International Day of Women and Girls in Science

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 9 February 2023.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07852, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on international day of women and girls in science.

I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party


2015, the United Nations adopted a resolution to designate 11 February as the international day of women and girls in science. Since then, that day has become an annual celebration of their achievements in science.

However, the day also serves as a reminder that women and girls remain underrepresented in many areas of science. We should commend the many organisations across Scotland that are playing a part in seeking to address that issue. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—has traditionally been a male-dominated sector. Although women have made tremendous progress in that area, sadly, a significant gender gap still exists. For that reason, the drive by the United Nations to establish an annual day dedicated to recognising the incredible contributions that women make in the STEM sector was, in itself, an important milestone.

Since then, on 11 February every year, countries around the world, including Scotland, mark this important day. That is the reason for the debate, and I look forward to hearing members’ insights during the afternoon.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

The minister is making a very valid point about the disproportionate underrepresentation of women in certain career and sector areas. Has any analysis been done on the representation of women in apprenticeships in the sectors that the minister has in mind?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Yes, there has been analysis of that. I do not have the figures to hand right now, but I would be happy to write to the member to provide those details. Sadly, we see the gender segregation in colleges, universities and the wider labour market replicated in the apprenticeship frameworks. There has been progress, and I am sure that Stephen Kerr, like other members, would welcome that. Activity is under way. An equalities action plan is in place through Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish apprenticeship advisory board has made a series of recommendations specifically on gender. Those recommendations were provided at the end of last year and we are currently considering how to respond. As I said, I would be happy to write to Stephen Kerr with more information.

I will reflect on some of Scotland’s pioneers in the STEM sector. For more than a century, Scottish women have not only played influential roles in the industry itself but helped to provide the funding and infrastructure that is necessary to allow other women to progress.

On her death in 1872, the mathematician, astronomer and scientist Mary Somerville was dubbed

The Queen of 19th Century Science”.

Her books were bestsellers, and such was her standing that hers was the first signature on John Stuart Mill’s petition to Parliament calling for votes for women. Mary Somerville holds the distinction of being the first female scientist featured on a British bank note, following a public vote.

In the field of medicine, the Edinburgh seven were trailblazers, as the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students not only at any Scottish university but at any British university. They began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869, and although, scandalously, they were ultimately prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors, the campaign that they fought gained national attention and won them many supporters. That campaign led to a change in legislation in 1876 that ensured that women could be licensed to practise medicine and to legislation that would ensure that women could study at university. From 1894, women were allowed to graduate from the University of Edinburgh, with the first female doctors graduating in 1896.

Victoria Drummond of Perthshire was the first woman marine engineer in the United Kingdom and the first woman member of the Institute of Marine Engineers. In the second world war, she served at sea as an engineering officer in the Merchant Navy and was recognised for bravery at sea under enemy fire. She was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2018.

It is important that we recognise, mark and celebrate that lineage, but just as important—perhaps more important, lest we fall foul of thinking of Scotland’s scientific achievements and endeavours only in the past tense—we must recognise and celebrate what is happening today. Scotland has some incredible women who are making groundbreaking discoveries here and now. There are many examples that I could give—I hope to hear many today—but I will highlight just a few.

Professor Elham Kashefi was appointed as National Quantum Computing Centre chief scientist in November 2022, and leads the University of Edinburgh’s quantum software lab.

In May 2021, Professor Catherine Heymans of the University of Edinburgh became the first woman to be appointed as Scotland’s astronomer royal. She is best known for her work on using the technique of cosmic weak gravitational lensing to learn more about the universe.

Professor Sheila Rowan of the University of Glasgow became the president of the UK Institute of Physics in October 2021. She is part of the international research collaboration that first detected the existence of gravitational waves, opening up new ways to understand our universe. She was also chief scientific adviser for Scotland from 2016 to 2021.

Professor Rebecca Goss at the University of St Andrews is making great strides in the field of chemical synthesis using biotechnology. In 2022, she spun out X-Genix, a biotech start-up with the goal of enabling discovery of better drugs for better health globally. It received £2 million of investment to translate the technology and was recognised through winning first place in Converge 2022, which is Scotland’s top spin-out competition, with a prize of £69,000.

In the Scottish Government, Professor Julie Fitzpatrick is Scotland’s chief scientific adviser. A veterinary surgeon by training, Julie champions putting science and evidence at the heart of Government policy making and she is spearheading a range of activities in support of that. As the minister for science, she is an invaluable source of support to me.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

Does the minister agree that women and girls from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community are underrepresented among the names that he has listed? Is there any data around that?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Yes, we will have that information. In the same vein as my response to Stephen Kerr, if we look at apprenticeships specifically, gender is only one of the characteristics on which we know that we need to make progress through the equalities action plan that Skills Development Scotland is working to.

We will have that information, and I am happy to provide the detail to the member.

For all the outstanding achievements that we will—rightly—recognise today, as has been alluded to, we know there is much more to be done. Many of our learned institutions are carrying out important work to understand the issues, including the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry. I take the opportunity to recognise the role of the RSC’s first female president, Professor Lesley Yellowlees of the University of Edinburgh, who was appointed in 2012, in championing that. They have produced a number of reports over the past few years to highlight the issues involved, including recruitment, retention and promotion, research culture, and pay and reward. Crucially, they also suggest ways to address the underrepresentation of women in science, some of which involve tackling deep-seated problems around inequalities.

For many years now, Scotland has championed the importance of women in the STEM sector as part of our wider efforts to address the issue of gender inequality, which sits at the heart of our vision for an equal Scotland. Tackling gender inequality across different areas of the education and learning landscape is fundamental to changing perceptions about STEM and challenging assumptions about who does what in relation to gender and wider inequalities. At the same time, STEM is integral to Scotland’s future economic and social development, and the Scottish Government wants everyone in Scotland to build a strong foundation of STEM skills and knowledge.

Bringing that together, the developing the young workforce strategy includes specific actions around promoting career options to different protected groups, designing senior phase vocational pathways to improve gender balance, reducing occupational segregation in modern apprenticeships and embedding equality across the curriculum for excellence, recognising that assumptions about which gender undertakes which subject matter or pursues which career starts early.

I was delighted to be at Dundee Science Centre as part of the Dundee science festival, where I met a group of enthusiastic young people from Rosebank primary school; the girls in attendance were engaged in the activities that were under way.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

I hear what the minister is saying about the encouragement of girls, even in primary school. However, to my mind, that could start earlier, by creating specialist teaching materials for nurseries, geared specifically towards girls’ engagement in science. Is that something that he might agree with?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

We are always keen to do what we can to ensure that we engage as early as possible with young people, particularly young girls, to make sure that we are tackling these challenges. I know that activity is under way in the early years and learning sector. That is something that I would commend and be keen to see more of.

Other areas of activity that we are supporting include funding for Equate Scotland to support the recruitment, retention, return and success of women in jobs where they are significantly underrepresented. Funding is also provided to Careerwise, which offers female undergraduates paid work placements with STEM employers.

Each college has measures in place to help to reduce gender disparities within STEM subject areas. The ambition is that, by 2030, no college or university subject will have a gender imbalance greater than 75 per cent of one gender.

As the international day of women and girls in science demonstrates, collective action is needed, and I have highlighted some of the activity that is under way. I have framed the motion in terms that I think that we can all unite around, as I note that it is not just Government that has to make this effort; all of us collectively as publicly elected representatives must do that.

