By Douglas Morrison
In 2012 the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) published ‘Tapping all our Talents’ (TAOT) following a review of gender inequality within the Scottish STEM sector. The principle aim of TAOT was ‘to develop a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for Scotland aimed at increasing both the proportion of women in the STEM workforce and the number who rise to senior positions in universities, institutes, government, business and industry’.
As the RSE embarks on the first major review of TAOT, six years after the original publication, we are afforded the opportunity to consider the current STEM equality landscape as well as the extent to which the recommendations, targets and measures of assurance have been realised.
The original TAOT can be accessed here: https://www.rse.org.uk/cms/files/advice-papers/inquiry/women_in_stem/tapping_talents.pdf
STEM in Scotland’s Colleges
In this article I intend to explore the role of Scotland’s colleges in supporting the development of a diverse and inclusive STEM sector. Scotland’s colleges provide vocational, technical and professional education to over 200,000 students a year and contribute in the region of £700 million GVA to the Scottish Economy. Whilst college activity was not within the scope of the original TAOT, it will be considered within the 2018 refresh. This is both significant and important as colleges represent the key link between school, industry and universities, as well as providing reskilling and upskilling programmes for adult returners and career changers. If we are to realise a more inclusive and diverse STEM sector, colleges are likely to play a vital role in ensuring that clear career development pathways are available for all.
There has never been a better time to be bold on gender equality in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s Youth Employment and STEM Strategies both make clear reference to removing gender related barriers to participation, and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) have introduced the Gender Action Plan (GAP). The GAP challenges tertiary education institutes to develop holistic action plans aimed at addressing ‘extreme gender imbalances’ of greater than 75:25 within subject areas. The GAP adopts five key areas of influence and development priorities (Figure 1.1) through which the education sector can promote and realise balanced representation in traditionally gendered occupations such as engineering, technology and computer science.
What are the key barriers stopping women entering STEM careers?
The current statistics are, however, bleak. Overall, the gender balance in Scotland’s college sector is relatively balanced at 49% male and 51% female2. However, the proportional representation of women in male dominated STEM college programmes such as electrical engineering (4.5%) and engineering/technology (11.7%) has seen less than 1% improvement in minority share since 2012. By comparison, mechanical engineering has experienced a 2.4% improvement (to 8.5%) whilst IT: Computer Science/Programming/Systems has dropped by 1.7% to a total of 10.5%. All disciplines remain some way off any semblance of proportionality.
So why has progress been so glacial?
Encouraging young women to pursue a STEM pathway from school to college is often challenging. There are wider societal issues relating to pre-occupational segregation that can lead girls to make educational choices at school which preclude a clear route into the STEM sector. This is reflected in the under-representation of girls sitting higher exams in subject such as physics, design and manufacture and engineering science. The practice of setting school-based STEM qualifications as a precondition for entry to higher national level STEM subjects at college therefore creates a barrier that can preclude, or at least seriously hinder, access opportunities.
Parental and peer influences have also been shown to shape the choices that young girls make. These are often informed by inaccurate stereotypical images of engineers in dirty, highly physical environments or technology professionals sitting in darkened rooms at anti-social hours. This is neither representative nor helpful in encouraging girls to consider careers in the STEM sector. Those girls who do progress into STEM careers, particularly through vocational routes, are often going against the grain of guidance from a wide range of influencers. This issue is acknowledged within the GAP which recognises the role that colleges can play in ‘promoting gender atypical career choices through arranging parents’ information evenings and school career events’4.
Perceived or realised concerns relating to entry into male dominated environments are often cited as key barriers to the recruitment and retention of women in the STEM sector. Such concerns are equally as applicable in the education sector, with many of the women on STEM programmes either being the only women or one of a few within a cohort. This can be intimidating and, without access to peers, mentors or role models, can be isolating.
Whilst this overview is by no means exhaustive it offers an insight into the deeply complex societal issues that colleges are working to address.
Tackling the Gap
Following the introduction of the GAP, Scotland’s colleges have taken a leading role in addressing gender-based underrepresentation in the education sector. Ayrshire College’s ‘This Ayrshire Girl Can’ campaign has been hugely successful in raising awareness of career pathways for girls and women in the STEM sector. City of Glasgow College’s pioneering ‘Women into Engineering’ programme adopts a positive action approach to gender equality and addresses barriers associated with women entering male dominated environments (with a primary focus on supported mainstreaming).
“ThisAyrshireGirlCan will not only help young women see the opportunities that a STEM career can bring and give them confidence to pursue their ambitions, it will also help Scotland’s economy to be as strong as it can be – by ensuring that we are tapping into the talents of all of our people and not underusing the skills of half of our population.”
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister
Partnership activity is clearly evident in initiatives designed to recruit and retain women in the STEM sector. Equate Scotland’s student network, mentoring and adult returner programmes ensure that women embarking on STEM careers have access to a supportive network of peers and role models who are dedicated to challenging the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect. SMARTSTEMS and Primary Engineer work closely with colleges to ensure that young people can make informed and unbiased choices when considering career pathways. Skills Development Scotland have taken a leading role in supporting and co-ordinating wider student engagement activity through initiatives and policy frameworks such as My World of Work, Tackling the Technology Gender Gap Together and the Equalities Action Plan for Modern Apprentices.
Industrial partners are also vitally important in promoting STEM careers for women. Put simply, if we don’t experience a positive shift in industrial under-representation of women we run the risk of presenting limited positive destinations for women who embark do undertake STEM based educational programmes. Fortunately, there are a number of industry sponsored initiatives, such as the Dell STEM Aspire programme, that actively support women in bridging the gap between higher education and a career in the tech sector. The ENGENDERING STEM project connects industrialists and academics across Europe to create a self-assessment toolkit for STEM employers to adopt more inclusive workplace practices.
Tapping all our Talents
If we are to make women in STEM a more culturally accepted norm we need to promote a collectively shared and consistent message to those who are either disengaged or non-engaged in the conversation. The original TAOT was so influential because it presented an evidence-based snapshot of the systemic underrepresentation of women in STEM. Its findings have been used in countless reports, presentations and lectures to raise awareness of barriers, interventions and the socio-economic cost of inaction. The review of TAOT will certainly further enhance the evidence base and present the opportunity to reconsider the extent to which we truly are tapping all our talents.
You can contribute to the call for evidence by participating in this survey: https://www.rse.org.uk/inquiries/womeninstem-2018/
Douglas Morrison is the STEM and Innovation Lead at City of Glasgow College and Director at the Scottish Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange. He is a member of the Review Group for Tapping all our Talents. You can contact him @dmorrisonedu or firstname.lastname@example.org