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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 31, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

I remind those who are leaving the chamber and public gallery to do so quietly.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-14877, in the name of Iain Gray, on the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report, “Tapping all our Talents 2018: A progress review of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Scotland”. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s (RSE) report, Tapping all our Talents 2018: A progress review of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Scotland; notes that this is a follow-up to the RSE’s 2012 report into gender equality in STEM; considers that STEM education is vital for the future of workforces, the economy and society in East Lothian and across Scotland; notes with concern the significant gender gap within STEM school education that is outlined in the report; further notes with concern that the proportion of women studying most STEM subjects across colleges and universities has seen, according to the report, “at best, incremental improvement, and, at worst, further decline”; welcomes the key recommendations of the report, and notes calls for the Scottish Government to give these issues serious consideration.


In 2012, the Royal Society of Edinburgh published the first report: “Tapping all our Talents: Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: a strategy for Scotland”. That was the most comprehensive analysis of gender inequality in science in Scotland. Its findings were perhaps not surprising, but some were shocking. Its conclusions showed how poor we are at recruiting women into STEM subjects and careers.

Perhaps the report’s most damning statistic was that, even when women overcame all the barriers in their way and studied STEM subjects to graduate level, 73 per cent of those women did not pursue a career in STEM. Their skills, training, intellect and talent were lost to that critical sector.

The report quickly became the seminal research that informed the debate around addressing that criminal waste of talent. It should have been a wake-up call for how far we had to go—or have to go—in involving women in STEM and improving their position in that regard, not just as a matter of basic justice and fairness but as an economic and social necessity. The RSE estimated that doubling women’s contribution to the STEM workforce could be worth £170 million to Scotland’s national income.

The 2012 “Tapping all our Talents” report made a number of recommendations on how improvements could be made, so that young women would have the opportunities to progress and excel in STEM and make it their chosen career path.

Six years on, the Royal Society of Edinburgh has returned to that issue to research what—if any—progress has been made, and it has produced “Tapping all our Talents 2018.”

There has been some progress. For example, the highly regarded Athena SWAN—scientific women’s academic network—programme to address gender equality is now operating in 73 science and medicine departments in Scotland; in 2012, it operated in five departments. In the United Kingdom, the proportion of women in core STEM professions has risen from 13 per cent to 23 per cent.

However, the RSE report shows that in some areas of further and higher education we have seen, at best, only slight improvements with regard to women in STEM, such as a 2 per cent increase in undergraduate engineers. At worst, and in many areas, we have seen further decline.

That is confirmed by Scottish Labour research that was published today, which shows that, in information technology-related college courses, such as computer science and software development, there has been a significant drop in the number of women enrolling—a worrying trend if we want to ensure a high-skilled skills pipeline.

The most worrying evidence in the 2018 report comes from schools, where we see that gender stereotypes are still having an impact on STEM uptake and opportunities, and no real progress has been made since 2012.

Once again, in the critical area of computer-related studies, we see the starkest gender gap, with the percentage of young women studying those subjects at nationals 3 to 5 plummeting from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent in 2018. Meanwhile, the percentage of girls sitting exams in computer-related qualifications at higher level fell from 25 per cent in 2012 to 16 per cent in 2018.

The proportion of girls who took physics at levels 3 to 5, as well as the proportion who sat higher physics exams, also fell over the same period.

Despite the fact that women are underrepresented in the classroom in many STEM subjects in schools, we should note carefully that women have better attainment than men in every subject at national 5 level.

The gender gap in STEM has nothing to do with aptitude and nothing to do with women’s brains being different or their skill set being unsuited to STEM. It has everything to do with attitude, conscious and unconscious bias and systemic everyday sexism. It has everything to do with men such as Professor Strumia from CERN, who notoriously claimed:

“physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation.”

Tell that to Professor Sheila Rowan, Scotland’s chief scientific adviser, who was a major contributor to the detection of gravitational waves. Professor Rowan is a tremendous role model for women in STEM, but we need more than women being role models; we need men to address their attitudes, and we need them to do so quickly.