I hope that members will support the Government’s motion. We will be supporting both amendments. I look forward to hearing what members have to say.

I move,

That the Parliament commends the International Day of Women and Girls in Science as a celebration of the achievements of generations of female scientists; recognises that female scientists and innovators are integral to Scotland’s world-leading science and research excellence, and addressing the global challenges faced; affirms its commitment to tackle gender inequality across different areas of the education and learning landscape, and commends the support given by a range of organisations in helping to drive forward the Scottish Government’s commitment to gender equality in science.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

I am delighted to be opening today’s debate for the Scottish Conservatives. The debate marks the international day of women and girls in science. As shadow minister for higher and further education, youth employment and training, and an advocate for women reaching their full potential, I have proposed an amendment to the motion.

Marie Curie said:

“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas”.

For a long time, women’s contribution in science was hidden or discredited. That point is well articulated in the University of Glasgow women in STEM blog. Challenges for women in science in the past and present have built a sense of camaraderie among female scientists to ensure that that does not determine the future.

I am extremely impressed by the efforts of many institutions and grass-roots groups across Scotland and around the world to tackle the gender gap and make science an accessible, attractive career for young women. I will name a few that are close to home. I admire the work that is being done by FemEng at the University of Glasgow to encourage girls at school to seriously get involved and consider a future in science. FemEng has collaborated with the University of Rwanda and the University of Malawi to inspire young budding female scientists in schools.

In my region, the University of the West of Scotland has also made tremendous steps in increasing female participation in science. It has had more than 2,000 new female science undergraduates in each of the past three years. Nearly 30 percent of women in science subjects at the university have come from the 20 percent most deprived areas in Scotland and it has supported more than four fifths of women science graduates into employment or further education within the first 18 months of their graduation.

The University of the West of Scotland also boasts some tremendous scientific contributions by female scientists, such as that of Professor Fiona Henriquez, the woman behind the team who developed the world’s first treatment for a devastating eye condition that affects millions of people every year; and Marija Nekrasova, a chemistry student who was enabled by UWS to go to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch her experiment launch into orbit on SpaceX CRS-26.

Recently, I visited the British Heart Foundation’s research excellence centre at the University of Glasgow and was overcome by the work that is being done there. I was introduced to six students, four of whom were young women. It is difficult to put into words the immense impact that their research will have. One excellent example is that of Caitlin Cosgrove, who is trying to identify micro-ribonucleic acid molecules that may be beneficial in strokes, and could in the future be inserted in the brain to target bad cells.

I thank the Royal Society of Chemistry for its briefing, which sets out how addressing the gaps in data, funding and flexibility will help to enable the equal participation of those from underrepresented groups. In addition, increasing accountability and eliminating bias will go a long way to build cultures of belonging.

I am happy to support the Government’s motion, which speaks about the importance of women to Scotland’s world-leading science and research sector. Likewise, the Labour amendment makes some important points about how gender inequality in STEM begins from a young age. However, there are areas where the Government’s motion could have gone further. My amendment sets out the importance of inclusion, and of ensuring that no woman feels unable to enter the STEM sector because of her gender, ethnicity or disability. As we recognise the international day of women and girls in science, it is important that we celebrate the contributions of women in all their diversity. Therefore, I hope that members from across the chamber will support my amendment.

It is clear that there is more to be done to ensure that STEM is accessible to all. That means addressing the root causes of the inequalities that exist at all levels, ensuring that schools are able to tackle inequality from a young age and recognising that unlocking the talents of women in all their diversity is the key to empowering our science sector. Although great work by universities, colleges and grass-roots groups is under way, they cannot do it alone. It is therefore the duty of all members in the chamber to work together, find solutions and work towards eliminating any remaining barriers for good.

I move amendment S6M-07852.2, to insert at end:

“; notes that the Parliament must build on the work being done by a range of organisations to inspire young women and girls to engage in science and STEM subjects from early years education and throughout their education journey; recognises the need to improve diversity and inclusion for women; commits to exploring further pathways to ensure that no woman is denied the ability to enter the science and STEM sector as a result of their gender, ethnicity or disability, and further commits to removing the barriers that are hindering diversity and inclusion in science.”

Photo of Michael Marra Michael Marra Labour

Across the long stretch of our written history, the achievements of women in science have been neglected or, worse still, subsumed into the achievements of their male counterparts. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who is best known for her discovery of radio pulsars in 1967, which was one of the great astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. However, when the Nobel prize in physics was awarded in 1974 for her discovery, Bell Burnell was not one of the recipients: two men were honoured instead.

Even so, the light of Dame Jocelyn’s brilliance could not be dimmed or kept hidden by cumulative millennia of patriarchy and misogyny. She has since become the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is now chancellor of the University of Dundee. Progress, wherever that is found, should always be welcomed.

I have been privileged to work under outstanding female academic leaders: Professor Georgina Follett, Professor Dame Sue Black and Professor Niamh Nic Daéid are extraordinary leaders in this country in their fields of design, forensic anthropology and forensic science. There is also a whole new generation of inspiring female academic leaders in Scotland who are transforming our great universities, including Professor Clare Bond in earth science and net zero at the University of Aberdeen, Professor Natalie Coull in cybersecurity at Abertay and many, many more.

However, those examples are of women who have successfully navigated what is termed the “leaky pipeline” of talent. Many women and girls do not continue STEM subjects at university or carry on into STEM careers. Data published by the RSE shows that more than 70 per cent of female STEM graduates leave STEM-related careers. Athena scientific women’s academic network programmes—where they have been adopted and invested in—are helping, but the pandemic has been a further setback to the careers of women who carry the burden of care.

Unfortunately, the loss of girls from STEM begins far earlier. That is reflected in the statistics for subject uptake, which remain woefully unequal. In 2021, only 20 per cent of candidates taking national 5 chemistry were female. Whatever the Scottish Government may tell us, interventions in that area have had no discernible impact. The percentage of female candidates for national 5 chemistry has not changed for years and the figure for those taking national 5 physics has only inched up from 28 per cent to 29 per cent in the past three years. Those statistics are hardly cause for celebration or self-congratulation.

We also know that we have a dire lack of STEM teachers in schools and that the number of those taking STEM subjects to senior level is plummeting.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am grateful to Michael Marra for giving way during such an excellent speech.

Part of the problem is the recruitment of STEM teachers. Would Mr Marra be open to considering ways of broadening the routes into STEM teaching in order to encourage a greater uptake in interest, particularly from people who may be further on in their careers and may have much to give back, particularly to young women?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back, Mr Marra.

Photo of Michael Marra Michael Marra Labour

Such ideas are certainly worthy of consideration. It is imperative that we look for new and innovative ways of getting people into our STEM classrooms so that we can make good on that shortfall.

Computing science, in particular, is an unfolding disaster, with a curriculum in dire need of revision and schools being priced out of the market for those who might teach it, all at a time when the economy desperately needs more of that knowledge, rather than less of it.

Our job here, as Mr Kerr points out, is not to be commentators but to make change. One important area of STEM that desperately needs more women is our tech industry. The Office for National Statistics has shown that only 23.4 per cent of the tech industry workforce in Scotland is female. Last night, Pauline McNeill and I hosted a round-table meeting in Parliament on violence against women and girls. The proliferation of misogynistic content online, the impact that that is having on our culture and the consequential rising tide of violence against women and girls is abundantly clear.

