Women and Girls in STEM

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 1 June 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I encourage members of the public who are leaving the public gallery to do so quietly, as we are about to restart business.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-08947, in the name of Audrey Nicoll, on increasing the participation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and maths. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament believes that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) make an important contribution to driving economic growth and delivering new approaches to the climate emergency; notes the so-called leaky pipeline, whereby women and girls account for only 25% of the STEM sector, despite maths and science subjects being equally popular among girls and boys within school age education; recognises the work underway in schools and further and higher education institutions, including Robert Gordon University, located in the Aberdeen South and North Kincardine constituency, as well as in businesses and energy-related industries, to address the under-representation of women and girls in the STEM sector; welcomes the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy and the work of Equate Scotland, which aim to change cultures in organisations and academia; commends Aberdeen City Council and its partners for what it sees as their innovative work to align the school curriculum to future skills demands in offshore energy production and other growth sectors, and notes the view that all stakeholders should continue to work together to increase opportunities for girls and young women in STEM.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

I thank members for supporting the motion on increasing the participation of women and girls in STEM, as well as colleagues who will be speaking in the debate.

I am grateful to the wonderful women whom I was privileged to speak to during my research, and I extend my thanks to the organisations that submitted informative briefings ahead of the debate.

STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects are integral to almost every aspect of modern society, from food production to advancements in medicine, economic forecasting, our growing space sector and arts and culture. STEM is a key driver of economic growth in Scotland.

My personal interest in the subject is deeply linked to the north-east’s energy sector and the rapidly growing demand for a strong STEM workforce to help to facilitate our ambition to become a global energy hub. In his report, “Making the Switch”, Professor Paul de Leeuw of Robert Gordon University reminds us that the north-east hosts a workforce that

“possesses the specialist knowledge, experience and expertise required to deliver and accelerate the energy transition.”

However, women make up only about 25 per cent of the oil and gas industry workforce and approximately 18.5 per cent of the offshore wind sector. Of course, that is seen elsewhere, with women underrepresented in STEM on multiple levels. Although progress has been made in closing the gender gap, the gap still exists. The parity in STEM learning between boys and girls diverges as children move through secondary school, with girls being significantly less likely than boys to learn STEM subjects beyond higher stage—the leaky pipe analogy.

In its briefing, Close the Gap highlights that

“fewer girls take STEM subjects at Higher level such as physics ... computer science ... and engineering science compared to boys.”

Close the Gap also points out that

“73% of female STEM graduates do not pursue a career in this area” and that only

“9% of STEM professors are women and women account for 11% of directorships in the STEM sectors.”

Gender stereotypes, a lack of role models, a lack of access to STEM programmes and challenges around work-life balance and family responsibilities all play their part.

I spoke to many women working in the STEM sphere, who spoke about how children’s attitudes about gender and work roles become fixed at an early age and heavily influence their future subject choices, as Close the Gap sets out clearly in its briefing, and about the crucial role of inspirational teachers and lecturers, supportive parents and carers in encouraging, but not forcing, STEM learning and careers.

The Teach First report, “Missing Elements: Why ‘Steminism’ Matters in the Classroom and Beyond”, highlights that only half of the United Kingdom population is able to name a female scientist. However, the good news is that we can now buy a Barbie professor, so all is well in the world.

Beyond education, I heard about unwelcoming work environments in which stereotypes about the different roles of men and women were strong. One academic spoke of our increasingly gendered society and how some men are, as she put it, blind to the issues of gender imbalance.

Another academic spoke of the subtle barriers that women in STEM face while at the same time being constantly reminded of her role as a STEM influencer. An engineer told me of the pressure that she felt to try harder to do more to prove herself. The lack of access to flexible working and good-quality part-time jobs was evident, as was, critically, the lack of access to affordable, good-quality childcare. There are common themes in the challenges that are faced by girls and women, but there is also much consensus on how to respond and some great examples of work that is already under way.

Aberdeen City Council, Robert Gordon University, the University of Aberdeen and NESColNorth East Scotland College—have developed the Aberdeen computing collaborative, a computer science curriculum from early learning to the senior phase that is designed to encourage young people to consider a career in teaching computer science.

Shell’s girls in energy partnership is a one-year course delivered with NESCol and Fife College to showcase the energy industry’s career opportunities to girls in the senior phase. Today, the centre for health data science at the University of Aberdeen is holding the annual women in data science conference, which will coincide with the annual worldwide data science conference that is being held at Stanford University and at about 200 other locations worldwide.

