Last year a Royal Society of Edinburgh study showed that increasing women's participation in the labour market could be worth between £15bn and £23bn, with Stem business accounting for at least £2bn.

A Royal Society spokesperson said: "The moral and legal arguments for diversity are well established; the Royal Society does not dispute that these should be the guiding reasons for building a diverse workforce. However, despite these arguments being well established, the pace of change is still slow. An evidence-based business case is often requested by those working in equality and diversity, both in business and in higher education."

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