A progress review of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Scotland

Polly Arnold, Mercedes Maroto-Valer, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Anna Dominiczak, Silvia Paracchini, Sue Black, Karen Faulds, Lesley Yellowlees, Anne Glover posing for a photo

This inquiry was originally published in 2018, the information shown here is accurate to that time.

Following on from the inquiry, we curated an exhibition to showcase some of Scotland’s leading women within STEM and provide role models to those considering a career path in STEM fields, featuring a number of RSE Fellows.

View Women in Science in Scotland:

Women in Science in Scotland Exhibition


It’s six years since Tapping All Our Talents (TAOT) was released by the RSE in 2012. Much has changed in that time but has the lot of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM)? Has the infamous ‘leaky pipeline’ – the graph which shows 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? 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 using STEM-based skills to build a better and more economically vibrant Scotland?

These were some of the questions that motivated the RSE to look at current data and engage with interested groups and individuals to produce TAOT2018. The Young Academy of the RSE immediately offered their help on learning of the intended report and their enthusiasm, commitment and skills are gratefully acknowledged. My thanks also go to the Working Group, everyone who contributed and particularly to Susan Lennox, who led on the drafting of this report.

As the Working Group started this study we debated what the scope of TAOT2018 should be. We decided to reconsider topics from the original report and to complete the ‘pipeline’ to include pre-undergraduate years. We made a positive decision to limit ourselves to STEM subjects because much still remains to be accomplished here. Many years ago, when I first became aware and interested in the issues surrounding a lack of women in STEM, I set myself the target of trying to make STEM a more inclusive world for the women of tomorrow. Progress has been too slow for my daughter’s generation but I am hopeful for my granddaughter’s. I hope the TAOT movement will make a difference for her and for all Women in STEM.

Professor Lesley Yellowlees
Chair of RSE / YAS Women in STEM working group

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, as the National Academy for Scotland, has a Fellowship containing great expertise across all the sciences, technologies, humanities and the arts. The Fellowship is elected from the worlds of academe, public and private service, commerce and industry. As a membership organisation, it has no political allegiance, nor does it represent any sectoral interest. As such, it is uniquely placed to offer informed, independent comments on matters of national interest.

Inquiry summary

For consistency and readability, decimals in the figures presented in the report have been rounded up or down to the nearest whole number.

It is well recognised that Scotland must nurture, develop and value its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills base if it is to rise to the challenges that are increasingly shaping its economy and its society. An innovative economy and STEM-literate society are crucial to ensuring that Scotland can respond to – and, indeed, take full advantage of – global disruption driven by digital technologies, the changing climate and an ageing population. Diverse teams can flourish through the creativity that results from bringing together different ideas, views and experiences, from greater constructive debate and from a broader understanding of clients’ needs. Research links greater diversity in an organisation’s workplace with a greater likelihood of above-average profitability.

Yet, at a time when both the Scottish Government and industry identify STEM skills gaps as restricting progress towards national ambitions and economic performance, entrenched gender stereotypes continue to limit the potential of girls and young women to fully develop their interest and abilities in STEM subjects. Tapping All Our Talents 2012 found that, even where young women overcame barriers to studying STEM and graduated with STEM degrees, only 27% remained in the STEM sector; around half the equivalent proportion of their male counterparts.

Improving gender equality in STEM is both a social justice imperative and an economic necessity. Tapping All Our Talents 2012 set out the foundations of a national strategy towards gender equality in STEM workplaces in Scotland. It was a call to action, articulating the case for urgent focus on the issue, outlining the barriers women faced in STEM, and identifying steps to tackle under-representation. Six years on, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) and Young Academy of Scotland were eager to explore what progress, if any, has been made.

Through a public consultation, a series of roundtable discussions, and a review of the literature and data available, the Tapping All Our Talents Review 2018 considers what has – and has not – changed for women working in STEM in Scotland today. Recognising the need for a holistic, coherent and sustained approach to engaging girls and young women in STEM, the RSE expanded the remit of the Review Group to consider female under-representation in STEM education and training, as well as in STEM workplaces.

