More work needed to help women bridge Scotland’s STEM skills gap



Progress has been made in tackling gender inequality involving Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths professions in Scotland during the past six years, but much more needs to be done to ensure that men and women can enjoy equal prospects in the sectors, according to a new report.

The Tapping All Our Talents report, published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) and RSE Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) today, found that more women are employed in the STEM sectors, including in academia, but it concluded that the country needs to ensure it utilises the talents of all citizens to maximise economic prospects.

The 2018 report follows up work undertaken by the RSE in 2012, which found that even when women overcame the barriers to studying STEM and graduated with STEM degrees, only 27% remained in the STEM sector; around half the equivalent proportion of their male counterparts.  This was despite both the Scottish Government and industry identifying STEM skills gaps as restricting progress towards national ambitions and economic performance. Tapping All Our Talents 2012 set out the foundations of a national strategy towards gender equality in STEM workplaces in Scotland.

Through a public consultation, a series of roundtable discussions, and a review of the literature and data available, the Tapping All Our Talents Review 2018 considers what has – and has not – changed for women working in STEM in Scotland today, and it makes recommendations for addressing the under-representation of women in STEM.

The Review Group was heartened to find significant progress has been made towards redressing gender imbalances in STEM:

  • The proportion of female STEM graduates in the UK working in the sector has increased from 27% in 2012 to 30% in 2017.
  • In industry, UK-level figures indicate that the proportion of women in core STEM professions rose from 13% to 23% in the same period.
  • At the current rate of progress, STEM FTSE 100 companies are expected to meet a voluntary target of 33% of women on boards by 2020.
  • In academia, the number of Scottish STEMM (includes medicine) departments holding Athena SWAN awards, which recognise efforts to enhance gender equality, reached 73 in 2017, up from a total of five awards in 2012.
  • The proportion of female professors in Mathematics trebled from 3% (2012) to 10% (2017) and in Chemistry doubled from 5% to 10%.

Progress, however, is not universal:

  • In education, the proportion of young women studying for Computing-related qualifications at SCQF levels 3-5 has fallen from 32% in 2012 to 18% in 2018.
  • In most STEM subjects across colleges and universities, the proportion of female students has seen, at best, incremental improvement (e.g. from 11% in 2012 to 13% in 2016 in undergraduate engineering), and, at worst, further decline (e.g. from 54% in 2012 to 43% in 2017 in college-level IT frameworks).
  • The number of female executives in FTSE 100 companies remains stubbornly below 10%.
  • The overall gender pay gap in Scotland has seen little movement, standing at 18% in 2012 and 16% in 2017.

Professor Lesley Yellowlees, who chaired the Review Group, said: “Many years ago, when I first became aware and interested in the issues surrounding a lack of women in STEM I set myself the target of trying to make STEM a more inclusive world for the women of tomorrow. Progress has been too slow for my daughter’s generation but I am hopeful for my granddaughter’s.

“Gender equality in STEM can only be achieved through a fundamental shift in societal perceptions of gender ‘norms’. This is a significant and complex challenge: stereotypes are introduced at birth and consistently reinforced by families, carers, peers, media, social media, educators and employers. But it is a challenge that must urgently be tackled if Scotland is to eradicate the harmful impact of such stereotypes on the wellbeing of all its young people and enable them to reach their full potential.

“Unconscious – and sometimes conscious – biases shape the advice and guidance given to girls and young women by their many influencers, from parents and teachers to peers and media.”

The report identifies that biases persist through the attitudes and actions of industry management and colleagues and in processes, including recruitment and promotion. These barriers compound the difficulties that many women, in all sectors, face to remaining in the workforce when they are also expected to take on a greater share of caring responsibilities.  The paucity of high-quality flexible and part-time roles, the impact of career breaks on long-term career prospects, expensive and inflexible childcare and the persistent gender pay gap are all obstacles to workplace equality.

Four themes underpin the key recommendations made by the Tapping All Our Talents Review 2018:

  • the need for leadership including from the UK and Scottish Governments to drive culture change;
  • the need for better data that allow real understanding and tracking of the extent of gender inequality in STEM, barriers to progress and appropriate solutions;
  • a focus on behaviour change that recognises the benefits of gender equality for everyone and that renders bias and discrimination unacceptable; and
  • strong, sustained partnerships between educators and industry to deliver education and training that inspires all young people to engage in STEM.

Professor Dame Anne Glover, RSE president, added: “I want girls and women to know STEM is for them both as a subject of study and as a career choice. Since I began my career in science much has changed yet we still have some way to go to create a positive working environment for all women.

“It is imperative that we do so, not only is it important that as a nation we harness the talents of all our citizens but there is now a clear body of evidence that diversity in the workforce not only allows individuals to fulfil their potential, but that more diverse teams are more effective.

“We stand ready, as Scotland’s National Academy, to support a continuing conversation and further work with education providers, business, government and wider society on how we can truly tap into the talents of all our workforce to the benefit of Scotland and its people.”



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