The author of the first computer programme is widely held to be Ada Lovelace, a daughter of Lord Byron whose notes on an algorithm were published under a pseudonym in 1843. While Ada would hardly be alone in her work today, it’s no secret that the majority of those working in STEM subjects are men.

Globally this imbalance is well-recognised and efforts are under way to address it. In Scotland, SFC is working towards this aim through its Gender Action Plan (GAP). Developed in response to the Scottish Government’s Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce strategy, one aspect of the plan’s overall ambition is that no college or university subject will have a gender imbalance of greater than 75% of one gender by 2030.

It is a deliberately ambitious target for Scotland’s further and higher education sectors.

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A recent progress report shows the proportion of women studying engineering and technology subjects at college increased from 10.9% to 15.8% between 2011-12 and 2016-17, while a 3.6% increase was seen in mechanical engineering courses. However, the number of women studying construction also dropped -0.8% in the same period, alongside a -1.0% drop in the amount studying computer science and programming courses.

For SFC Board member Professor Lesley Yellowlees CBE, who chairs the governance group overseeing GAP progress, the results indicate that while progress is being made in some areas, “change isn’t going to happen on its own”.

Professor Yellowlees’ journey with STEM, which started with a BSc from the University of Edinburgh in 1975, eventually led her to become the head of the University’s College of Science and Engineering, as well as the first women to be president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. In 2018 she chaired the review group for Tapping All Our Talents, a joint report between the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Young Academy of Scotland on women in STEM.

“While there are now more women working in STEM, both reports tell us that societal and institutional perceptions of gender ‘norms’ still have to be challenged if we’re to deliver a step change in real gender equality,” she says.

City of Glasgow College’s “Engendering STEM” project, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme, is one example of this kind of challenge, bringing together gender equality experts, educators and industrialists to improve workplace inclusivity amongst SME businesses operating in the STEM sector. Douglas Morrison, Associate Director of STEM and Innovation said: “We have found that many businesses face similar challenges in understanding the key issues. This project is a great example of the private sector working closely with educational institutes to make positive changes that, in turn, make the industry a more attractive career prospect for women.”

Campaigns such as Equate Scotland’s #ThisIsWhatASTEMinistLooksLike have set out to highlight that women are not an anomaly in STEM sectors, by asking women to post photos of themselves in their STEM environments.

Women, employers and educators were all encouraged to take part. Equate Scotland works with the education sector and employers to encourage women into STEM careers and Director Talat Yaqoob says they have been “inundated with photos of women working in STEM environments, from marine scientists on boats to renewables engineers repairing windmills”.

She added: “To create workplaces which recruit, retain and progress women, we need to create inclusive cultures. We do this through training and consultancy with employers to transform work practices. We have worked with big names and start-ups – everyone in the sector needs to play their part in leading change.”

These examples and the many more out there show the innovative approaches needed to deliver real change, says Professor Yellowlees.

“Challenging gender inequality is not a ‘women’s problem’, nor that of any one individual sector. It requires universal buy-in, underpinned by leadership at all levels. SFC’s GAP is ambitious but it is a mandate for colleges and universities to play a leading role in this change, working alongside government and the public and third sectors.”

This article appeared in The Herald's STEM Magazine, published on the 11th March. You can view this online by clicking the image below.

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