The Review Group was heartened to find that, by some measures, marked progress has been made towards redressing gender imbalances in STEM:

  • The proportion of female STEM graduates in the UK working in the sector has increased from 27% in 2012 to 30% in 2017
  • In industry, UK-level figures indicate that the proportion of women in core STEM professions rose from 13% to 23% in the same period.
  • At the current rate of progress, STEM FTSE 100 companies are expected to meet a voluntary target of 33% of women on boards by 2020.
  • In academia, the number of Scottish STEMM (includes medicine) departments holding Athena SWAN awards, which recognise efforts to enhance gender equality, reached 73 by Spring 2017, up from a total of five awards in 2012.
  • The proportion of female professors in Mathematics trebled from 3% (2012) to 10% (2017) and in Chemistry doubled from 5% to 10%.

Such progress, however, is not universal:

  • In education, the proportion of young women studying for Computing-related qualifications at SCQF levels 3 – 5 has fallen from 32% in 2012 to 18% in 2018.
  • In most STEM subjects across colleges and universities, the proportion of female students has seen, at best, incremental improvement (e.g., from 11% in 2012 to 13% in 2016 in undergraduate engineering) and, at worst, further decline (e.g., from 54% in 2012 to 43% in 2017 in college-level IT frameworks).
  • The number of female executives in FTSE 100 companies remains stubbornly below 10%.
  • The overall gender pay gap in Scotland has seen little movement, standing at 18% in 2012 and 16% in 2017.

What has become increasingly clear in the years since the publication of Tapping All Our Talents 2012, is that gender equality in STEM can only be achieved through a fundamental shift in societal perceptions of gender ‘norms’ more generally. This is a significant and complex challenge: stereotypes are introduced at birth and consistently reinforced by families, carers, peers, media, social media, educators and employers. But it is a challenge that must urgently be tackled if Scotland is to eradicate the harmful impact of such stereotypes on the wellbeing of all its young people and enable them to reach their full potential.

It is within this societal context that the Tapping All Our Talents Review 2018 considers what must be done to achieve a step-change in progress towards gender equality in STEM. Every individual and institution involved in educating children and young people in Scotland, and in shaping STEM workplace cultures and practices, has a role to play in breaking down the barriers that girls and women face. The report considers each stage of education and training, and both industry and academic workplaces, setting out the key findings on persistent barriers and possible next steps for each one. Many of the challenges that girls and women face to engaging in STEM manifest at a very early stage and persist throughout education, training and work. Unconscious – and sometimes conscious – biases shape the advice and guidance given to girls and young women by their many influencers, from parents and teachers to peers and media. Misperceptions of STEM and STEM careers, the stereotypical view of the brainy scientist in a white lab coat, act as a deterrent to young women who frequently seek creativity and positive societal impact in their career choices. This is compounded by low teacher confidence in STEM, particularly within primary schools and often out-of-date or limited understanding of STEM industries.

In the workplace, biases persist in the attitudes and actions of management and colleagues and in processes, including recruitment and promotion. With STEM industries often dominated by men, women can face a challenging working environment, have fewer role models, less peer support and more difficulty in building or accessing networks. These barriers compound the difficulties that many women, in all sectors, face to remaining in the workforce when they are also expected to take on a greater share of caring responsibilities. The paucity of high-quality flexible and part-time roles, the impact of career breaks on long-term career prospects, expensive and inflexible childcare and the persistent gender pay gap are all obstacles to gender equality in the workplace.

But there emerges a number of themes that will underpin the success – or otherwise – of the drive towards gender equality in STEM across every stage and every sector. It is under these themes that the Tapping All Our Talents Review 2018makes its key recommendations. Recognising that there is no single path through which the complex and sizable issue of gender equality can be addressed, these are high-level recommendations that we hope will stimulate a wide national conversation within and across sectors about the specific actions required to address continuing gender inequality in STEM and across society.

Underpinning activity at all levels and across all sectors and pathways are four themes:

  • the need for leadership to drive culture change;
  • the need for better data that allow real understanding and tracking of the extent of gender inequality in STEM, barriers to progress and appropriate solutions;
  • a focus on behaviour change that recognises the benefits of gender equality for everyone and that renders bias and discrimination unacceptable; and
  • strong, sustained partnerships between educators and industry to deliver education and training that inspires all young people to engage in STEM.