A better gender balance in the technology workforce, where products are conceived and designed, must be part of that solution. Risks are better understood where gender design can prevent harm and a better culture can be created. Professor Lesley Yellowlees’s advice paper on diversity in STEM for the Royal Society of Edinburgh calls on the Scottish Government to lead the way by using the powers and influence that it has now to shape societal attitudes to gender inequality and parental roles and, crucially, to target key influencers of children and young people to challenge gender stereotypes. That would show leadership, which would be demonstrated by having women in key positions.

Professor Yellowlees’s report also calls for greater investment in STEM-specific data collection, in order to better understand intersectionality and the variations between sectors and regions. I ask the minister to consider those calls in his closing remarks.

Rather than resigning ourselves to being the narrators of events, I urge the Scottish Government to take on all the RSE’s recommendations and to do all that is in its power to implement them.

I move amendment S6M-07852.1, to insert at end:

“; recognises that gender inequality in participation in science and other STEM subjects starts at a young age, and considers that Scotland’s schools have a vital role to play in ensuring that STEM subjects are available to young women and encouraging young women to consider careers in science.”

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

When I was making my choices for fourth year at school, my mother accompanied me to meet Mr Hayward. At that time, I was keen to abandon maths—I was bored with maths and had had enough of it. That probably tells now, because I was in charge of the finances of my party. Nevertheless, I was determined to abandon maths. However, Mr Hayward repeatedly said that maths was a must for boys, and my mother’s face went brighter red the more he said it. Even at that time, she was incandescent about the discrimination that was built into the careers advice at our school. It is very clear that we saw it before then, and it has been evident ever since


Today, we are told by the Institute of Physics that physics is the fourth most popular subject for boys, but that, for girls, it comes 16th. Therefore, something is still wrong at the heart of our society and, perhaps, within our careers advice.

It is no wonder that sometimes women do not want to choose those subjects. If they are going to be the only girl or woman in the class, why would they choose them? We know that in politics: if you think that you are going to be the only person in the room like you, why would you go in?

If we are going to get change, we need to start that change. Thankfully, the situation is a little better now. According to the RSC, half of the people who sit higher chemistry are female; at advanced higher, the number goes up a little bit, which is good; and at university, when people are studying for a degree in chemistry, the level goes up to 60 per cent. However, then it absolutely plummets—at professor level, the number goes down to 9 per cent. That is a clear indication that there is something wrong with the career path in science. The higher up we go, the less likely it is that there will be women.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

Does Willie Rennie believe that parents also have an important role to play in the change that we need to happen? You talked about your mother going red. Do you think that the Government needs to include parents in the programmes that it is working on?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Please ask questions through the chair, Ms Gosal.

Mr Rennie, I can give you that time back.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Yes, of course, parents are an important factor. We have had recent discussions about apprenticeships, and this is where Stephen Kerr’s point comes in. Trying to get more people to do apprenticeships rather than go through the university route is a real challenge, and a lot of it is down to the influence of parents and society, and peer pressure.

The same applies to this area. Stephen Kerr asked the minister for some figures. Of those people who take modern apprenticeships, 38 per cent are female, but the level goes down to 8 per cent for engineering and energy apprenticeships. That is a dramatic difference and, again, shows in-built discrimination in the system. We need to change that, and part of the issue is pressure from society, parents and schools.

What do we do? What steps do we take? The Scottish schools education research centre runs good projects with the STEM ambassadors, allowing people such as my wife, who is a scientist, to go into schools and encourage young women and men to take up science. Those projects are important—they are trying to get a million interactions with young people.

However, there is also something that we can do in policy terms. It is of great credit to the Government that the last few chief scientific advisers have been female. Anne Glover was fantastic and a great advocate; she went off to Europe to do the same role there. Julie Fitzpatrick is doing a great job now, too.

We need to call out the discrimination, as Michael Marra did earlier. However, we could use funding to incentivise organisations to have plans in place and take steps to encourage more women into all these subjects. We could have some requirements, just as we do for the likes of Amazon, with regard to apprenticeships, paying tax and paying the living wage. Perhaps we should use funding to incentivise organisations to make that change.

Education Scotland’s improving gender balance and equalities programme, which the minister referred to, is great. Education Scotland is changing, but I hope that the programme will continue, because it is important that, if something is working, it is allowed to continue to do that good work.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

Today we celebrate the international day of women and girls in science. Women are a pioneering and unique body within the sciences, yet they remain underrepresented.

Earlier this week, I met Professor Linda Lawton of Robert Gordon University to discuss women and girls in STEM, as part of my preparation for a members’ debate. An internationally renowned researcher in the field of toxic cyanobacteria, Professor Lawton perhaps summed up the current position when she said:

“Well it doesn’t help that if you google the word ‘professor’ you get a picture of a man with white hair, wearing glasses.”

She was wrong: I got a compete screen full of men—and only men.

There has been progress in the past decade or so for girls and women in STEM education, but also for women entering the STEM workforce. It is a slow burn, but such progress will be absolutely essential if we are to tackle our climate emergency.

I will highlight two examples of work in the north-east that underpins that trend: one in education and the other led by industry. The Aberdeen computing collaborative is a collaboration between Aberdeen City Council, North East Scotland College, Robert Gordon University and the University of Aberdeen that seeks to improve alignment between the school curriculum and the associated demand for skills created by the next phase in our energy production sector and other growth sectors. I note the reference in Michael Marra’s amendment in that regard.

The collaboration also aims to increase the profile of computing science learning and to attract graduates into computer science, including teaching. That fantastic initiative aligns with the Scottish Government’s STEM education and training strategy, which outlines our ambition to encourage girls and young women to engage with computing science with a view to strengthening Scotland’s future tech sector. It was therefore bitterly disappointing that a recent just transition funding bid to support the collaborative was unsuccessful. I ask the minister to give an assurance that comprehensive feedback and advice will be provided to the collaborative to inform and support its future applications, which I hope will succeed.

Turning to industry, girls in energy is a one-year course delivered by Shell, in partnership with North East Scotland College and Fife College, to senior-phase girls that helps them to rethink preconceptions about the energy sector and hear about the range of careers available in it. Recently, I joined this year’s cohort of around 100 girls in Aberdeen. I was blown away by the way in which they worked together to find innovative solutions to food production, heating and energy-related challenges.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

I have a question relating to an earlier point. Does the member agree that if we are to facilitate the engagement of more science, maths and technology specialists as speakers in schools, one possible initiative would be to support the creation of national or regional lists of speakers on the subject of women in STEM from among those who are willing to evangelise and to help to bring other girls and women into their professions?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back, Ms Nicoll.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

Perhaps Michelle Thomson, who is sitting behind me, has been reading my notes over my shoulder. I completely agree with her suggestion and am about to come on to a point that might be relevant to it.

The judging panel for girls in energy comprised strong local female role models who were already in senior positions in the north-east tech and energy sectors. From my conversations with many of them, I know how committed they are to that vital work. I suspect that many of them would be interested in Ms Thomson’s proposal.

There are, of course, many challenges in this area: the gendered world that we live in; our culture; the availability of mentoring opportunities; and the lack of funding. However, today is about celebration. I hope that, on this international day of women and girls in science, my short contribution has showcased a snippet of what is happening on the ground in that exciting sphere.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

In his opening remarks, the minister referred to the Edinburgh seven. Had we been having this debate 150 years ago, we would have been discussing the story on the front page of

The Scotsman newspaper. It referred to the riot at Surgeons’ hall, which is just a mile away from the Parliament, when those female undergraduates were prevented from getting into their examination hall. The crowds that had turned up were pelting them with all kinds of rubbish, screaming abuse at them and doing all sorts to ensure that they could not sit the exam.