I was also pleased to note that Equate Scotland is working in partnership with ConStructEd Scotland to offer a hands-on construction experience for women in graduate or postgraduate engineering. I look forward to hearing other examples of progress during members’ contributions today.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to the careerwise programme and the women into STEM pipeline project, and I am encouraged that more female students are enrolling in maths and science college courses and that female undergraduate engineering student numbers are increasing.

What needs to change? First, we need to tackle gender stereotypes. Although initiatives such as taster sessions for girls are welcome, they are insufficient to create sustainable change. Earlier intervention in early years settings is required, as is prioritising gender-competent leadership, particularly in wider education settings. We also need to actively recruit more women into roles in which they are underrepresented and to support women to access reskilling opportunities—that is particularly relevant to the energy sector.

Crucially, expanding access to affordable childcare is required. In that regard, the Scottish Government’s expansion of early learning and childcare to all three and four-year-olds and to eligible two-year-olds is hugely significant not only in improving the health and wellbeing of children and parents, but in supporting parents into work, study or training.

I very much look forward to hearing the minister’s response to members’ contributions today. Again, I thank everyone for their support in bringing forward this debate.

Photo of Evelyn Tweed Evelyn Tweed Scottish National Party

I thank my friend and colleague Audrey Nicoll for securing this important debate.

Although STEM subjects are equally popular with young girls and young boys, there is a “leaky pipe”, as Audrey Nicoll mentioned, which leads to the underrepresentation of women down the line. It should go without saying that that is not caused by lack of skill. Stigma is pushing women away from STEM.

There are key barriers, both material and social. Outdated gender roles lead girls to believe that STEM subjects are not for them. The women into STEM project found that a shocking 48 per cent of the pupils who were asked agreed that STEM-related careers are mostly suited to men. Close the Gap highlights in its briefing that girls are still significantly underrepresented in STEM subjects at school. The most recent data shows that girls made up just 17 per cent of computing science students, 27 per cent of physics students and 11 per cent of engineering science students at higher level.

That underrepresentation continues into higher education. There has been only a slight increase in the number of women who enter STEM degree programmes. For example, the percentage of women among students entering computing degree programmes increased from 19.9 per cent in 2019-2020 to 22.7 per cent in 2021-2022. Among students entering the physical sciences, the percentage of women moved from 41.6 per cent to 43.8 per cent in that time.

I think that we can all agree that we have to do a lot better. Early interventions to tackle stigma and support women and girls in STEM are vital, and I am pleased to see that being taken seriously in my constituency. From McLaren high school’s consultation with female pupils on the redesign of its computing course delivery to Bannockburn high school’s partnerships with external stakeholders, there are ways of removing barriers and building passion in girls for STEM. Schools across Stirling are embracing a collaborative approach and building professional networks to share resources and curriculum. Female pupils from McLaren high school have reached more than 200 pupils across 11 primary schools with STEM and robotics workshops. That is helping to grow enthusiasm for STEM and providing very strong female role models.

The collaborative approach extends into higher and tertiary education. Forth Valley College is working in partnership with West College Scotland, Young Enterprise Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and Equate Scotland on an ambitious project. By involving older pupils in projects to market STEM to their peers, the women into STEM project shows the influence of peer mentors in encouraging participation. The project also partners with employers to build sustainable pathways for girls to progress into STEM careers, which is absolutely amazing.

Innovative thinking is progress, but those ideas need to be backed by funding. A teacher I spoke to said that they had been prevented from running specific girls clubs as it would split already limited budgets. They also highlighted challenges in providing after-school clubs to those who live in rural areas. When we do not make space for women and girls of all backgrounds in STEM, we lose out on essential talent and vital perspectives. It was very good to hear the First Minister, earlier, speaking positively about encouraging women and girls into STEM subjects, but progress is extremely slow. We must take opportunities such as this debate to champion the excellent work that is already being done, but we need to push for more.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

I am delighted to speak in today’s debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, and I thank Audrey Nicoll for bringing to the chamber this important motion on increasing the participation of women and girls in STEM.

The last time I spoke in a debate of this nature, I gave examples of the extremely talented females whom I had met at universities and research centres. It was clear then to everyone in the chamber just how vital it is that we support women to pursue STEM subjects, because they bring diverse perspectives that can lead to more innovative and effective solutions to real-world problems.

As Evelyn Tweed highlighted, we already know that girls are significantly underrepresented in highers in STEM subjects, and we already know that the vast majority of female STEM graduates are not employed in STEM fields. Today, I would like to discuss how we can act to remove the barriers for our future female STEM leaders.

