Women and Girls in STEM – Government position

Policy Piece

The below content sets out the Scottish Government’s position on the topic of women and girls in STEM, and also includes a ‘state of the nation’ prepared by the government’s analytical department.

The Challenge

The Government is committed to taking action to reduce equity gaps in participation and achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). Significant gender imbalances exist in some STEM subjects at school. The data clearly demonstrates, for example, an over-representation of boys in physics and computing. Men are also more likely to undertake STEM college courses and Modern Apprenticeships within STEM frameworks. These imbalances in education and training follow through into the labour market. There are relatively small number of women employed in the engineering and construction industries, both of which are key drivers of Scotland’s future economic growth and prosperity.

In order to address these issues, evidence suggests that gender stereotyping should be addressed at the earliest stages of a child’s education experience and right across all curriculum areas. In the later stages of education, young people need to be fully supported and informed as they make subject choices, and decisions about career paths. High quality advice and guidance, and developing a good understanding of the current and future labour market, will help young people to consider their career aspirations.

Action to tackle gender imbalance in STEM requires a partnership approach to make improvement. This includes challenging societal and cultural attitudes. Parents, teachers, employers, careers guidance professionals and young people themselves all have a part to play. The Government is leading on a number of actions to progress gender equity.

STEM Strategy

The societal, cultural and economic challenges were highlighted in the Government’s STEM Strategy for Education and Training that was published in October 2017. The Strategy offers a comprehensive plan over a period of five years to drive forward improvement in STEM across the education and training landscape. One of the Strategy’s aims is to reduce the equity gap in participation and achievement in STEM learning, engagement, study, courses and training across all sectors in relation to gender, deprivation, rurality, race, disability and for care leavers. A report on progress during the first year of the Strategy will be published in the coming weeks.

Gender Stereotyping

The Institute of Physics, Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Education Scotland have been supporting a pilot project over the past 3 years to evaluate approaches to improving gender balance in STEM. The project officers worked with schools and early learning centres to identify and address causes of gender imbalances of young people aged 3 to 18. A recent evaluation of the project highlights some encouraging changes. Many of those education professionals engaged in the work had themselves been challenged by their learners on their own language and approach, and some young people were more willing to challenge stereotypes they see in the media, including social media. Not surprisingly, some of the main challenges posed by the project concern the need for cultural change in attitudes to gender and work with some parents to challenge views.

Education Scotland are now recruiting a team of Gender Balance and Equalities Officers to build on this pilot, whose task will be to work with schools and the wider education and lifelong learning community, addressing issues such as unconscious bias and gender stereotyping. The new team will start early next year and include delivery of gender and equality training to partner organisations and the development of a gender champion network to grow and spread best practice.

Social Media Campaign

In recognition of the power and impact of social media to affect attitudinal change, a new social media campaign has recently been launched. It aims to increase gender balance in participation in STEM study at college and university.

Working with Employers

Occupational segregation describes where women and men do different types of work with women and girls being found in traditionally ‘women’s roles’ such as caring and retail and men being found in the higher paid professional sectors such as STEM. Employers have a role to play in tackling occupational segregation and breaking down the barriers that girls and women face in the STEM sector and society as a whole. To support employers we have established a Gender Pay Gap Working Group, which will identify action to reduce gender pay gaps across industrial sectors in Scotland as part of the Scottish Government’s inclusive growth vision.

We provided over £50,000 to Equate Scotland to deliver a women returners programme to support women who have STEM qualifications to return to work after a career break. We will continue to invest in returners programmes by investing £5 million over the next 3 years to support around 2,000 women to return to work following a career break. We are also providing £750,000 to the Workplace Equality Fund which supports employers to deliver innovative solutions to overcome workforce inequalities, including helping them to identify and close their pay gaps.


The five year ‘Equalities Action Plan for Apprenticeships in Scotland’ (EAP) outlines the challenges to be addressed to improve the participation of disabled, care experienced and ethnic minority groups in Apprenticeships, as well as addressing gender imbalance within uptake of some occupational frameworks.

In 2017, Skills Development Scotland (SDS) commissioned Equate Scotland to test out approaches to supporting female apprentices in STEM roles, to provide female apprentices working in male dominated sectors with developmental support, with a focus on supporting apprentices to build networks and access peer-to-peer support. This was achieved through biannual ‘MA Connect’ events, which brought together female apprentices working in STEM sectors. Attendees had the opportunity to hear from other apprentices and professionals in the sector about their career journeys. The events also included workshops on topics such as building professional networks and developing resilience. Attendance and feedback from the events has been positive.

SDS are working closely with Education Scotland to ensure their Career Information, Advice and Guidance (CIAG) staff reflect on any potential bias within their own practice and actively challenge gender stereotypes in young people’s career decisions. SDS will continue to work with CIAG colleagues to ensure apprenticeships are promoted to young people and those whose influence their decisions, and that individuals are supported to apply for opportunities where appropriate. SDS will engage with delivery partners for Foundation and Graduate Apprenticeships to align activity in addressing gender imbalance in subject and career choice, including STEM. In particular, SDS will work closely with colleges and universities to join up any action to address gender imbalance within their Gender Action Plans.

Going Forward

No single action will result in the positive change needed to improve gender balance in STEM. Education practitioners will continue to need professional learning support on equity in STEM, and information on current and future STEM jobs can help to inspire. Existing partnerships between schools, colleges and universities should be maintained and developed in an effort to support more young women to study STEM subjects. Opportunities for learners to hear direct from STEM industry, including through school-employer partnerships as part of the Developing the Young Workforce programme, can also help to address any misperceptions of STEM careers and build the confidence of learners to make non-gendered choices.

The Scottish Government will continue to play its part in addressing the STEM gender challenge, working with partners to effect change.

Further reading: Scottish Government Analytical Services – State of the Nation