Some of their male compatriots came to their rescue and ensured that they could get into the examination hall, but, inside the hall, other males prevented them from sitting at the desks. Rumour has it that a live sheep was set loose in the hall—goodness knows how it was got in, but it was—and there was absolute chaos, to the extent that it made the front pages of international news. The Edinburgh seven, who became pioneers in their field, ended up being put in touch with Charles Darwin. That just shows what can happen.

Some really interesting things have been said in the debate. Willie Rennie referred to the advice that he was given at school. I was told at school that I should be doing science and that economics was not for girls. That did not work out very well, because obviously I became an economist. I did not do science, but one of the things that I have come to understand as a teacher and a parliamentarian is that science is absolutely critical to the understanding of our knowledge.

What the curriculum for excellence ought to be able to do—because it is built on the principles of expanding that knowledge—is ensure that all youngsters have the ability to study in the arts, the sciences and the social sciences. Personally, I think that that is absolutely the right way to approach the school curriculum. Sadly, because of some of the problems that we have in the education system now, it is not the case that they have that ability. One of the huge difficulties that we have, which Mr Kerr and Mr Marra referred to, is significant problems with teacher numbers in the sciences and STEM subjects.

However, that is not the only issue. There is also the fact that many young people are not getting the opportunity to study science because of the squeeze on subject choice. That is a major issue. People cannot be expected to take up a subject if they are not getting the right exposure to it in their young years. The point that Michelle Thomson—who has disappeared somewhere—made about nursery education was also a very strong one, because the existence of the stereotypes that Audrey Nicoll referred to is absolutely clear. Those stereotypes continue, and we cannot allow that to happen.

If we want to make sure that Scotland remains open for business in this respect, there is an awful lot that we need to do in terms of education. I also think that there is awful lot that we can do—and I would lay this challenge before the Westminster Government—to ensure that the visa system is much more open than the one that has been put in place post Brexit. In my view, there are too many circumstances in which young people, who are the meat and drink of our future, are being prevented from taking up opportunities in this country because of too tight a visa system. I would like to see something—

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Yes, of course, if I have the time.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Would the member also agree that there is a very strong case for expanding the postgraduate work visa programme, because we want some of those people to stay here and make their futures in our country?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Stephen Kerr is absolutely right. I would like to see us go back to the post-study work visa system, in which we encourage people to stay in this country and take opportunities to expand their expertise, as they are part of this system. I do not think that we are doing enough on that.

I will finish on a crucially important point. Scotland has always led the world when it comes to women in science. Sadly, it is only very recently that that has been recognised and honoured in some cases. We need to do an awful lot more to treasure what women in science can give to our society. As parliamentarians, we all have a role in ensuring that that happens.

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

In 2018, during a workshop on gender equality at the European Organization for Nuclear Research—known as the CERN research institute—in Geneva, Switzerland, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia began his presentation. On one of his slides was a very short, but very powerful, quote, which read:

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

According to reports, Professor Strumia went on to present evidence in the form of graphs and tables, and he concluded that, as the most-cited academic papers were disproportionately written by men, men were simply better at physics. I imagine that, for a predominantly female audience that was full of young prospective scientists, it was not quite the motivational speech that they were anticipating, and, for women already working in the field, it would likely have felt sadly familiar.

The professor’s claims were quickly dismantled and denounced as “unacceptable”, and he was suspended by CERN. The following day, Donna Strickland was awarded the Nobel prize for physics for her pioneering work with high-intensity lasers. Astrophysicist Andrea Ghez would receive the same honour just two years later for providing the first conclusive experimental evidence that a supermassive black hole with the mass of 4 million suns sits at the centre of our galaxy.

Incredibly, those are two of only four women who have ever won that prize in its 121-year history, so, clearly, the question is not one of ability. Rather, that statistic is emblematic of a centuries-long struggle for recognition and the obstacles that women and girls face at every point in their careers, which contribute to their underrepresentation across the scientific disciplines.

In acknowledgment of that uneven landscape, the United Nations international day of women and girls in science, on 11 February, provides a welcome opportunity to celebrate the essential contributions that they have made and will continue to make, enabling us to better understand the world we live in.

I am incredibly fortunate to have internationally renowned higher and further education institutions in my constituency, and I am grateful to colleagues across the chamber who have mentioned the University of Glasgow, for instance. I recognise the commitment that those institutions have demonstrated to promoting gender equality in science, as supported by the Scottish Funding Council, and the development of tailored gender action plans.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I invite Kaukab Stewart to comment on what we saw in Buchanan high school on Monday. Kaukab Stewart, Stephanie Callaghan and I went to the school with the Education, Children and Young People Committee, and they had a huge display about women in science. It is that kind of emphasis and that kind of promotion of women in science that will lead to the places that Kaukab Stewart is describing in those higher educational institutions being filled by women.

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

I absolutely accept that from Stephen Kerr. To have that very powerful visual image in our schools up and down the country reminds our children of what they are aiming for and of the fact that we need them. I thank Stephen Kerr for highlighting that.

City of Glasgow College’s pioneering “Women into Engineering” courses have resulted in an almost 100 per cent increase in female participation in engineering programmes, and the college’s STEM girls society creates an encouraging space for female students to meet in and share ideas.

At the University of Glasgow, Dr Sofiat Olaosebikan, a former student turned lecturer in computing science, was selected as one of the university’s future world changers for founding the Computer Science Academy Africa. That initiative delivered successful computer programming workshops in Nigeria and Rwanda, providing young Africans in STEM with access to quality computer science education. Women are strongly encouraged to apply and they are offered the possibility of childcare support. As a result, in 2022, 45 per cent of CSA Africa participants were women.

Perhaps what is most challenging for us all is that we must work to recognise our own unconscious biases and create an inclusive environment for the next generation of female scientists.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

Ahead of international day of women and girls in science, we celebrate the achievements of generations of female scientists in Scotland, including the notable contribution of Burntisland’s Mary Somerville. The term “scientist” was coined to describe her many achievements in chemistry, astronomy, magnetism and mathematics, and her remarkable and inspiring work is rightly celebrated.

Although we recognise the huge contribution of women to scientific discovery and research, we know that we are still not doing enough to ensure that women and girls are able to pursue careers in scientific fields. We need to do more to encourage and support their doing so, but we also need to address the existing structures that deter them from those careers.

We need to see changes at every level, from schools to further and higher education and workplaces. Boys and girls start with equal interest and ability in STEM areas, but women make up only 25 per cent of the Scottish STEM sector. At every stage of the pathway from school to work, there is an attrition of females. Women are being prevented from achieving their full potential, and we fall short of the economic potential that only a diverse STEM sector can bring.

We need to ensure that more girls are choosing STEM subjects and that we have enough teachers to deliver courses so that pupils do not end up having their choices taken away from them. Issues with teacher recruitment are not unique to STEM subjects, although the uptake of those subjects is at a five-year low. Across the curriculum, there are examples of subjects that are struggling to recruit. That situation directly impacts on pupils, who are left either unable to pursue subjects or in classes without specific subject teachers, which in turn increases absenteeism and impacts on attainment.