After speaking with the college sector, it is clear to me that the earlier we engage with school pupils, the smaller will be the preconceived gender gaps. Colleges are doing some great work on engaging with schools. For example, West Lothian College does woodworking activities with local primary schools, and New College Lanarkshire runs “Toddle into STEM” events with its early years nurseries. Another fantastic example is from North East Scotland College, which runs an energy programme in partnership with Shell to encourage women into STEM careers.

Close the Gap believes that one possible solution is to ensure that women have access to training and development opportunities, as well as access to high-quality accessible childcare. I am concerned that the lack of action by the Scottish National Party Government will have a long-term detrimental impact. On the first point, I am concerned about the SNP’s decision to roll back the previously announced £46 million in funding for Scotland’s colleges and universities. That funding was vital to Scotland’s innovation landscape; I hope that its removal will not have an impact on closing the gender gap in STEM.

As for childcare, Audit Scotland’s report about the fragility of the early learning and childcare sector is extremely concerning. Childcare providers are absolutely vital to ensuring that parents can return to the workforce. That is key for females in STEM, where there is a lack of flexible working and sometimes a culture of presenteeism.

I am delighted to have contributed on today’s motion about increasing participation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and maths. The debate has made it clear that we must increase girls’ engagement in STEM-related activities from a young age in order to tackle preconceived stereotypes. Secondly, we must empower young females to pursue careers in STEM by supporting removal of barriers in relation to childcare and more. Last but not least, we must have investment; without it we risk undermining the STEM sector and our success in closing the gender gap within it.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I thank Audrey Nicoll for bringing the debate to the chamber. Science, technology, engineering and maths are key to boosting future economic growth, driving innovation and finding solutions to some of the challenges of tomorrow and today, including our path to net zero, sustainability, renewable energy, artificial intelligence and the digital world. We cannot, should not and must not leave anyone behind in our mission to achieve those things.

That women and girls are still underrepresented in STEM is not just unacceptable, it is holding us back. According to the National Science Foundation, only 28 per cent of STEM workers are women; today’s motion estimates the figure to be even higher, and even fewer women are represented in leadership positions in STEM fields. Many reasons exist for that situation; crucially, they can all be traced back to stereotypes that form quickly, as we have heard, and are engrained from the very early stages of socialisation and education. In order to fix that problem, we need to start in the early years and relentlessly focus on it throughout the life course.

In a 2019 survey by Girlguiding, more than half of girls aged seven to 10 said that gender stereotypes changed their behaviour and affected how much they participated in class. Nearly three quarters of girls said that they saw or heard gender stereotypes in school. Those views form and reinforce ideas of what it means to be a girl or a woman, what jobs are suitable for men and women, what educational interests women and girls should have, and what roles they can play in society. Those gender stereotypes have an impact on the decisions that young women and girls then make about their subject and career choices as they move through school and on to further and higher education and the workplace.

One need only look at data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority from 2021 to see the issue. The data shows that, for highers, women are far more likely to study art and design, French, fashion, food technology and childcare, whereas men are more likely to study computing science, physics, engineering and graphic communications, which leads to a trend in higher education of underrepresentation of young women in STEM degrees that follows them to the workplace. Despite the fact that young women are more likely to have higher levels of educational attainment, they have poorer labour market outcomes—we see a concentration of women in low-paid jobs, and gender-based inequalities persist.

I have highlighted many times in the chamber the importance of seeing “people like you” in a room. The reality is that it is hard for a generation of women and girls to imagine themselves in STEM subjects, because the number of women and girls there is so low.

I say to all women and girls who are listening today that STEM is for you. It is a disservice to you that you have been allowed to think otherwise and it is a missed opportunity for a sector that too often loses out on the unique perspectives and talents that you bring.

We need to change that situation and how we think about STEM to see it as a field that is open to everyone. As I have set out previously and as we have heard in today’s contributions, there is much that we need to do to encourage women and girls to pursue careers in STEM and it is our duty to do so. By working together, we can create a more inclusive and equitable world where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential—crucially, a world where women do not have to break the glass ceiling, because they have constructed a world without one.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

I thank my friend and colleague Audrey Nicoll for bringing this important debate to the chamber and for speaking so eloquently on the matter.

I was an early adopter of technology. Having done a degree in music in the early 1980s, it quickly became apparent to me that technology had pervaded even the world of crotchets and quavers. I found myself composing music for a repertory company using early versions of synthesisers and samplers, which ultimately led me to a postgraduate diploma in information technology. However, IT held no interest for me at school; the computer room was full of boys speaking an incomprehensible language. At that point, I could not discern the purpose of and potential in IT. Seeing its application in music, however, changed my perception, so I ended up spending time as a computer programmer, systems analyst and project manager.