The RSE is planning a range of follow-up work to its progress report. In early April, it will continue the conversation through an exhibition that showcases women in science in Scotland, which will celebrate women’s achievements while highlighting the work that still needs to be done to address gender inequality in STEM. The RSE also plans to hold a series of round-table discussions with representatives from across the education, business and government sectors and the third sector to discuss the issues that its report raises and what can be done by organisations to work together to deliver gender equality.

The recommendations in “Tapping all our Talents 2018” go deeper than the need for programmes such as Athena SWAN, valuable though they continue to be. This time, the RSE’s report demands a focus on behavioural change, so that we recognise the need for gender equality in STEM for everyone and render bias and discrimination unacceptable.

Above all, achieving that will demand leadership—from Government, industry and educators, and from all of us. We need neither warm words nor empty rhetoric; we need support for real action and a willingness to confront the bias, discrimination and sexism that stop us tapping all the talents that we must bring to bear on our scientific future. That might cost money; it will certainly take a more concerted effort than we have been willing to make up to now, and it will certainly upset Professor Strumia and his ilk—all the better. However, we cannot afford to ignore the wake-up call of “Tapping all our Talents” this time around. [Applause.]


I congratulate Iain Gray on bringing his motion to Parliament and giving us the opportunity to debate it.

I have used the 2012 “Tapping all our Talents” report on many occasions to inform debates in the chamber. It was an extremely important piece of work. I, too, welcome the 2018 review. The foreword is by Professor Anne Glover, who is the RSE president, and Professor Lesley Yellowlees chaired the committee that looked at the issue. As two of the foremost women scientists in the country, they are certainly role models for young women in Scotland.

I welcome some of the improvements that are identified in the report, such as the fact that the proportion of female STEM graduates in the UK has increased from 27 per cent to 30 per cent. The report also notes:

“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.”

As someone who supports the campaign for 50:50 representation of women in politics, I find that target quite worrying. In effect, it expresses contentment with a situation in which 66 per cent of people on boards in STEM companies are men. Turning the argument around in that way exposes how unequal the position is for women in such organisations.

In academia, the number of Scottish STEMM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine—departments holding Athena SWAN awards, as mentioned by Iain Gray, has increased. The proportion of female professors has trebled in mathematics—from 3 per cent to 10 per cent—and has doubled in chemistry, from 5 per cent to 10 per cent. Progress is being made, but there is much work to do.

Another important report is “Automatic… For the people?”, which was produced by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, in conjunction with BT, ScotlandIS, representatives of the information systems community in Scotland, and the RSE. The fourth industrial revolution is already upon us and we have to ensure that Scotland’s communities and our economy are geared up to take advantage of what is coming our way. By way of highlighting that, the Fraser of Allander institute says in that report that it has conducted research showing that of the 2,826,000 jobs in Scotland, 837,290—almost a third—will be impacted by the fourth industrial revolution, digital technology and sensor technology. We want Scotland to lead in that area, which means that we need people to study STEM subjects at all levels—in our schools and in our universities.

The Government has done a number of things to support that, and the Education and Skills Committee hopes to conduct a review of the STEM strategy that the Government is due to publish. I look forward to hearing when the strategy might be available. CENCIS—the innovation centre for sensor and imaging systems—which is supported by the Scottish Government, is a world centre of excellence for sensor and imaging technology.

We have an opportunity, but in order to maximise that opportunity to have productive and highly paid jobs in Scotland, we have to ensure that all our young people are aware of the opportunities, and that women who want to study and work in STEM are given every opportunity and support in their ambitions.


I join members from across the chamber in congratulating Iain Gray on securing this debate to welcome the publication of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report, “Tapping all our Talents 2018: A progress review of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Scotland”.

I also whole-heartedly support the RSE in raising the important issue of gender equality in STEM. The report has found a significant gender gap in STEM leadership roles and little progress on the proportion of women studying STEM subjects in colleges and universities. I have read the briefing, along with other reports, and the importance of STEM is clear, as are the impact and causes of lost talent in those fields, and actions that the Scottish Government must take.

Scotland’s reputation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is strong, and those fields are a key sector of our economy. Unfortunately, female participation in many STEM subjects in our schools, such as computing and physics, has decreased. Early and sustained intervention is essential to inspire interest in STEM among young students of all genders.