We cannot have girls being steered away from science and technology subjects because they are “male subjects”. It is unfortunate that there are still reports of that happening. We need to address that matter both in the way in which departments run themselves and in the discussions that take place with career advisers and others. Although there are noted issues with uptake, some schools buck those trends, with a high number of girls choosing technology subjects and departments that encourage them and cultivate an environment into which they are welcomed, which other schools should learn from.

While we continue to encourage girls into STEM subjects at school and beyond, a cultural challenge exists for all STEM departments in that they are male-dominated and can be a challenging environment for girls and women. The minister highlighted successful women in science; however, girls and women should not be achieving in STEM subjects despite the barriers—instead, the barriers should be removed.

The debate briefing from the Royal Society of Chemistry talks of a “leaky pipeline” through the education pathway. When it is compared to other STEM subjects, chemistry has a higher number of females studying the subject at school, but there is a steady decline in the proportion of women in chemistry departments as they move from undergraduate to postgraduate positions, and then on to staff and professor positions.

The RSC has identified some of the issues that need to be addressed to remedy that situation—many will be common across the STEM subjects—which point to themes such as the rigidity of academic funding structures and working options, exclusionary behaviour, bullying and harassment. The gender pay gap is clearly still in place and emerges as early as the first year after graduation, despite figures showing that women are more likely to be retained in employment at that point. That retention falls away over time, and those women who do remain are much less likely to hold a permanent contract.

The 2019 survey by Equate Scotland found that 64 per cent of women who work or had worked in STEM did not feel that enough was being done to create inclusive workplaces or education institutions.

Over Christmas, I read the book “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus, who is a science, technology, engineering, arts and maths graduate—a STEAM rather than a STEM graduate. The novel is set in the 1950s, and it is disappointing to see that the issues that are explored in it of sexism, harassment, exploitation and underemployment for women working in science are still relevant today.

Across the STEM subjects, we need to see action on the areas that the RSC and Equate Scotland highlight. We need continued work to eliminate bias and to increase accountability. We need to ensure that STEM courses and workplaces are inclusive and welcoming, and to do so we need intervention and support at all levels.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

I, too, start by celebrating the achievements and successes of women in science, some of whom were pioneers in the field of computer science—my area of interest, which still sees far too few women studying it and going on to carve out a career in it.

The first of those pioneers was perhaps Ada Lovelace, who was born in 1815 and is regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. She worked on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine and devised what we think is the world’s first algorithm, or set of rules, now known as a computer programme. The programming language Ada was named after her.

I would also like to mention Margaret Hamilton, who has possibly never been mentioned in the Scottish Parliament before.

Margaret was one of NASA’s chief programmers for the Apollo programme in the 1960s. There is a famous picture of her as a young woman, standing beside a huge printout of her computer programmes—it was taller than her. She coined the term “software engineer”, and she is still working today.

A local Kilmarnock success story is Professor Victoria Martin, who has done some incredible work on the Higgs boson particle, which, as members will remember, is the so-called God or creation particle that lends other particles their mass.

What do those women have in common? I am prepared to stick my neck out and say that none of them—certainly not the first two—had any exposure to the types of initiative that we deploy today to bring more young women into science. I am prepared to bet that they have something else in common: curiosity mixed with ability and the opportunity that kept them on the pathway to their glittering careers.

There is no doubt that there are a number of on-going initiatives to attract more young women into science and retain them. Those initiatives will make a difference, to a degree. However, we can see the stats for ourselves, and they have not changed too much over the years. For example, only 20 per cent—or 23 per cent, as Michael Marra reported—of the tech workforce in Scotland are women. That is 3 per cent higher than in England, but it is still miles too low. Only 21 per cent of the graduate apprentices who are studying a STEM-related framework are women, and female college enrolments in STEM in Scotland have barely exceeded 30 per cent since 2016. We have to keep working on this.

Is there another solution? Is it more money, new initiatives, more equality and gender work, more apprenticeships, equal pay, career progression issues, more science or computer science in schools or more teachers? Is it a need for all those things? Perhaps it is, but I am not sure that that explains why young women, in particular, walk away from science. I am prepared to again stick my neck out and say that, when youngsters are still at primary school, boys and girls are equally interested in science—Claire Baker mentioned that, too. However, when the transition to secondary school gets under way, the fall off begins when it comes to young women sticking to science, and the numbers tend not to recover.

Why do we not think of some other initiatives alongside what we have, and see whether they work? What about female-only science classes at school, perhaps with female-only science teachers—would that work? That need only be for those vital couple of years to try to keep young girls inside the science bubble. I am sure, as Michelle Thomson said, that we can find female role models who are in science today to go into schools to enthuse young women about the wonderful careers that could be ahead of them.

Can we do further things to incentivise employers to build up their intake of female scientists? The minister mentioned that in his opening speech. Importantly, can we ensure that a career in science does not mean young women sacrificing lifestyle and other choices that are important to them?

When we look around Europe, we see that participation rates of women in information technology are all on the low side—the rates in Ireland and Lithuania are the highest at 32 per cent and the rate in France is the lowest at 24 per cent—but all are ahead of the 20 per cent rate of Scotland. We still have 24,000 IT vacancies in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to conclude, Mr Coffey.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

I sincerely hope that we can make big changes, so that we might, one day, celebrate 50:50 representation of women and girls in branches of science. After all, that is long overdue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I advise members that we have now exhausted all the time that we had in hand, so I invite members to stick to their speaking allocation time, even if they take interventions.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I wish to express my solidarity from the chamber with the women and girls throughout the world who are denied education—particularly the women in Iran at the moment. [



We have been reflecting on anecdotes from when we were younger. I was not going to put this in my speech, but I will say it now. When I went into my first O grade physics class as the only girl in the class, the teacher said to me, “What are you doing here? Girls don’t belong here”. In response to Willie Rennie’s earlier question about why someone would stay in such an environment, I can only answer for myself: it was because I am thrawn—he probably knows that by now. However, it was quite challenging.

When I chose to study computing science at university, I had three options. I could have gone to the University of Glasgow, where there would have been three women in my year, or I could have gone to the University of Strathclyde—where, again, the class was less than 10 per cent women. I chose to do one of the first degrees at what was then Glasgow College, which has now become Glasgow Caledonian University.

It was a four-year degree. It was not an honours degree, but it involved a year in industry. When it came to the intake of women and girls, there was a 50:50 split. To me, it felt much more comfortable. I have never regretted that decision, because it taught me a lot about pathways into careers and how apprenticeships, work experience and a different approach can make all the difference. I studied economics for two years as part of that degree, so it involved quite a different approach. The point that has been made about the use of unique and different approaches to encourage women is really important.

I am a member of the British Computer Society, and I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which states that I am the vice-chair of the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre—SSERC. That means that I am one of those women who are part of the “leaky pipe”, which the Royal Society of Edinburgh talked about in its “Tapping all our Talents” report, which other members have spoken about in detail. That report, which covers some of the challenges that women face in maintaining a career in science, says that only 27 per cent of women who graduated to degree level in STEM subjects still remain in those disciplines.

Yesterday evening, I hosted the RSE and the Physiological Society in the garden lobby, and was delighted to find out about the science travels project, which is an outreach programme that reaches out to hard-to-reach groups from the Traveller, showman and boater communities. That project is important in highlighting that, as well as being necessary, diversity improves our collaboration, our thinking and our scientific investigations. If we are to address the big challenges that society faces, such as those of climate, migration, changing demographics and older populations, and to do that well, we must have groups and minds that represent all of us and all of our communities involved in that work. I was glad to hear people talk about the importance of teaching in that regard. SSERC runs the STEM Ambassadors in Scotland and Young STEM Leader programmes, which are incredibly important in giving women the confidence to lead in their areas.