Ironically, the skills that were required in many STEM subjects were similar to those that I needed for music—problem solving, communication, creativity, critical thinking and data analysis. Anybody who has had to interrogate and analyse a complex piece of music, such as pieces by Bach, will understand what I am talking about.

Improving the gender balance of STEM subjects in Scotland has been an on-going task all my life. Looking back to 2015, when I was first elected as an MP, Skills Development Scotland, in conjunction with the Institute of Physics and Education Scotland, introduced a project entitled “Improving gender balance Scotland”. Eight years on, the gender gap across STEM subjects is, regrettably, still evident. In 2021, STEM Women noted that, across the UK, just 19 per cent of people who were enrolled in computer science-related subjects were female. Worse is that research suggests that, globally, just 3 per cent of students who are enrolled in information and communications technology courses are female.

My early years in IT were filled with young and ambitious women like me, but fast forward to today and we find that the sector has one of the lowest ratios of female to male employees of any STEM sector. Over the course of my IT career, I saw many senior roles being dominated by men.

The phenomenon—which has already been mentioned in the debate—of the so-called leaky pipeline still prevails, which proves that this is a complex systemic issue rather than it being the case that there are just a few drips and leaks, which is a kinder analogy. I am very wary of members’ distilling the issue down to the somewhat trite “SNP bad” argument because, for example, world and UK data demonstrate that 35 per cent of entrants to STEM higher education subjects are women, and data from the UK-wide Universities and Colleges Admissions Service shows that only 25 per cent of them graduate and only 30 per cent of that small number have sustained careers in their related subjects.

As young women start to make choices over future careers, perhaps some—arguably like the younger version of me—relate to the phrase, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” The issues that limit women’s economic participation in society—the issues that we come up against time and again—including caring and childcare responsibilities, gender stereotypes, unconscious bias and lack of flexibility in roles can be compounded in STEM-related careers, in which, for example, short-term breaks have a disproportionate effect due to the speed of technological advancement.

The role of mentoring and network support for women such as that which is provided by Equate Scotland, which is mentioned in the motion, is therefore crucial. I commend its work and the support that is provided by the Scottish Government, but it is vital that more companies engage with such initiatives in order to bring about positive change that is led and supported by women themselves.

As Government wellbeing plans progress, we must focus a truly gendered lens on all policies. Schools, universities, colleges, business, industry and academia must all play their part, too.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I thank Audrey Nicoll for securing the debate.

We are in a climate emergency, which requires urgent, wide-reaching and radical change to what is still, despite all our warnings and all the evidence, fundamentally a fossil fuel economy. If that change is to happen at the necessary scale and pace, it needs the work, skills, creativity and dedication of all members of our society. We simply cannot afford to maintain barriers—visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious—of ableism, racism or, as we are focusing on this afternoon, gendered exclusion.

I am proud that the work of dismantling those barriers and of supporting and enabling women and girls to play a full and active role in climate science and application is well under way in the north-east. Audrey Nicoll rightly celebrates work that is happening in Aberdeen. I commend the Dundee and Angus regional STEM partnership, which includes Dundee and Angus College, Abertay University, the University of Dundee, Education Scotland, Dundee City and Angus Councils and partners in industry.

In September 2022, the partnership hosted a STEM expo at the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc in Dundee with the theme of sustainable energy. It invited 750 stage 2 pupils from all 16 public secondary schools across Dundee and Angus, together with other schools in the region. The partnership also—this is important—secured funding to pay for schools’ travel to the event. Over two days, it hosted 438 pupils and 35 teachers, with 50:50 representation among school students of those identifying as female and as male. Building and sustaining relationships between schools, universities and other institutions is vital to the task of encouraging and supporting girls and young women to study STEM subjects and embark on STEM careers.

At the University of Dundee, Professor Sue Dawson recently hosted 60 secondary school students from Tayside to showcase the key discipline of environmental science in practice. They benefited not only from Professor Dawson’s expertise and enthusiasm but from her example as a woman in a senior role, because, as Michelle Thomson said, we know that it is hard, if not impossible, to be what we cannot see. Role models—women in science who display not only professional success but integrity, generosity, wisdom and humanity—are essential. We are fortunate to have many such exemplars in North East Scotland. I refer to women such as Dr Rebecca Wade of Abertay University in Dundee, who won national STEM ambassador of the year for 2021 and 2022.

The climate crisis is closely entwined with the biodiversity and food crises. The North East Scotland region has visible and inspirational female leadership in tackling those urgent challenges, with two out of the three professors at the University of Aberdeen’s Rowett institute being women. Aberdeen has also hosted specific conferences for women and girls, allowing potential and active women scientists to share their experience and expertise. Those examples of leadership are complemented by initiatives established by women students, including the women in STEM group at the University of Dundee, which focuses on sharing information and opportunities, offering support and building an empowering environment.

