Super College Taps into STEM Talent

SUPER COLLEGE TAPS INTO STEM TALENT

Douglas Morrison

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is undertaking a major review of its 2012 publication - Tapping all our Talents (TAOT) - whose aim was to develop a comprehensive strategy to help increase the proportion of women in the STEM workforce

Representatives from the government, academia, the third sector, industry and education have been asked to contribute articles that will help raise awareness of the RSE’s review and its call for evidence.

City of Glasgow College’s STEM and Innovation Lead, Douglas Morrison, has contributed an article on education where he explores the role of Scotland’s colleges in supporting the development of a diverse and inclusive STEM sector.

STEM IN SCOTLAND’S COLLEGES

College activity was not part of the original TAOT but will be considered in the 2018 update. This is a highly significant development as colleges represent the key link between school, industry and universities, as well as providing reskilling and upskilling programmes for adult returners and career changers.  

If we are to realise a more inclusive and diverse STEM sector, it is colleges who will play the vital role in ensuring that clear career development pathways are available for all.

Scotland’s colleges provide vocational, technical and professional education to over 200,000 students a year and contribute in the region of £700 million GVA to the Scottish Economy. There has never been a better time to be bold on gender equality in Scotland. 

The Scottish Government’s Youth Employment and STEM Strategies both make clear reference to removing gender-related barriers to participation, while the Scottish Funding Council has introduced the Gender Action Plan which challenges tertiary education institutes to develop holistic action plans that will address extreme gender imbalances. 

Current statistics are bleak. The proportion of women in male-dominated STEM college programmes such as electrical engineering (4.5%) and engineering and technology (11.7%) has seen less than a 1% improvement in minority share since 2012. Mechanical engineering has experienced a 2.4% improvement whilst IT has dropped by 1.7% to a total of 10.5%. All disciplines remain some way off any semblance of proportionality.

BARRIERS TO WOMEN ENTERING STEM CAREERS

There are wider societal issues relating to pre-occupational segregation that can lead girls to make educational choices at school which preclude a clear route into the STEM sector. 

This is reflected in the under-representation of girls sitting higher exams in subjects such as physics, design and manufacture and engineering science. Setting school-based STEM qualifications as a precondition for entry to higher national level STEM subjects at college creates a barrier that can preclude, or at least seriously hinder access opportunities.  

Parental and peer influences also shape the choices young girls make which are often informed by inaccurate stereotypical images of engineers in dirty, highly physical environments or technology professionals sitting in darkened rooms at anti-social hours.

Girls who do progress into STEM careers, particularly through vocational routes, are often going against guidance from a wide range of influencers. This issue is acknowledged within the Gender Action Plan which recognises the role colleges can play in promoting gender atypical career choices. 

Perceived or realised concerns relating to entry into male-dominated environments are often cited as key barriers to the recruitment and retention of women in the STEM sector. Such concerns are equally as applicable in the education sector, with many of the women on STEM programmes either being the only women or one of a few within a cohort. This can be intimidating and, without access to peers, mentors or role models, isolating.

TACKLING THE GAP

Following the introduction of the Gender Action Plan, Scotland’s colleges have taken a leading role in addressing gender-based under-representation in the education sector.  Ayrshire College’s ‘This Ayrshire Girl Can’ campaign has been hugely successful in raising awareness of career pathways for girls and women in the STEM sector.

City of Glasgow College’s pioneering Women into Engineering courses have resulted in an almost 100% increase in female participation in our engineering programmes - decreasing the gender imbalance by 6% - and our faculty statistics show an increase in female participation in construction trade occupations of 4% - compared to an industry average of only 2%

Partnership activity is clearly evident in initiatives designed to recruit and retain women in the STEM sector. Equate Scotland’s student network, mentoring and adult returner programmes ensure that women embarking on STEM careers have access to a supportive network of peers and role models who are dedicated to challenging the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect.  

SMARTSTEMS and Primary Engineer work closely with colleges to ensure that young people can make informed and unbiased choices when considering career pathways. Skills Development Scotland has taken a leading role in supporting and co-ordinating wider student engagement through initiatives such as My World of Work, Tackling the Technology Gender Gap Together and the Equalities Action Plan for Modern Apprentices.

Industrial partners are also vitally important in promoting STEM careers for women. Put simply, if we don’t experience a positive shift in industrial under-representation of women we run the risk of presenting limited positive destinations for women who do undertake STEM based educational programmes.

Fortunately, there are a number of industry sponsored initiatives, such as the Dell STEM Aspire programme, that actively support women in bridging the gap between higher education and a career in the tech sector. The ENGENDERING STEM project connects industrialists and academics across Europe to create a self-assessment toolkit for STEM employers to adopt more inclusive workplace practices.

TAPPING ALL OUR TALENTS

If we are to make women in STEM a more culturally accepted norm we need to promote a collectively shared and consistent message to those who are either disengaged or unengaged in the conversation. 

The original TAOT was influential because it presented an evidence-based snapshot of the systemic under-representation of women in STEM. Its findings have been used in countless reports, presentations and lectures to raise awareness of barriers, interventions and the socio-economic cost of inaction. The 2018 review will further enhance the evidence base and present the opportunity to reconsider the extent to which we truly are tapping all our talents.

Interested individuals or organisations can contribute to the RSE’s call for evidence by participating in the Women in STEM survey where the original TAOT report can also be accessed.