I am quickly running out of time, but I want to highlight the work of the inspiring teacher Toni Scullion, who started the social enterprise dressCode. She runs coding classes for young women throughout Scotland and is award winning in her endeavours. That highlights how important the role of inspiring teachers is if we are to inspire future generations of women and girls in science.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I thank all the organisations that provided briefings and information for today’s debate, because it is so important that we recognise the international day of women and girls in science, which takes place on Saturday.

I want to recognise that day by talking about three women in science. They all have some things in common. They are all from the global north, they are all white and they all recognised the realities of climate change. Members will know the name and career of one of them very well, but that is perhaps not the case with the other two.

Eunice Newton Foote was born in the United States in 1819 and studied at the Troy Female Seminary. In 1856, she wrote a groundbreaking paper on the absorption of heat by carbon dioxide, in which she suggested that changes in its atmospheric concentration might change the climate of the earth.

Three years later, John Tyndall, the so-called father of climate science, published similar observations. Did he know of Foote’s work? We cannot tell. If he did, he did not credit it, but it would not be the first, or the last, time that a man took credit for work that was built on that which a woman had done.

In 1947, a young chemistry graduate, Margaret Roberts, began her first job at British Xylonite Plastics. Like many sensible workers, she joined a union. As Secretary of State for Education and Science and Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the reshaping of university research by market forces. In our universities, we now see an obsession with ratings, exploitative publishing and exploited staff, obscene wage inequalities and the wasting of time, money, energy, good will and hope.

However, we also see dedicated scientists doing vital and inspiring work. That is a tribute to the researchers themselves, but also to all the staff and students who make up a university community. We stand in solidarity with them; with—perhaps particularly today—the University and College Union and its campaign to close the gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps; and especially with the Unite and Unison workers at the University of Dundee, many of them women, who refuse to be browbeaten into giving up their hard-won, long-promised, well-deserved and extremely modest pensions.

For the women on those picket lines, many of them scientists who are working on some of the most crucial environmental and health crises, Margaret Thatcher is no role model, but Eunice Foote, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights, is a role model, and there are others.

Professor Julia Steinburger was a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report and has painstakingly communicated the realities of climate science to those who would much rather not hear about them. However, that is not enough. Last year, she took part in a campaigning road blockage in Bern, gluing her hand to the pavement. In 2021, she co-wrote an academic article challenging universities to open up their ivory towers to allow and to encourage advocacy and activism in relation to the climate and ecological emergencies. That is science, it is academic excellence and responsibility, and it is feminism, too.

It matters that girls learn STEM subjects, that young women study science and that graduate women take their places in academia and industry. It matters that men get used to having women working alongside them, and even leading them, in STEM. It matters what women do when they get into academia and industry. Margaret Roberts made a wise decision when she joined a union. Margaret Thatcher made another when she acknowledged the scientific reality of climate change.

However, Eunice Foote, Julia Steinburger and generations of scientists after them, including those who have given their time to speak at the on-going Extinction Rebellion Dundee science talks, have done better. They have maintained solidarity, retained compassion, shown courage and told the truth. That is why we need women and girls in science.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

We do need women and girls in science. I could not quite work out whether Maggie Chapman was paying an uncharacteristic tribute to Margaret Thatcher, but let me be clear: I do, in the context of the subject of this debate, because she was not only the first woman Prime Minister but the first scientist to become Prime Minister. The fact that she was the first woman scientist to become Prime Minister is, in itself, astonishing, and it is quite right to say, as Maggie Chapman did, that she was a very early warning voice on the dangers of climate change. Therefore, there is much to be said in praise of Margaret Thatcher in the context of the subject of this debate.

I hope that we all felt the kick in the stomach that Willie Rennie inadvertently gave us when he revealed the statistics that I was inquiring of the minister: of those doing engineering apprenticeships, 8 per cent are women. That is shameful, and it shows how much more we have to do. There is a huge public policy interest in this area. We have had public policy interests in relation to equality and equal pay. We have a public policy interest in relation to the gender pay gap. We should absolutely and unreservedly have a public policy interest in equal representation of women in vital fields such as those represented by the subjects that make up STEM.

Part of my political ethos is that education is key. It is the golden ticket; it is about maximising potential. We need to provide equality of opportunity for every young person—male and female—in our nation. Regardless of where they live and what their background or sex is, they must be able to feel empowered. We want them to feel empowered to pursue their personal destiny and to meet the needs of a vibrant and rapidly changing economic environment—the one that we live in now. We must develop breadth and depth of knowledge and skills in our workforce, and that absolutely must include the talent, the drive, the creativity and the toughness of women to get these things properly done.

We must tackle the underrepresentation of women in these critical sectors of our economy, because, as I say, we are missing out massively. This is not a particularly Scottish problem, so we can all work together across boundaries and across parties, as I think is evidenced by the tone of the debate.

Let me say something about other things that colleagues have said. Yes, we can talk about the past. We have heard some wonderful examples from the past—I have one in my speech notes, which I will not use. The reality is that, when Scots are asked to identify famous inventors, scientists and engineers, the answers tend to be all men. That has to be addressed. That is why I have brought up the example of Buchanan high school. We need to teach our young people from the earliest possible age about the fact that great advances and achievements in science and engineering are, in equal part, the fields of women and men.

I want to comment on something that Liz Smith said about broad general education. The reality is that we are not bad at giving young people opportunities to be in touch with different arts subjects, but we are less good at that when it comes to STEM subjects. We have already rehearsed the issues surrounding STEM. Those have to be addressed if Scotland’s economy is to be competitive and we are to achieve the transformation in the Scottish economy that all of us in the chamber want to see. We absolutely must, as a public policy objective, deliberately change the scene when it comes to the availability of STEM teachers and subjects for our young people through broad general education and for those who present at the higher and advanced higher levels.

I will conclude by simply saying that I have one ask to make of the minister. Later this year, there will be a historic event in Shetland: there will be a vertical launch of a rocket that will go into space. I remember, as a boy, being assembled in our primary school to watch the launch of the QE2 from Clydebank. There was a lot of excitement about that. Would it be possible for every Scottish schoolchild—

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

—to be able to see a live broadcast of that rocket launch to excite them about what can be achieved in the name of science and progress?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The education activist Malala Yousafzai said:

“If people were silent, nothing would change.”

That statement rings true when we consider access to education for girls. Marking international day of women and girls in science gives us the opportunity to highlight women and the work that they do, as well as areas in which more needs to be done.

This year’s theme is “Innovate. Demonstrate. Elevate. Advance.”—or I.D.E.A. In my area, West Lothian College runs a successful women in STEM course that encourages and enables more women to enter that field. Last weekend, the Enigmas, which is a group from Linlithgow academy, took part in the CyberFirst girls competition.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to education.”

However, that right is not guaranteed for all girls. In Afghanistan, Taliban rulers ordered an indefinite ban on university access for women in December. That is an outrage, and members must stand in solidarity in expressing our condemnation of that outrage. In Burkina Faso, only 1 per cent of girls complete their secondary education. According to UNICEF figures, 129 million girls across the globe are not in school. In Iran, the “women, life, freedom” protests are focused on women’s rights. They began in September 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody. I pay tribute to all those who have been injured or killed in those protests.