Of course, the range of disciplines in STEM extends far beyond traditional science and engineering. Women are slowly becoming increasingly important and visible in the IT and computing sectors. The growing prevalence of interdisciplinary projects reminds us that there is no necessary bright line between STEM and non-STEM subjects and that there are many alternative routes to scientific work beyond the traditional pathways.

We all—politicians, academics and business people—need to look beyond formal processes and received wisdom to identify and address less visible factors that lead to the underrepresentation of women and girls. We know that the patriarchy can be insidious as well as egregious. If we are to be truly effective in fulfilling individual potential and facilitating responses to critical global and local issues, we cannot simply slot women and girls into existing structures. Instead, we need to find ways to recreate networks, processes and institutions so that they work better for everyone of all genders. That is work for all of us here and beyond the Parliament. It is vital work that cannot be postponed.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I congratulate Audrey Nicoll on securing this debate on increasing the participation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and maths.

It will be no surprise to members that the topic is close to my heart. However, the irony is not lost on me that I stand here as one of those in the “leaky pipeline” that is highlighted in the motion, has been referenced by many speakers in the debate and is referenced in the 2012 Royal Society of Edinburgh report “Tapping all our Talents—Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: a strategy for Scotland”.

The report was initiated by the then chief scientific adviser in the Scottish Government, Professor Dame Anne Glover. In the preface to the 2018 progress review of the report, Professor Lesley Yellowlees asks the following questions:

“Has the infamous ‘leaky pipeline’” and

“the lack of women making it to leadership positions in academia ... been fixed? Are more than 27% of female graduates entering a STEM-related job on graduation? Are women in STEM in a better position, a worse position or in just the same position as previously?”

We have to be vigilant about those questions. As Michelle Thomson indicated, women’s participation in IT has fallen behind over the years. What more needs to be done to enable women to play their full part in shaping our future, helping to solve today’s key challenges, as Pam Duncan-Glancy mentioned, and using STEM-based skills to build a better, more economically vibrant and more ecologically sound Scotland?

Two of Scotland’s leading outstanding women were involved in that RSE report. Given the importance of STEM with the fourth industrial revolution being upon us, it would be more than disappointing if progress was not being made.

I declare an interest in that I served on the board of SSERC for more than 10 years, latterly as vice chair, until May this year. SSERC has been addressing these gendered issues over several years, and I will briefly highlight some of its initiatives, including renaming its buildings the Ada Lovelace and Jocelyn Bell Burnell buildings. We need even simple measures such as that to redress the historical and contemporary prevalence of women’s contribution to STEM being overlooked.

The Scottish schools education research centre offers a broad portfolio of services, principally in support of the STEM areas of the curriculum. From early years practitioners to primary and secondary teachers, school and college technicians and childminders, its STEM ambassadors programme offers volunteering opportunities for those who are working or studying at college or university to engage with young people in STEM activities.

We received a briefing from the Construction Industry Training Board for this debate, and I thank it for that. STEM ambassador Anne Okafor highlights that only 12.5 per cent of the construction workforce is women. That is a missed opportunity, because construction is 6 per cent of our gross domestic product, and that costs our economy. Anne encourages more women through her visibility—by being a visible and accessible role model that girls can relate to. That is something that I strive for through the volunteer roles that I have undertaken. Anne engages with her Brownie troop on STEM activities.

Through the SSERC young STEM leader programme, young people have the chance to inspire, lead and mentor their peers through the creation and delivery of STEM activities and events in?their schools, communities or youth groups.?

The STEM ambassador and young STEM leader programmes are compatible with the Government’s ambition in this area. Its STEM strategy states:

“The long-term goal of promoting efforts to tackle gender imbalances and other inequalities that exist across STEM education and training should continue at pace. Limiting access due to factors such as gender, race, disability, deprivation and geographical location are inherently unfair and continue to undermine our ability to deliver inclusive economic growth for Scotland. The full benefits of STEM education and training will not be realised until this goal is achieved.”

My message for today is this: women, become STEM ambassadors; girls, become young STEM leaders.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I congratulate Audrey Nicoll on bringing this debate to the chamber—of course she was quite right—and I want to frighten Michelle Thomson by telling her that I agreed with every word in her speech, too.

If we do not maximise the talent and productivity of every single Scot, Scotland, Scottish business, our economy and society will suffer. It is because I passionately believe in equality of opportunity for everyone that I am a Scottish Conservative. To me, that is what Scottish Conservatism is all about—opportunity, choice and supporting every citizen to realise their full potential and live the best life that they aspire to live.

