Don’t shoot the messenger: the deeper problem behind the all-male Commons STC

The Commons STC, as announced on 11th September 2017

In this piece we look at the reasons behind the all-male STC – and call for the Committee to take the opportunity to show leadership on equality, diversity & inclusion.

On Monday 11th September, the House approved a motion to appoint an entirely male and predominantly white Science and Technology Select Committee (STC). This has been met with huge outcry on social media and a formal letter to parliamentary whips calling for transparency in election from the STC chair, Norman Lamb. This is understandable – committees should represent the democracy the serve, bringing a range of expertise and life experience to bear on the matters at hand.

We’ve done a bit of digging and we now understand how this happened – read on for more details. It illustrates the invisible hurdles that trip women up in many walks of life, and Parliamentary life is no exception. We shouldn’t blame, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels either. There’s a chance here for the STC to implement measures (such as equality and diversity targets and monitoring) and to set an example for other public committees and groups.

The STC acts to “scrutinise the Government Office for Science”, but has a broad scope, and can examine all offices which use science, engineering, technology and research. It should be noted that the committees regularly gather evidence for their reports, to which all experts are welcome to contribute written evidence. The 2015 committee published 32 reports, analysing everything from antimicrobial resistance to the Zika virus.

In order to select committee members a call goes out from the party whips for candidates to join a select committee. If the number of applicants meets the number they are looking for, they all become members, with no need for a vote; otherwise parties vote for representatives. Committees are balanced by party seats – this year there was space for 5 Labour members, 5 Conservatives and 1 Liberal Democrat.

Maybe it was the nightmare that is the post-Brexit science budget or the headache of joining and leaving Euratom, but this year, the STC was not especially popular. Because fewer MPs expressed an interest in joining than the spaces on the committee, instead of elections, everyone who applied was accepted. At time of the release of the membership of the committee they were still missing two Conservative and one Labour member, although Vicky Ford, a conservative MP (and woman), has since been elected to the committee. Despite the social media storm about the “pale, stale and male” committee reeking of parliament’s “problem with women”, the committee includes everyone who expressed an interest. No women initially applied. It is worth noting the exact same selection process in 2015 resulted in a majority women STC.

So why aren’t women putting themselves forward? There are three potential reasons for this, all of which probably played some part in the resulting gender imbalance. Firstly, it may be the whips are not actively encouraging women to volunteer for these positions (which would explain Norman Lamb’s letter). Secondly, there may be a general lack of interest from women for sitting on this particular committee for a range of reasons, perhaps because of their academic backgrounds, because it is not particularly high-profile, because it is not an appealing prospect at the moment, or maybe a just a reflection of a society that portrays science as ‘for men’.

Thirdly, it may be that female under-representation on STC is fundamentally linked to the gender balance in the House of Commons as a whole. The 2017 General Election saw women make up 32% of candidates elected; a record high. There is a public pressure to have a gender-balanced Front Bench, and those on the front bench are barred from sitting on committees. In short: women are in demand in every part of Parliament and female MPs risk doing more work for the same pay as their male counterparts to meet these expectations.

In the furore that followed the announcement many names of women were put forward, many of whom were already on committees or had other time-consuming jobs. Heidi Allen, a conservative MP with a degree in astrophysics, was mentioned particularly often. Heidi, however, is already on two committees – a third would give her an impossible workload.

A number of eminent scientists have called for quotas to ensure fair representation. Quotas would be tricky to implement, however – quotas at a party level would be impractical as the numbers on the committee change each election. Quotas at a committee level would be difficult to enforce because of the party split. One option could be to have a quota along the lines of ‘If you have four or more MPs on a committee then one must be a woman’. Another option is to target recruitment at the whip level – it may be that whips should be thinking of suitable female candidates beforehand and approaching them in advance.  However, until we have a gender balance in the House of Commons, both options risk lumping women with a larger workload than men in order to give an impression of equality. In the interim, it would be helpful to monitor the composition of Commons committees and make information about who applied, who was elected, and what criteria were applied in choosing committee members more readily available. This would reinforce the expectation of diverse representation at Commons committee level, whilst stopping short of targets or quotas which would be difficult to implement without overburdening existing female MPs.

The general consensus on Twitter is that at a time where the country is trying to close the STEM skills gap, the STC should at least reflect the proportion of UK women working in STEM, if not exceed it. According to the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), 103 members of the UK parliament have backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, maths or medicine (STEMM). 38 of these candidates are women, which is significantly higher than the proportion of women in the scientific workforce (scientists in parliament – 37 %, STEM careers –  21.1 %). Given the committee still has another spaces to fill, and at the time of writing has already recruited one woman, it could still ultimately have a similar percentage of women than in STEM careers as a whole.

The 2017 STC is not a clear-cut example where women have been actively displaced in favour of men, but actually a microcosm of a broader diversity crisis within Parliament, and in STEM as a whole. Instead of getting angry with those who have been selected, and the staff working to keep the committee running, energy must be concentrated on increasing the number of women in Parliament, particularly those from a science background. That way we will have more women with more time to do awesome jobs like sit on the Science and Technology committee.

Thinking about running for Parliament? More information can be found here.
Not up for being an MP but really want to see more women in STEM? Get some ideas on what you can do to make a change from us and Athene Donald.

ADDENDUM, 20th September 2017:

After publishing this post, we discovered that whilst no women applied to the STC, Norman Lamb’s leadership of the STC was contested by Jo Swinson.

We have also received the following encouragement from Carol Monaghan MP, after she had read this piece: “As a physics teacher, it was a great honour to sit on the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2015-2017.  Although I would love to continue this work, parliamentary arithmetic means I am not likely to be granted a place on the committee this session.  The lack of diversity is one of the biggest issues in science today.  By ensuring the remaining places on this committee go to female MPs, Parliament could send a strong message that gender equality is important in STEM.”

This post was written by Jess Wade and Dani Rabiaotti, with additional contributions from ScienceGrrl Directors Ellie Cosgrave, Anna Zecharia and Heather Williams.