Women in Iran can and do study STEM subjects at school and university levels. In fact, in 2014, the late Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani became the first female to win the prestigious Fields medal. In 2020, while celebrating international day of women and girls in science, UN Women named Mirzakhani as one of seven women scientists who have changed the world.

However, women and girls in Iran face inequalities that are a barrier to their education. A 2022 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran stated the need to repeal laws that violate the rights of women and girls, to take measures to advance women’s equal participation in public life and to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Women in Iran face several barriers to receiving an education, including strict dress code rules that impact on all aspects of their public lives, including study, work and leaving their home. Iran’s laws restrict the careers that women can enter and deny equal benefits to women in the workplace. Women are not permitted to travel abroad, for work or study, without the permission of their male guardian. Internet access is intermittent, which restricts online study and work for women and girls across the country. According to World Bank statistics, women account for only 15 per cent of the labour force in Iran.

In a letter that was signed by 104 Iranian chemists from across the globe and published in

Chemical & Engineering News in October 2022, a call for solidarity with the women’s movement in Iran was unmistakable. The letter also highlighted the lack of access to STEM subjects for women and girls in Iran, and the departure from the country of highly educated Iranians over the years, including the late Maryam Mirzakhani, whom I mentioned earlier.

To advance international progress in relation to women and girls in STEM, we must not only support those who enter that field but call out the human rights violations that prevent women and girls from entering that area of study. Women in Iran and Afghanistan need all of us to stand in solidarity with them and to condemn the abuse of their rights, so let us not be silent. Let us all be inspired by the words of Malala and use our voices to fight for the right to education for women and girls across the globe as we mark the international day of women and girls in science.

The Presiding Officer:

We move to winding-up speeches.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Frequently, on standing to speak in a debate, I thank the previous speaker because it is courteous to do so. However, in this debate, I thank Fiona Hyslop for an incredibly powerful speech, which went to the heart of what Saturday’s international day is about: standing up for the human rights of women and girls so that, we hope, they can develop into powerful scientists and human beings, as many already are. That was a powerful speech, and I thank Fiona Hyslop for it.

The debate has been good, has involved much consensus and reflects the views of Scotland. Of course, those views are one of the reasons for the institution in which we stand today.

Audrey Nicoll referred to Shell’s girls in energy programme, which involves 100 girls and is fighting views about the industry. They have perhaps grown up with a view of that industry as male dominated when, actually, the reality is very different. It is a true testament to Shell and to the accompanying college that they are able to do that.

That allows me also to refer to Michelle Thomson’s intervention on the importance of role models at nursery level. From experience, I can say that I see all children performing great science at that level, be that in the mud kitchen, outside or with Lego. Those powerful examples of their working together to solve problems lie at the heart of what STEM is about: approaching something in a different way to other people in order to solve it.

That different approach is just as relevant for women and girls as it is for men and boys. We simply remove 50 per cent of the people who could solve problems by ignoring that, when we crowd them out, push them out, persuade them away and gently condone—with ideas such as “Maths is not for women”—their moving away from a very important problem-solving area. Frankly, across the whole world, we lack that scientific thinking in so many places.

I mention Liz Smith’s speech, because of her powerful points. We heard from a number of people about the difficulty with teacher numbers, which, I think, we have to accept, here in Scotland and particularly in STEM. There were interesting contributions on whether we can change that. However, this country and human beings need a balanced curriculum so that, as people go through their childhood, they experience a vast and wide variety of influences and ideas, and learn new facts and approaches. Only in that way can an individual celebrate their thinking patterns and be able to contribute fully later in life. Indeed, having been a teacher, I know that young people contribute strongly to adults’ learning and understanding of a situation.

It is worth mentioning Claire Baker’s speech, because she talked about that “leaky pipeline”. Frankly, we have aware of that for decades, but are we any better at plugging those leaks? I suggest that we are not. One of the challenges is that perhaps we are looking at the issue in the wrong way.

We have heard many examples today of individual women who have strived and achieved so much. Some members have asked why those women were able to do it. We do not know the answer. However, as we have heard today, we have great examples of schools that have a larger number of girls taking science subjects than other schools. We should look to the success out there and try to replicate it. We should expose our teachers and policy makers to the very best.

For example, Stephen Kerr mentioned visiting a school and seeing a display about female scientists. We need to treasure what works well and allow others to see and replicate it. Mr Kerr said that if we ask a Scot to identify a scientist, it tends to be a man. I would suggest that that probably depends on the age of the person who is asked.

I quickly mention Clare Adamson and her choice to go to an institution with a 50:50 balance. That speaks powerfully to the desire that individuals have, and to the responsibility of this place, and indeed the Scottish Government and other Governments, to support that.

I have a quick question for the minister about the STEM education and training strategy. I am disappointed that there is only one reference to a girl in it, and only five references to women. We talk about changing the fundamentals, and we should think about that in everything that we do. I would like to ask about the STEM strategy implementation group minutes for the group’s meeting in September 2019, which were published in March 2020. I would be grateful for an update on when the group last met, and indeed whether it will continue to meet.

The Presiding Officer:

T he member must conclude, so I ask the minister to respond when he sums up.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I will conclude, to allow for an answer from the minister in due course.

Photo of Sue Webber Sue Webber Conservative

I am delighted to close on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives in this debate marking the international day of women and girls in science. There are a number of reasons for that. First, I was fortunate enough to have two female science teachers at school. I dedicate this to Mrs Moug, who taught chemistry and is sadly no longer here, and Mrs Roley Walton, who may just be watching—who knows?

Another reason is that I am a life sciences graduate—in biochemistry—from the University of Edinburgh. Fortunately, to refer back to Jamie Hepburn’s comments, it is no longer 1896, and I was able to graduate quite successfully. What I learned then is now most likely taught at school, however, because understanding of the workings of the cell has progressed rapidly since then.

Imagine a time when every lab did not have a PCR—polymerase chain reaction—machine and genome-editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 did not exist. Whole-genome sequencing took years and fluorescent microscopy was only just becoming commercialised. Doing quality science under those conditions seems archaic, but that is what we were doing back then. The adaptation of new tools for simple and affordable use has increased the speed of research. If we look back 20 years, it reveals just how far we have come in terms of technology, but sadly not in terms of gender equality in the science world.

Although improvement has been made in increasing the number of women in STEM subjects, we have all agreed that more progress must be made, because the STEM sector is still dominated by men. As my colleague Pam Gosal mentioned, there is a big gender gap in science, with women making up just 7 per cent of STEM apprentices in training and only a quarter of the STEM sector. Entries in science subjects by women are also at their lowest level in five years at both national 5 and higher level.

Michael Marra—and, to be fair, many other members—spoke about the leaky talent pipeline that occurs throughout our careers, from as early as school all the way through to advanced science careers. I am a scientist, and I am probably part of that leaky pipeline now, because I am a politician. It could be much the same for Clare Adamson. It is clear that there is an on-going struggle to attract young women and girls to study STEM subjects and pursue STEM careers.

However, even when there is success in attracting women to the sector, there are, as has been said, issues in retaining female talent. Royal Society of Chemistry statistics show that, in 2021, more than 60 per cent of applicants accepted to university chemistry courses in Scotland were female—the highest figure of all the UK nations. That is laudable, but it is not good enough. At the same time, though, only 9 per cent of professors of chemistry are female. We heard from Audrey Nicoll about the page of grey-haired men that appears on our screens when we google professors, which is not quite what we like to imagine.