Therefore, this debate is not about the principle of increasing the participation of women and girls in STEM but about how to do that. What can we do, as parliamentarians, to encourage more women and girls across our nation to feel confident that they can unlock their full potential in STEM?

First, we need to introduce STEM to children from early years education through play. We should let children discover the fascination of STEM—all the different aspects of it. Let them develop their problem-solving skills, let them build things, let them get dressed up and let us encourage them to let their imagination and curiosity run riot—girls and boys alike with no demarcation and no barriers, from the very beginning of their educational experience. Let us bring STEM to the table in nurseries and in primary and secondary schools. Let us give our children a vision of all the different kinds of STEM-based jobs that there are in every walk of life.

We have to make a special effort to remove the barriers that seem to have been placed in the way of girls’ realising their dreams through STEM. We should have what I would describe as inspirational dissatisfaction about the current level of guidance that we give our young people. If we had our way, the Scottish Conservatives would seriously invest in giving our young people the best possible guidance and mentoring. We live in a digital world. Put the digital technology in their hands; teach them to boss the technology rather than to be bossed by it. Let us bring the different stages of a child’s educational journey together.

I learned a new word this week, courtesy of Sir Peter Mathieson, the principal of the University of Edinburgh: interdigitisation. I had not come across that word before. It is a word that describes what happens when we bring our fingers together. He used it in the context of bringing all the different parts of an educational journey together. We need to bring together employers, colleges and universities that are involved with our children much earlier in their educational journey. Guidance, for example, should not be left to S3, S4 or S4. At that stage, it is too late to begin to help our young people, especially our young women, to discover where their passions, interests and aptitudes lie, especially in relation to STEM.

We cannot afford our young people, especially girls and young women, thinking that career opportunities in STEM, artificial intelligence and the space sector, where we Scots excel, are for other people. We cannot afford our young people beginning to think that they cannot follow their dreams because they do not have the same opportunities as everyone else. We must change the narrative about what is possible for all our young people, men and women alike.

We must tackle the idea that going to university is the only route to success. If we get interdigitisation right, our young people should have more exposure to different businesses and other sectors and to colleges and universities, and they will begin to see the vast array of opportunities that lie ahead of them and that there is a choice of pathways, all of which have equal esteem, whether it be an apprenticeship, professional technical training qualifications or studying for a qualification at college or university.

The narrative must change, because there is a commonly held disparity of esteem and that will not change unless the Scottish Government and all of us who support the Scottish Government tackle that head-on. I have to say to the minister that the Government’s track record on apprenticeships and funding colleges and universities leaves much to be desired. Ministers must start to listen. They must start to shape policy around the outcomes that we want to see, which means making tough choices and setting priorities. We cannot deprioritise education. Scotland needs its young people to flourish like never before—the world needs our young people to flourish like never before—because we are facing big strategic challenges. It is increasingly to the STEM subject areas and STEM-based sectors that we look for solutions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Kerr, could you please conclude?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am doing so. The Government needs to match its actions to its rhetoric. I hope that, in his response, the minister will bring new thinking to the role that he is now filling, because we need it. If he does, and if he makes the right choices for Scotland and our young people, we, on these benches, will back him. We need the full potential of our young people, women and girls, men and boys, to be unleashed, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Kerr. We have reached the point at which I am required to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Audrey Nicoll to move the motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[

Audrey Nicoll


Motion agreed to.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

I begin by thanking my friend and colleague Audrey Nicoll for securing this members’ debate today. I was going to say that, although I do not agree with most of what Stephen Kerr says, it will become clear in my speech that I agree with the positive parts of his contribution.

As the motion states, women in STEM are making important contributions to economic growth and tackling the climate emergency. That statement applies everywhere in the world, but in Aberdeen we need to take particular heed of it. Our city has the ambition of becoming the net zero capital of the world. Our journey to being able to call ourselves that will not just involve innovation and new approaches, but a just transition away from the oil and gas industry that has underpinned our local economy for decades. Women in STEM will have an important role in shaping Aberdeen’s future, so we need to support and encourage girls and young women into the sector.

When I was discussing this last week, I asked how we encourage girls and women into the sector.

The reply that I received was quick, simple and not something that I had considered. It was “Stop stereotyping them. Don’t presume they want to play with dolls. Let them play with their Lego, their k’nex, their Meccano or whatever it is that their young minds are interested in.”