Furthermore, we are concerned that many women are discouraged from pursuing STEM careers. In today’s society, women face obstacles to participating and progressing in science and technology careers. Those barriers include family responsibilities, implicit bias and less access to research funding. Even if women pursue STEM subjects, many highly qualified women leave the sector early. To add insult to injury, even when women stay, they are consistently underrepresented at the executive level.

Why does that matter? It matters because our economy is dependent on women’s participation in the labour market. An increase in females in the STEM workforce could be worth at least £2 billion to the Scottish economy, but we are faced with a stream of women leaving the sector. Some employers in Scotland are now struggling to recruit. In short, losing women in the STEM field weakens both Scottish business and the Scottish economy. We have already seen our economy weaken under the current leadership, with the most recent gross domestic product figures showing that Scotland’s economy is growing at half the rate of the rest of the UK as a whole. Without action, we will continue to miss innovation and market opportunities.

Just last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Data Lab and meeting its head of business development, Jude McCorry, who is quite simply passionate about Scotland’s role as a leader in both data research and women in data. This rapidly growing sector might provide an even greater opportunity for women to get involved in STEM than perhaps some of the more traditional engineering fields, and that is possibly reflected in the fact that Ms McCorry is joined at the top of her field by women such as Gillian Docherty, chief executive of the Data Lab; Frances Sneddon, chief technology officer at SIMUL8 Corporation and other chief executives such as Polly Purvis of ScotlandIS, Mandy Haeburn-Little of the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, Julie Grieve of Criton and Susan Ramonat of Spiritus Partners. Members might have had the opportunity to meet many of them at last night’s event.

How do we find the next generation? In March, the Data Lab is putting on a programme on women in data science that will bring current female data scientists together with schoolgirls to inspire them to become data leaders of the future. The Royal Society of Edinburgh also plans to put on an exhibition in April to showcase women in science in Scotland and celebrate their achievements. I am pleased to hear that there will be round-table discussions with representatives from education, business, Government and more to evaluate the report and develop solutions.

The Scottish Government has a responsibility to promote gender equality in STEM fields through its policies on education, training and economic development, and they are the sorts of initiatives that the Scottish Conservatives—and, I hope, everyone in the chamber—support.


Like other members, I congratulate Iain Gray on securing the debate, because we have to highlight not only the importance of STEM to the economy but the need to get more women into STEM positions.

The “Tapping all our Talents 2018” report is very useful in giving us the benchmark of 2012 against which to measure things. As Iain Gray has pointed out, progress has been made in some areas, but in other aspects, progress has been slow or, indeed, declining. That should be a real concern for MSPs right across the chamber. After all, if we want Scotland to do well as a country, we need to grow our economy, and the information technology and engineering sectors are key to that. We need to get good people into those sectors, but the fact is that we are very short of women recruits; for example, women make up only 17 per cent of the information technology workforce. That clearly shows that not only are we letting women down by not giving them these opportunities but we are not making the most of the strengths that we can tap into to give us economic growth.

When we look at the issue, we can see what might almost be described as a flow to this problem. For a start, there has been a drop of 1,000 completions with regard to women entering industry, and we can follow that all the way down to secondary school and the fact that, between secondary 3 and S5, the percentage of female pupils taking computing subjects has declined from 32 to 18 per cent. Not enough women are studying these subjects.

We need to take this all the way back to primary school and raise awareness of STEM in young kids in their formative years to ensure that they not only realise the importance of information technology and engineering but see that they can be exciting careers. STEM subjects should be given much greater priority in primary schools. The natural instinct is perhaps to concentrate on traditional subjects such as English, mathematics and reading, but, by not concentrating more on engineering and information technology, we are not gearing up enough for the modern economy.

That sort of approach can be encouraged in primary schools through the use of STEM ambassadors. They could be young women who are studying STEM subjects at university or college or women from industry, and they could come into primary schools to talk to kids about the importance of studying and having a career in STEM. That has been done in some primary schools in Glasgow and has been very exciting. I know of one example of young kids being enthused by such an experience.

As Iain Gray said, a much more concentrated effort is needed across all areas. From primary school through to secondary school and higher education, and in industry, there must be links with STEM sectors. If we are to give women the opportunities that they deserve and make the most of the economy, it is absolutely vital that we learn the lessons from “Tapping all our Talents 2018”.


