On 28 June 2023, the British Science Association (BSA) organised a panel discussion on equity, equality, diversity and inclusion in STEM alongside the Science Council and the Foundation for Science and Technology.

The panel discussion took place not long after the Government’s response to the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee’s inquiry on diversity and inclusion in STEM was published (read the BSA’s thoughts). There was a sense of disappointment in the room, and from the speakers, towards the response as those concerned with furthering equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in STEM felt it did not go far enough to reassure the sector that EDI is a core priority for this Government.

Watch the full recording

The speakers were:

  • Kevin Coutinho, Pro-Director: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and EDI-lead Trustee, British Science Association
  • Lililan Hunt, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health (EDIS) lead, Wellcome Trust
  • Rachel Lambert-Forsyth, Chief Executive, British Pharmacological Society & Science Council Trustee and EDI Champion

After each speaker made their opening remarks, the floor was open to questions from an enthusiastic audience. Here’s a roundup of the key points.

Should we forget about government support for the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda, and focus on our own (i.e. the sector’s) efforts?

In their opening remarks, Lilian drew attention to the longstanding work to improve EDI across the sector. They highlighted that since the 60s and 70s, groups like Women in STEM and Black Women in STEM have been putting recommendations to governments to address stark issues not just in the makeup of the sector, but the treatment and experiences of minoritised groups.

Lilian went on to say that yes, there is scope to progress without governmental support, but the sea change they (and those engaged in this work) want requires a level of financial support and systemic influence that only government can provide.

Kevin, in a sense, agreed. It is possible without government. But he asked, will progress be more effective, efficient and engaging with the involvement of government? Yes.

Rachel then emphasised the importance of partnership in achieving EDI goals. The government can play a huge role in moving the dial but this must also involve those with the lived experience of exclusion, those with the data about the demographics of the sector and others with knowledge to share. Collaboration is essential.

What is the potential for the next government to make a change? Should the sector be engaging more with the Labour party?

According to Rachel, in an ideal world, the sector would work across the political parties. Not only does this increase support in numbers for the work, but it increases the likelihood that the EDI agenda won’t get shelved with any changes in Government. Political leaders function in line with an election cycle – this doesn’t mean we should.

There are pockets of the sector who resist change. What can we do when the playbook for progress and the type of solutions we usually lean on don't work?

Kevin brought up the importance of systematising better practices. Training and management influences have limited success, so we need to think about how we introduce elements of accountability, whether internally or through external requirements (such as from funding bodies or government). Given the diversity of the sector and the risks of inconsistent practices within organisations, focusing on embedding more inclusive culture is critical.

Lilian added that the people who hold power in the STEM sector, particularly in higher education settings, have been afforded this through academic achievements. There’s little consideration of the people skills required to foster an inclusive culture in their groups or wider teams.

On the topic of harassment and bullying, Lilian stated that we often talk about the extremes, i.e. when serious allegations are made. There are interventions that can happen on the way there, addressing what are seemingly ‘minor’ issues, rather than waiting for tens or hundreds of them to take action.

Kevin argued that harassment and bullying are invisible business costs that, in the long term, have a negative impact. It is not sustainable, so organisations must recognise if it exists in their workplace, and ensure they have the right policies in place to address such behaviours.

Lilian also purported that training must go beyond a one-off session for employers to check off their list of EDI responsibilities. This must be a puzzle piece in a bigger picture – is it part of the organisation’s core values? Does it contribute to a career framework? Training won’t lead to behaviour – and therefore culture – change.

Is there merit in disaggregating STEM because of the variety of associated challenges?

Another way of looking at this, said Kevin, is to think about when we intervene. Young children and young people will rely on us in the sector to show them the breadth of opportunities available through STEM. And that these opportunities are something they can reach.

If we’re considering the ‘leaky pipeline’, the intervention should be to demonstrate and advise how to navigate a career in the discipline.

Rachel commented that, yes it would be helpful to focus on individual problems where there is a subject specific need. However, there are also going to be commonalities across them, and we must be talking about those and coming up with solutions to tackle them effectively in each of the areas to move forward.

Rachel also mentioned that it’s crucial to look beneath the surface. For example, the biosciences have a higher proportion of women working in the area but progression to leadership roles is an issue like many subject sectors and so that’s not the end of the story. There will be problems in areas we deem ‘successful’ in some aspects of diversity; they won’t be performing well in them all.

The session ended with the moderator, Hayaatun Sillem (CEO, Royal Academy of Engineering) sharing her three key pillars for tackling EDI in STEM:

  1. Consistent, sustained leadership. We must utilise and leverage our privilege to make things fairer, striving for equity and equality in the experiences of those in STEM, particularly minoritised groups.
  2. A shared definition of success. We need to understand what the data means, where are we, and where do we need to go.
  3. Self-disrupt. STEM is, by definition, innovative. So, let's draw on this quality to transform EDI practices in the sector.

Thank you to the Royal Society of Chemistry for hosting the panel discussion. Watch the full event below.

Find out more about the BSA’s EDI journey