It gave me pause for thought as I remembered that, at the age of just two, my quine got really upset when she went to a Christmas party at her nursery and Sunty gave her a doll. She was really excited to be allowed to open a present from Sunty early, but she thrust that doll at me when I asked her what she got and said in a really upset tone, “Ah got a dolly! Ah wantit a tractor!” I do not know where that attitude has came from, Presiding Officer. [


.] She could not understand why she had gotten a dolly while the boys got all the cool gifts. As you might guess, that was the last time that my quine got a doll from Sunty. Instead she received the presents that expanded her mind and creativity.

I am proud to say that that quine is now a senior operational technology cyber security engineer, and I would like to think that some of her success is down to us as parents encouraging her to play with what she wanted to play with, no matter whether it was classed as gender specific. It was age appropriate at all times, of course.

As I said, we need to encourage women and girls into the STEM sector, and I think that there is wide recognition of that need, given the many initiatives that are taking place across Aberdeen, a number of which have already been highlighted by Audrey Nicoll, Maggie Chapman and Pam Gosal.

I will take this opportunity to highlight two more initiatives in Aberdeen that I believe are worthy of praise. First, as we talk about giving opportunities to young women, I want to welcome the work of the Aberdeen university women in science and engineering society, which is a group of young women who have taken these matters into their own hands. They are creating a strong, supportive community of students in STEM and are helping to encourage the next and future generations of women into STEM.

Secondly, Techfest is a charity, based in Aberdeen, that aims to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics activities to young folk and the wider community. They do this work not just across Aberdeen but right across Scotland.

On this year’s international day of women and girls in science, they held an event in Kingswells, which is in my Aberdeen Donside constituency, with around 130 pupils from primary schools in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, who were able to get hands-on learning experiences and hear about careers in STEM.

As we consider the so-called leaky pipeline, I am encouraged by initiatives such as those and the efforts that are being made across the STEM sector. There is work still to do, but we are on the right track.

Let us show our girls that it is okay to do the jobs that they want to do and not the jobs that they think society wants them to do. The more that we encourage that, the more that we will see the benefit to the STEM sector.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Ms Dunbar. I call the minister Graeme Dey to respond to the debate. You have around seven minutes, minister.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

We have heard some excellent examples of how we can and must work together to create greater and wider opportunities for women and girls to access STEM in employment, training and education. I am encouraged by what I believe to be broad consensus across the chamber on this issue. I have never heard Stephen Kerr be so thoughtful and constructive here. I thank Audrey Nicoll for securing the opportunity to explore the topic and to see Mr Kerr in a new light.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

There is one aspect of this debate that slightly perturbs me, and that is the fact that I think the minister and I are the only male speakers. I honestly believe that that is part of the problem. Women understand what the need is, but perhaps not enough men do, otherwise we would have had more male speakers encouraging women and, indeed, encouraging the breaking down of the barriers that exist for women in this vital sector.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Funnily enough, sitting here a few moments ago, I was thinking that very thing—it is quite telling.

This Government, like many others, has been working hard to overcome some of the challenges, but there is some way still to go.

At a strategic level, we should all be proud that Scotland has a world-class research sector where research discoveries drive the improvements and innovations that help us to reach the economic, societal and environmental aims of our national performance framework and sustainable development goals, including those around reaching net zero.

In schools, and particularly in relation to gender, our STEM education and training strategy includes support for specific actions by a dedicated team of education professionals who support teachers to challenge stereotyping. The improving gender balance and equality officers have engaged with more than 1,000 education establishments and have reached nearly 9,500 practitioners.

Of course, gender imbalance needs to be addressed by a wide range of partners, and every sector has a role to play if we are to reach a position where gender is not considered the main factor that determines a young person’s future pathway in life.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

My colleague Evelyn Tweed mentioned some of the challenges that schools have in tackling some of the issues. Will the minister reflect on the work of Toni Scullion, the young teacher who founded dressCode—a specific coding club for girls that has now been rolled out with industry across Scotland—as an exemplar of how STEM can be brought into our schools? I will certainly share the information about it with Ms Tweed, to see whether the schools in her area can reach their ambition by following that example.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

It really has been an illuminating debate, because I have now discovered that Clare Adamson has psychic powers as well. I am just coming to that point.

For learners at school, for the past three years, we have provided funding for the young STEM leader award. More than 2,500 young people from across Scotland have already participated in the scheme.

We know that attempts to have a positive influence on career directions for girls should begin from an early age. Children can form opinions about who should do what job from their formative years, and those opinions can be influenced by their parents as well as teachers. Those views often stay with a young person right through to the end of their school career and beyond. Therefore, Audrey Nicoll, Pam Gosal, Pam Duncan-Glancy and Stephen Kerr were right to highlight the need to do work in the early school years.

