Scotland can take a leading role in tech, with women at the forefront

Written by Sarah Davidson, Director-General Organisational Development and Operations, Scottish Government on 6 July 2018 in Comment

Top civil servant Sarah Davidson on the ambitions for Scotland as a tech hub for the future

Sarah Davidson - Holyrood/David Anderson

In a world which is interconnected like never before, Scotland’s status as a major tech hub can only be judged through a global lens. We must assess our strengths against those of other nations and seek to build our reputation on an international stage.

Much of our national narrative in this respect is well known. World-leading universities that attract the very best talent from around the world; the quality of our datasets, particularly in health, that provide a base of anonymised data that is the envy of the international research community; our vibrant network of start-ups and digital entrepreneurs that has not only fostered a number of internationally successful companies but serves as a magnet to the next generation of digital talent.  

However, while these are strengths to be proud of, in a digital world that is raising fundamental questions about the nature of work, relationships and society, we need to base our claims to be an international tech hub on more fundamental underpinnings.    

A few weeks ago, the First Minister launched Scotland’s new National Performance Framework, which offers us a way of looking at Scotland’s distinct place in the digital world. It is an approach that recognises that the challenge of becoming and remaining a major tech hub is a truly national, cross-cutting endeavour which cannot be achieved by central government alone; a vision which recognises that in a volatile and uncertain world, there is a true competitive advantage in ensuring that every part of Scotland, and every group within Scotland, participates in, and benefits from, success.

This determination to put inclusion at the heart of a digital nation can already be seen in three key areas of digital policy.

First, in our approach to digital connectivity. We recognise that digital infrastructure, in all its forms, drives and enables economic growth in a similar way that canals and railways spread the benefits of previous industrial revolutions.

Fibre and other high-speed networks are the tracks and channels that enable the movement of data, ideas and applications and should be deployed in ways that provide opportunities for every community. Scotland is the only country in the United Kingdom with an explicit government commitment to providing superfast connectivity to all premises and we are also working with industry and academia to test new technologies and close current mobile ‘not–spots’.

Second, in the determination to ensure that the Government’s commitment to digital skills does not stop with the specialist training offered by our universities, colleges and employer-backed apprentice schemes. The proportion of people in Scotland with basic digital skills is now above the UK average and through our partnership with SCVO and the members of Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter, we are working in communities the length and breadth of the country to build confidence and support people to access digital technology.   

Third, in our work to ensure that Scotland values diversity in its digital economy because we recognise the economic and social advantages that come from being able to tap into the widest possible pool of talent. This is a central theme of Scotland’s digital strategy, ‘Realising Scotland’s Full Potential in a Digital World’, which describes a suite of actions aimed at removing barriers to underrepresented groups entering and progressing within digital professions and promoting digital role models from diverse backgrounds across the workplace.  

I have taken a personal interest in particular in ensuring that we take action to promote the role of women in digital. I welcome work already underway to share actions that encourage a better gender balance in computing, science and other STEM subjects in schools, be that within formal lessons or through extra-curricular activities such as coding clubs that are sponsored so effectively by initiatives like Digital Xtra.

I also acknowledge the impact that women from all sectors are having as role models capable of debunking old stereotypes and inspiring young women to progress into a computing-related courses at college or university and ultimately into the digital workforce.  

I am determined that the Scottish Government plays a leadership role around this agenda.

We recently signed the Tech Talent Charter, giving a public commitment to increasing the diversity of our digital workforce and are investigating new approaches to recruitment, retention and the promotion of role models. A gender action group has been established by SG Learning Directorate, Education Scotland and Skills Development Scotland to tackle inequality and gender stereotyping across STEM subjects and we are building a network of Scottish employers that will take positive action to promote equality. 

Despite these actions, we still have much further to go. Research by Edinburgh Napier University in 2016 showed that only 18 per cent of those employed in digital roles across all sectors of the Scottish economy are women. There is continuing underrepresentation of women studying computing-related subjects throughout the education pipeline; a significant loss of talent that will ultimately undermine our position as a global tech hub unless we address it at pace and at scale.

The need, as ever, is for leadership: to take meaningful and sustained action to recognise talent and broaden the skills base within and across organisations; to collaborate more effectively with equality organisations to change the perception of digital as a career, and to get to a place where women are aware of and engaged with the full range of job roles available; to celebrate role models and challenge outdated attitudes; and to place diversity at the heart of Scotland’s claims to be a global tech hub.

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