  1. UK and Scottish Governments must wield political leadership, influence and resources to embed gender equality in society and to drive a multi-sector, collaborative approach to tackling gender stereotypes at the societal level.
  2. Public bodies, educators, employers and industry leaders must deliver culture change that promotes equality. This requires strong, visible leadership from the top and buy-in at every level; e.g., through widespread gender competence training and design of performance metrics. It also calls for developing and normalising uptake of progressive policies and practices; and embedding equality and diversity into all existing activity.
  3. UK and Scottish Governments must lead a step change in societal views on parental roles, using legislation, policies and public funding to drive acceptance that childcare is the equal responsibility of both parents. Childcare needs to be an economic and labour market priority. It requires investment and intelligent design to deliver an holistic, flexible, affordable system that reflects the reality of workplace demands, and allows women to return to work should they wish to do so.

Data and accountability

  1. The Scottish Government, in designing the methodology of its proposed Gender Index Report for Scotland, must develop and invest in publishing STEM-specific data which, while respecting anonymity, are disaggregated as far as possible to allow for understanding of intersectionality, sectoral differences and regional variations. Transparent, accessible disaggregated data are crucial to providing a more accurate picture of the STEM sectors than current labour market data have the capacity to provide.
  2. The Scottish Government must lead improved understanding of what works to progress gender equality in STEM. This may be through the development of an ‘Intervention Tool’ that maps interventions by current strength of evidence, impact and cost-effectiveness. There should be a requirement that all publicly-funded trial gender equality initiatives have strong monitoring and evaluation frameworks; and that those being rolled out further are clearly evidence-based.
  3. This has implications for the funding of bodies and initiatives, since short-term funding precludes long-term evaluation. The Scottish Government must ensure that public funding to advance gender equality in STEM is focused on delivering sustainable and scalable impact. This includes committing to longer-term funding for third sector organisations that deliver cross-sector support on gender equality.
  4. Public and third sector bodies that support organisations to progress gender equality must consider how to assist them to build the capacity and skills required to undertake research to identify and analyse internal barriers, to develop appropriate interventions, and to effectively monitor and evaluate impact.
  5. The UK and Scottish Governments and public bodies that require organisations to report on gender equality measures must do so in a way that drives action to address inequalities. It is not sufficient to expect organisations to comply with equalities requirements; public bodies must rigorously monitor performance on equality and hold organisations to account accordingly.


  1. The Scottish Government must target the key influencers on children and young people to challenge behaviours and attitudes that entrench gender stereotypes in the next generation. The RSE welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to action on this issue in its Programme for Government 2018–19 and urges it to prioritise activities that will have the greatest impact, with renewed focus on engaging families and carers from the early years stage.
  2. Education institutions and employers must have a zero-tolerance stance on unacceptable misogynistic behaviour and sexual harassment in study and work places; while developing cultures that minimise unconscious bias and gender stereotyping through appropriate training for staff and inclusive/progressive organisational policies, practices and standards. Making available high-quality part-time and flexible roles as standard was highlighted to this review as the development that would have the greatest impact on gender equality in the workplace.
  3. More employers must move from rhetoric to decisive action on gender equality by participating in evidenced, legal and proportionate positive action4measures, including the introduction of placements solely for undergraduate women. In doing so, they could draw on examples from education, including City of Glasgow College’s pioneering women-only courses in engineering and construction, which have resulted in a significant increase in female enrolments in sectors where women are under-represented. Employers should look to raise awareness of the need for and impact of positive action measures and work to create a culture where “redressing the balance” of under-representation is not only accepted but celebrated and participated in by all genders within a company.

Education and training

  1. The Scottish Government, local authorities and education agencies, working with providers of teacher education and professional learning, must ensure that all education settings across Scotland are gender aware and competent. This requires empowering teachers to recognise and remove gender stereotypes from classrooms and developing a gender-inclusive curriculum.
  2. The Scottish Government, education agencies, early years providers, schools, colleges, universities and employers need to work in strong, coherent partnerships to deliver high-quality, inspiring and inclusive STEM learning. This must support positive, up-to-date understanding of STEM pathways and careers amongst young people and their families. The development of new regional STEM hubs and the Regional Improvement Collaboratives, coupled with the Developing the Young Workforce agenda, provide an excellent and timely opportunity to embed activity on gender equality and STEM within and across the education and employment sectors.
  3. Recognising that single intervention does not work, industry should look to create sustainable and strategic partnerships on gender equality with schools, colleges and universities which provide both access to knowledge for teachers and pupils at the school level, and “theory into practice” opportunities for under-represented students through placements, work experiences or engagement events.

Read the full Inquiry Report:

Tapping all our talents