Like other members, I thank Iain Gray for bringing this important issue to the chamber and I congratulate him on securing time for the debate.

I whole-heartedly agree that it is important that, to some degree, men take the lead on these issues. We all have a responsibility to stand up for gender equality, but this issue goes further than that. We all have a responsibility to help to build the society that we want to see. It is more than just an economic issue, as we all lose out when people are held back and when we do not make the most of what everyone has to offer. The economic figures are stark—£170 million would go a long way in supporting many initiatives that would unlock further economic potential.

When we get wake-up calls like this report more than once, and we are not making any progress, we have to ask ourselves whether we are part of the problem. Are we are doing enough? Are we doing everything that we can, or are we just paying lip service to the issues and moving on to other things? Through my involvement with the Education and Skills Committee, I know that these are interesting issues that members take seriously, but it is not enough to take them seriously. We have got to see something done. Many factors are involved, because the issues are complicated and deep-rooted, and too often it is easy to say that it is too difficult or that the problem lies elsewhere. We have to make sure that something happens, because I do not want to see another report like “Tapping all our Talents 2018” that shows that progress is stagnating.

James Kelly is right to say that we need to focus on people at a much younger age. I would go further still: both at the early years level and in primary school, much more can be done to break down gender stereotypes when it comes to play and learning. It is not about saying that gender is not important, but about making sure that people have a free choice. I highlight the point that Clare Adamson made in relation to what women want to do. When we have debates such as this one, we can make out that there are things happening, but, as well as making sure that the opportunities are there, we need to make sure that people want to take them up. That involves explaining the benefits for individuals, as well as saying that it would be good for society or for industry, or that we have a skills shortage.

That last point brings me on to industry. The problem is not just one for the UK Government, the Scottish Government or public bodies; we have to ask industry to do more. There is a lot of good practice out there and companies are working hard to support programmes in which people go into schools or train up others. However, it is clear that dealing with the issues sometimes ends up being a tick-box exercise for large companies that have the capacity to help in this area, partly because of economic pressures and other business priorities. Therefore, we need to find a way to make it easier for those companies to promote the issues.

We also need to ensure that we get information to young people at key points in their education. We must ensure that school pupils have a genuine range of subject choices and that young people have the opportunity to access resources not just in schools but in colleges.

All those ideas would help, and I hope that there will be continued support across the chamber for initiatives that get to the heart of the problem.


I thank Iain Gray for bringing the debate to the chamber. I agree with virtually every single point that he made during his very fine opening speech. I also thank all the other members who contributed to the debate—again, I agree with virtually every point that they made.

The Government is absolutely committed to addressing gender inequality across society, the economy and education. Only yesterday, the First Minister renewed her commitment to tackling gender inequality when she met her national advisory council on women and girls and promised to give full and careful consideration to its first annual report, which was published last week.

We have all agreed today that there is no place for gender bias and gender stereotyping, which limit the achievements of women and girls in life or in STEM or any other sector. I thank the Royal Society of Edinburgh for a balanced, thorough and thought-provoking review of the current state of women in STEM in Scotland today. I know that the RSE has arranged a number of follow-up activities and the Scottish Government has offered to be involved in as many of those as the RSE feels appropriate.

As Iain Gray said, the report acknowledges the positive progress that has been made in many areas, but of course progress has not been made in enough areas. I would certainly agree that the current situation is simply not good enough, albeit that we should recognise the progress that has been made.

James Kelly and Alexander Burnett mentioned some of the statistics that illustrate we have much more work to do. However, the report says that

“the Scottish Government has driven the equalities agenda far beyond the remit of a dedicated equalities team within government”,

and that the review group was “heartened” by the progress that has been achieved, notwithstanding the many challenges that still remain. It also highlights the action that is already being taken in schools, colleges, universities and apprenticeships.

As James Kelly highlighted, it is important that we take action in our schools. Some of the initiatives that are under way in Scotland include the big me week, which took place at Ravenswood primary school in Cumbernauld; the gender-friendly physics programme that took place at Lomond school in Helensburgh; the University of Strathclyde’s engineering the future for girls programme; and Equate Scotland’s work with West Lothian College and its careerwise programme. That is just a small set of examples of what has been happening across the country in recent months and years.

