Without women Scottish STEM is going nowhere
Tue 22 Nov 2016
Jamie Greene, Digital Economy and Technology Spokesman in the Scottish Parliament, wants to address the confidence divide between girls’ interest in science and their induction into mainstream STEM subjects…
As a Member of Scottish Parliament, my constituents often come to me to with the difficulties they still face in accessing the internet. The lack of access to high-speed broadband and mobile internet in many remote and rural areas, for example, is something that is discussed by all at Holyrood on a regular basis.
There is no doubt that Scotland’s digital divide will persist, until the Scottish Government finds a way to speed-up a digital infrastructure roll-out that makes the internet affordable and accessible to everyone in Scotland, but it’s equally important to remember that a successful digital economy is so much more than the sum of its infrastructure.
If we want to grow more software companies and tech firms in Scotland, we have to excel across the sciences. From biorobotics to 3D-printing made to order organs for transplant − across the globe new products and services are emerging in the areas of research and development where engineering, medicine and technology collide.
For Scotland to make use of these new economic opportunities, we cannot hope to compete with anything less than a full and cross-disciplinary STEM workforce.
According to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, increasing the participation of women in STEM in the UK labour market could be worth at least £2 billion to the UK economy, but a recently published study by Scotland’s Digital Technology Skills Group found that only 18% of the roles in Scotland’s digital technology industry are filled by women.
If girls are already ruling out science careers at school, even when they enjoy science, then there are clearly a number of social and cultural barriers that must be addressed
The ‘leaky pipeline’
Though the Sheryl Sandbergs and Erica Bakers of this world are doing fantastic work, leading and changing the digital and tech fields for the better, it seems that in Scotland we still haven’t achieved the right formula for more women to thrive in our STEM workforce.
Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has been one of the loudest voices calling for us to do better and address what is often referred to as the “the leaky pipeline”, the high number of women qualified in STEM subjects who go on to work in other sectors.
An Aspires Report from Kings College London famously pointed out that “girls are less likely than boys to aspire to science careers, even though a higher percentage of girls than boys rate science as their favourite subject.”
Rescuing lost aspirations in science
If girls are already ruling out science careers at school, even when they enjoy science, then there are clearly a number of social and cultural barriers that must be addressed in education, such as how the science subjects and science career opportunities are perceived and sold to parents and pupils alike.
But it must however be clear that the onus is not on girls to gain confidence, as if all that is needed is a little more encouragement and the problem will be solved. Many girls already aspire to be game developers and mechanical engineers. Many women are already influencers and thought leaders on the global tech scene.
The onus is rather on society as a whole − on politicians, educators and the private sector in Scotland − to create the right conditions for women to reach their full potential in STEM careers unhindered. In particular, we need to open up leadership roles in universities and private companies and bring working arrangements into the 21st century.
A lead from the private sector
The private sector has been the quickest to pick up on this, with the Googles and IBMs of this world offering flexible working opportunities, childcare and mentoring, but our responsibility goes much further than making working arrangements bearable. We need to address the hidden biases that prevent women from ascending through the ranks or even from applying for these jobs in the first place.
For example, we can make hiring processes more transparent and ensure that pay and promotion gaps are not only monitored, but addressed by employers. What’s more, we should be encouraging women’s networks, calling out events and conferences where there are no female panellists and ensuring women entrepreneurs can access seed funding on the same terms as men do.
Above all, our goal must be to make working in digital economy exciting and worthwhile for everyone in Scotland, because without women on board no one is moving forward.
Jamie Greene is the Scottish Conservative Connectivity, Digital Economy and Technology Spokesman in the Scottish Parliament.