Skills Development Scotland recognises that need and is taking a cross-sectoral approach in an attempt to address the issue. However, it is important that we attempt to tackle it by means of an holistic approach. The highlighting of female role models is critical, not least because we know that many women who have followed STEM pathways have done so because they are following in the footsteps of family members. As other speakers—Pam Duncan-Glancy, in particular—noted, if you do not see people like you in a sector, you will hardly be drawn to it. We need to take that on board.

Among a raft of statistics—and there is a raft of statistics—on the situation is one that I find intriguing and worthy of further explanation. Between 2019 and 2021 the number of young women taking STEM highers rose from 31,795 to 32,745. That is almost 1,000 more entries. Over the same period, the figure for passes among women increased from 23,650 to a peak of 28,135. Both of those numbers declined in 2022. Entries declined to a number below the 2019 figure and passes to a point only 650 higher than it.

Interestingly, the improvement covered the Covid period, in which continuous assessment, rather than the traditional examination-based approach, was at play. There is a school of thought that, because women are traditionally believed to have less confidence in their abilities in the STEM sphere, the amended alternative certification approach held an appeal for them. That is worthy of further exploration as we look to tackle that long-standing issue.

On the subject of secondary school settings, I commend the work that is being done at McLaren high school and Bannockburn high school, in Evelyn Tweed’s constituency.

In his report on the Scottish technology ecosystem, Professor Mark Logan talks about the chronic imbalance in computing science at school and the fact that gender role stereotyping removes almost half of our best future engineers from the workforce. I could highlight a variety of examples of work to address that. Toni Scullion’s work is one. In response to Michelle Thomson’s comments on digital, I point out that YMCA Scotland has supported a programme with CodeClan to address the recruitment, retention and progression of women in STEM.

However, for all the good intentions and great effort, there is still a long way to go. The stats are sobering. Although women comprise 49 per cent of those in employment, only 27 per cent of STEM professional posts are held by women. In the engineering professions, the figure is 11 per cent.

As I said at the outset, some excellent work is going on. I am aware of the contribution of Robert Gordon University, and, as we look for other best practice, our attention is drawn to Aberdeen and the surrounding area.

Beyond the work of RGU and others, the North East Scotland College’s girls in energy programme has introduced more than 650 young women to engineering and has provided pathways to college, university and apprenticeships. More than 75 per cent of those women pursued engineering after leaving school. I met some of them when I was visiting the Angus Training Group a little while back, and I was struck by how warmly they spoke about the initiative. I contrasted those conversations with one that I had with a girl from my constituency who had pursued her career path in spite of the educational influences that were around her, including being told by a teacher that engineering is not girls’ work and that she might want to consider hair and beauty or childcare instead. Is it any wonder that we struggle to get young women into this line of work?

As we know, apprenticeships are a key way for employers to invest in their workforce and provide the skills that we need for now and the future. While girls achieve as well as boys in apprenticeships, they participate at a much lower rate. In acknowledgement of that, Skills Development Scotland has identified a series of practical steps that employers can take to offer a more flexible approach.

Limited progress has been made in improving the gender imbalance at college level. However, an illustration of the hill that has yet to be climbed is the fact that, in 2020-21, only 2 per cent of starts on construction and related modern apprenticeships were female.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

As the minister is talking about colleges, it would be remiss of me not to bring this up. Almost 60 per cent of students in colleges are women. Is the minister concerned about the redundancies in colleges across Scotland? What can his Government do to protect women and others from those?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

And there goes the consensus. I thought that we were talking about the important issue of STEM. The member knows full well that I am concerned about the situation in colleges, because we have covered it previously.

That gender imbalance is not a problem peculiar to Scotland. When I was in the Isle of Wight last week as part of an islands forum gathering, I visited the local college. The set-up was impressive, but, as I wandered around the engineering area, I was struck that, from a cohort of circa 30, only one woman was present. I relate that not to deflect from the issue confronting us in Scotland but by way of illustration of the fact that no one has yet found a means of cracking the problem.

As the motion for the debate rightly notes, we need to aim for a culture in which women and girls can enjoy and take advantage of equality of opportunity in STEM. It will take time and patience to deliver on that ambition, but we need to make faster progress.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The minister is about to conclude.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I am in my final moments. It is clear that we have support for our ambitions here, in Parliament, and beyond. As part of my ministerial portfolio role, I will work with partners to achieve a common understanding of the actions that will deliver sustainable improvement, and I will implement them. As part of that, I am open to ideas and suggestions from whichever direction they come.

13:48 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—