The report also says that the progress that I have mentioned is not universal. That is one of our biggest challenges. It points to the persistent gender imbalance in subjects and in the labour market. For example, in 2017-18, just over 5 per cent of starts in engineering modern apprenticeships were female, and only 4 per cent of staff in Scottish early learning and childcare settings are male.

The report presents Government, education, industry and academia with a set of complex and challenging recommendations. As a Government, we are already taking action on some of the themes in the report and we will look at how we can do more.

We are providing leadership to drive forward cultural change—indeed, that is the remit of the First Minister’s national advisory council on women and girls. We are also demonstrating leadership through our work on the gender pay gap. The latest statistics show that we currently have the lowest gender pay gap on record, at 15 per cent for all employees and 5.7 per cent for full-time employees. We still have some way to go, but progress has certainly been made.

Like the Royal Society of Edinburgh, we recognise that there is much more to be done and that is why we have been working intensively with partners and interest groups to develop a gender pay gap action plan for Scotland, which will be published in the coming months. There are strong similarities between the themes that are identified in the “Tapping all our Talents 2018” report and the themes that will be addressed in the gender pay gap action plan.

We have also shown leadership by making equity a central theme of our STEM education and training strategy. The strategy includes a range of actions that are designed to tackle behavioural change and attitudes, which Iain Gray and others highlighted in the debate. The actions are based on evidence and monitoring of what actually works. Research strongly suggests that there is no inherent difference between girls and boys that limits their interests, capabilities or ambitions, as we have confirmed today. Research also suggests that the period between age 10 and age 14 is critical for the development of young people’s attitudes to science. By age 14, most young people’s attitudes are fixed.

For the past three years, the Institute of Physics, in partnership with Skills Development Scotland and Education Scotland, has been conducting a pilot programme on what works best in schools to address gender imbalance in STEM. That project focused on gender stereotyping and unconscious bias, which we know shape self-identity and aspiration in young people and are the root cause of the gender imbalance that we see in the statistics.

As members mentioned, the project found that it is important to start the work early in education. It also found that whole-school approaches that go beyond STEM and into other subjects are needed. The project received a very positive evaluation, with 97 per cent of participants reporting that they had more confidence in their ability to tackle gender imbalance as a result of having taken part. Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate have published findings from the pilot in an accessible format for teachers and early learning and childcare providers to use.

Under the Government’s STEM strategy, Education Scotland has appointed a dedicated team of six gender balance and equality officers, who will develop and spread best practice from the pilot. The aim is to ensure that all school clusters in Scotland are involved by 2022. We will monitor and evaluate the programme on an on-going basis.

Iain Gray’s motion highlights our colleges and universities, and each college and university has a gender action plan. The Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council requires universities to report on how they are promoting gender equality in their workforces and on their governance boards. That includes reporting on action taken to address gender imbalance in relation to senior and management staff. At individual student level, a social media campaign led by Young Scot is challenging stereotypes and highlighting positive STEM careers and career pathways for students and prospective students at college and university.

A lot is also happening in the workplace. It is important that we address what is happening in the workplace. Oliver Mundell and other members mentioned the importance of ensuring that industry plays its part. We support the action that Equate Scotland is taking to promote and encourage women into jobs in STEM sectors. That includes targeted support for women returning to STEM jobs from a career break.

We also remain committed to tackling discrimination in the workplace and promoting fair work practices. That is part of the fair work action plan that we will publish shortly, as part of our ambition to make Scotland a fair work nation by 2025.

Although it is important that we talk about the issue today in light of the “Tapping all our Talents 2018” report, we should have a broader debate in Parliament on some future occasion. I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government is playing its role in showing leadership and driving cultural change. Our approach focuses on behavioural change and is based on what works.

My officials and the Government will continue to work with the Royal Society of Edinburgh and others to seek new and creative ways of addressing many of the challenges that have been raised today. That partnership approach, which also involves parents, teachers, employers and science-based professional bodies, is crucial.

Clare Adamson highlighted the changing nature of Scotland’s economy and the importance of ensuring that Scotland is prepared for those changes. Today, I give an assurance that we will take the lessons from the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s “Tapping all our Talents 2018” report and make sure that we are prepared and that everyone in Scotland makes their contribution and has the opportunity to realise that vision.

13:23 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—