STEM Strategy Launch– Embedding gender equality

Today, the Scottish Government launched the STEM Education and Training Strategy for Scotland, Equate Scotland has been involved in the development of the strategy along with a range of experts from the industries and across education. The full strategy is available online

Given the political, social and economic importance the STEM industries and STEM education has in Scotland and indeed across the world, it is critical that we have a long-term vision and a set of objectives to be held to in order to ensure we make progress in this area.

The strategy provides a plan across all aspects of STEM, from the school curriculum to re-skilling opportunities and perhaps most helpfully provides coherence to the number of different initiatives taking place in this area across the education sector.

Below are a few key highlights, a brief analysis of how we can ensure gender equality is at the core of the delivery of this strategy and where we must go further:

STEM Advisors, Networks, Ambassadors and Youth Leaders:

The strategy has an emphasis on the use of role models within education through advisors supporting learning and raising STEM attainment, within informal networks through the STEM ambassador scheme and through a youth programme focused on peer mentoring. These programmes can be a source of inspiration to increase the participation levels in STEM subjects, although evidence on this is limited, however if an emphasis is on long term development rather than single intervention activities this may be more successful. The strategy does not outline what the relationship between advisors/role models and schools will be, especially in a time of limited funding. To allow schools to make the most of such programmes, resources need to be made available to support youth mentors and to provide the STEM specific knowledge and expertise required into the classroom.

To make the most of such programmes, we would recommend that all role models have age/level appropriate equalities training to avoid reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes, particularly around gender. Furthermore, effort should be made to ensure at least 50% of these role models and advisors are girls/women.

Tackling unconscious bias with education providers:

Organisations such as Close The Gap and the Gender Balance Project have done a considerable amount of work on this with teachers and careers advisers across Scotland. We particularly welcome the “dedicated resource” to lead and manage this work as it has to date, been dependent on the capacity of short-term funded third sector projects.  We would recommend that this work is embedded into teacher training from the onset, includes a review of how the school can tackle unconscious bias in a holistic way across subjects and across school activities and finally, considers how bias and equality education can be delivered to pupils as well.

STEM public engagement and PR campaigns:

There are two elements of public engagement and gender equality in the strategy. Firstly, science centres are being expected to deliver at least one girls/women only outreach event per year and, secondly, the Scottish Government, alongside Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council will be implementing a STEM social media/publicity campaign to encourage individuals to pursue STEM learning/careers and tackle occupational segregation. In order for these to be successful, we would recommend that third sector equalities organisations, such as Equate Scotland, are involved at the design stage to ensure gender equality is being tackled appropriately and is embedded in this work. It is also important to acknowledge that single interventions such as social media campaigns or once a year events do not, on their own, impact attitudes or tackle gender equality, and instead need to be part of a wider package of interventions and policy shifts which look to tackle deeply embedded gender stereotyping attitudes at all levels of education and wider society.

Increasing Apprenticeship Opportunities:

Equate Scotland has been working in close partnership with Skills Development Scotland for a number of years to support women in STEM related modern apprentices, both at recruitment stage and to ensure they are supported in their apprenticeship journey. We welcome the focus on increasing the number of STEM apprenticeships in line with labour market needs and welcome a focus on equalities and quality of placements. This objective of the strategy can and should be used as an opportunity to focus efforts on training providers and employers engaging in gender equality activities, positive action measures for women and good practice on equality in the workplace (such as implementing flexible working). In particular, training and support for apprenticeship providers on how to create inclusive workplaces and tackling bias at recruitment stage should be included in the delivery of all objectives pertaining to improvements/increases in STEM apprenticeships.

Engagement with Industry:

In the “connection” section of the strategy is an objective specific to supporting local Developing the Young Workforce groups and schools building effective relationships with industry. Such partnerships can help to give young people an idea of the inspiring careers they can have across STEM industries and develop role model relationships. As this strategy is focused on education and skills, there is little on the latter half of the pipeline; supporting women students after their qualifications, engaging industry in gender equality activities including taking positive action or getting women back into the STEM labour market. As Equate Scotland, we focus much of our attention on this latter half and believe it is critical to engage employers of all sizes and across the STEM industries to take on the gender equality challenge. You can read more about how we do this here: http://www.equatescotland.org.uk/employers/training-and-development/

What next?

As mentioned in the strategy launched today, governance and monitoring of the delivery of the strategy is already being considered and will be led by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science. This is welcome, as the challenges this strategy is looking to address require a long term, evidence based view. We would recommend that any governance group or advisory group devised to lead the implementation of this strategy and to review its success, includes equalities organisations and gender equality experts.

The development of this strategy has been successful in bringing together education providers, academic experts, equalities experts and industry to create an aspirational vision and the building blocks of a longer-term plan. Whilst there are many good equalities and gender equality focused objectives, there is clearly further we can and must go. With only 18% women in technology, 9% in engineering and 36% across science, bold measures are needed to meet Scotland’s aspirations for STEM. We can achieve these aspirations, provided positive action measures become the norm and that gender equality underpins all objectives and activities of this strategy and across all STEM initiatives.

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