Scotland’s schools play a vital role in ensuring that STEM subjects are available to young women and encouraging young women to consider careers in science. I was not able to do all three sciences at the same time, so I did all three by staggering them. I recently helped a constituent to study all three sciences at the same time, but she had to move schools to do so. We need to get better at that. There were fewer science, maths, physics and computer science teachers in 2021 than there were in 2008. Computer science is the future, but we do not know what careers young people will be taking up. However, understanding programming and computers is the way forward, so we have to have more of those teachers.

My colleague Liz Smith made quite a contribution regarding the seven ladies of the University of Edinburgh’s medical school. It was a spine-tingling speech—the way that she animated the story was great. Liz Smith also mentioned that, in 2015, the Royal Society of Chemistry called for dedicated science teachers in each primary school. I support that, considering that gender inequality in participation in science and other STEM subjects starts at a very young age.

Although we commend the improvements in getting women into STEM, there are still massive improvements to be made, and not much progress is being made under the Scottish National Party Government. Martin Whitfield mentioned that there are very few references to women in the STEM education and training strategy. We have to set the example; we are the leaders in this, and it is up to us to ensure that, in our strategies and policies, we present a world that young women can aspire to be part of.

Scotland is home to world-leading organisations in science, and we have heard many examples today. Last year, I visited Q2 Solutions, which is a leading clinical laboratory services organisation in West Lothian. A senior female there, who is a friend of mine, was my link into that organisation. I give a shout out to Maggie Conacher.

Later this month, I will be visiting the National Robotarium, which has unrivalled facilities and world-leading expertise in robotics and artificial intelligence. That is out at Heriot-Watt University. I recently took part in a round-table event entitled “Innovating Healthcare Scotland” alongside remarkable women, including Dame Anna Dominiczak, a Polish-born medical researcher who is now our chief scientist.

Every single day, we should be actively encouraging young women to study STEM subjects and to pursue those careers. The Scottish Conservatives would fully fund the placement of dedicated STEM teachers in every primary school. We want to restore excellence in Scottish schools so that every child has the chance to succeed, no matter their background.

We will support the motion and both amendments today.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I thank all members who have contributed. Over the course of the afternoon, we have heard a range of speeches that have enabled us to reflect on the many achievements of women in science across Scotland.

I am really pleased that colleagues have been able to highlight so many examples of the various female science pioneers in Scotland. I have felt some degree of inadequacy when compared with some of our colleagues—a number of them have qualified into and formally practised in the STEM professions. To those members, I say that it is great that they have contributed, because they can be pointed to as role models for the professions that they have been involved in.

Stephen Kerr made a request of me regarding the rocket launch from Shetland, although I was a bit concerned about where he was going with that. I thought that he might have been suggesting that I should be tied to the rocket, but he did not go there. I would certainly commend to our schools that they give their young people the chance to watch that event.

There will be activity under way in the coming period. Education Scotland will be engaging with local authorities, schools and other partners to consider what activities can be undertaken around that launch to inspire young people. I hope that that reassures Mr Kerr in that regard.

As much as we have, rightly, spoken about the many successes, much of the debate has focused on some of the challenges that we face—I do not shy away from that. Stephen Kerr was right to say that it is not a uniquely Scottish problem, but we do have to tackle it head on.

If ever there was a reminder, though, about the international context in which we operate, it was Fiona Hyslop’s contribution. She spoke about some of the deep-seated outright discrimination that exists for women and young girls in other parts of the world, furth of Scotland—not as historical examples, as both I and Liz Smith were able to reflect on in relation to the Edinburgh seven, but in the here and now.

It is important that we say with one voice, loudly and clearly, that here, in Scotland, we fundamentally believe in the right to an education, including in the STEM subjects, for every young girl and woman in the world. That is something that we absolutely believe in.

The issue of STEM teachers was mentioned, and I recognise that we have a challenge in that area. Frankly, I think that it is symptomatic of the wider labour market challenge that we face right now. Those who are qualified in STEM are in great demand—including, it appears, to work in the political profession, but more widely as well.

It is a challenge, but we have the STEM bursaries in place to encourage people who have a background of working in the STEM sector to switch careers and professions and to become STEM teachers. They would be fantastic role models for the young people they would end up teaching.

On Martin Whitfield’s point on the STEM strategy implementation group and the STEM strategy more widely, there was, of course, some disruption over the course of the Covid-19 period in relation to that group meeting up. However, the group has continued to act as a source of invaluable advice and assistance to the Government as we take forward the strategy. That strategy is coming to an end and we are considering the next steps, but we rely on exactly that type of personnel to continue to inform our work. I will also certainly reflect on the point that both Martin Whitfield and Sue Webber made about the number of times that women feature in the STEM strategy that we have been operating to.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Perhaps, with the redevelopment of the implementation group, having more of a gender balance on that group would be of assistance to the Government.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Just as I will reflect on the wider point, I will reflect on that, too. It is an eminently reasonable point to make.

Apprenticeships were mentioned—by Stephen Kerr and Willie Rennie, in particular, but by others as well. Having had the chance to look out some of the figures, I can say that we have a significant challenge in terms of female participation in the relevant frameworks. The figures that I have seen suggest that around 11 per cent of those taking part in the STEM modern apprenticeship frameworks that are in operation are women. That goes wider than the engineering framework that Willie Rennie mentioned, which is why it is a slightly different figure, but the figure is still far too low.

I can say—and Willie Coffey mentioned this—that if, for comparison, we look at graduate apprenticeships, we see that the figure is in excess of that, at 21.2 per cent. That is an increase from when those apprenticeships were first created. In the case of the foundation apprenticeship frameworks, nearly a quarter of the participants are young girls in the secondary school environment. That is still not good enough, but it gives us some optimism for the future that the numbers are higher at that young age. However, we need more progress in this area. That is why the SDS equalities action plan and the Scottish apprenticeship advisory board recommendations are important and we will consider them.

Employers also have a huge role to play in this. Apprenticeships are an employment opportunity and it is up to employers to make sure that they are thinking through their recruitment practice when they take on apprentices. I am pleased to say that many employers are actively engaged in thinking about how to do better in that regard. Role models were also the subject of some discussion—I will come back to the issue of role models in a minute.

Willie Rennie rightly identified the importance of the activity that Education Scotland is undertaking to improve the gender balance. I can assure him that I do not want to see that being lost through the process of reform.

Role models are fundamentally important to any activity that we undertake. The Scottish Schools Education Research Centre is undertaking activity in that regard, and Clare Adamson mentioned the ambassadors programme that it runs.

I would be very interested in following up on Michelle Thomson’s innovative suggestion—made when she intervened on Audrey Nicoll—about how we might do more to utilise female ambassadors as part of that and our developing the young workforce activity, which can also play a role.

We provide £220,000 to support our science festivals, which is an important part of our work. As I have mentioned, I was in Dundee during a science festival and I was pleased that young girls were engaged with that activity.

Clare Adamson mentioned Toni Scullion, who is part of Scottish Teachers Advancing Computing Science, which is funded by the Scottish Government and recently ran a teacher upskilling programme.

That is some of the activity that is under way.

This debate has been a useful opportunity for us not only to reflect on the many outstanding achievements of women scientists in Scotland, as we should rightly do, but to recognise the challenges that still exist and that, collectively, we are determined to rise to.