Menu
Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe

Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine

Subscribe

Subscribe to Holyrood
by Sofia Villegas
22 December 2023
Top Women in Tech 2023: Dr Hina Khan

Top Women in Tech 2023: Dr Hina Khan

Scotland’s space sector aims to become one of the big players in Europe, and Dr Hina Khan was appointed Space Scotland’s first executive director last year to help accelerate the growth and collaboration needed towards meeting that ambition. With a long and impressive curriculum in the industry, she spoke to Holyrood Connect as one of Holyrood’s Top Women in Tech 2023.  

Khan has over 25 years of experience in the sector, having worked with NASA and the European Space Agency. She also served as head of UK stakeholder engagement at space-based data and analytics firm Spire. 

Khan talked about how a telescope sparked her interest in the industry and called for a strategy to raise awareness of the opportunities within the sector to bridge the skills gap.  

 

Why did you decide to go into the space sector? 

It was just something that I was always excited about. As I went through school and high school, it was something I got more and more interested in. I would get astronomy magazines, and I get very excited about things. I lived in a rural-ish community, and I got a telescope when I was about 14-15 years old, and it excited me. Then exploring the idea that I could do something with this progressed into what I wanted to do at university as I always wanted to do something that I enjoyed.  

I enjoyed studying and researching. So, I thought, what are the possibilities to take this a little bit farther? And decided to go to university to do a physics and astronomy degree. But, yes, from my teenage years, I wanted to do something along the science lines. 

Who was your biggest influence going into the sector? 

I took it one step at a time. My family always encouraged me to do the things that I enjoyed doing. I was always allowed to go in any direction.

Then, when I was at university, I started meeting like-minded people, and seeing there were opportunities in that field that I hadn't realised. Some key professors at the university believed in what I could do and achieve, and they helped open some doors for my career. Then, throughout my career, some individuals helped me move forward so I just took those opportunities as they presented themselves. 

And would you say that during your academic years, you felt as supported as your male counterparts to take opportunities within the sector? 

That's an interesting question, and I think it varies at different points in my career. At the beginning, I felt no difference. I was quite fortunate academically, and where I fell a little bit short, there was always that backing of ‘we know that you can do this’.  

As I went through and got my PhD at the University of Leicester, I started to get into more of a competition-based environment. Obviously, when you're going through your academic and educational framework, you're just going along at your own pace. As soon as you start to have a competitive environment for jobs or research fellowships, it all becomes trickier.  

I didn't feel hindered, but maybe I wasn't as aware of some of the opportunities that others were getting, as I didn't realise that they were there. It was more a case that I felt I was doing things I needed to do but that there were also other things other people were doing that I didn't have visibility of. So, it's a weird scenario - you feel that you're doing everything you need to do, but actually, it might not be along the same track as other people.  

I can imagine circumstances, now having retrospectively thought about it, where there were probably opportunities that perhaps I didn't see or have visibility of or were not necessarily there when I needed them. 

What are the biggest challenges the industry is facing right now? 

I think the tech sector and the science sector as a whole have some key challenges - skills being a major challenge at the moment. It’s a global challenge across a multitude of sectors.  

We must make sure there's enough input into the industries from our younger colleagues but that there is also a translation of skills from other sectors. So, people who want to move into other areas, and don't realise that they have skills that allow them to. Having those translational skills and an appreciation of where to use them. 

The other challenge on skills is ensuring that our young people have visibility of the opportunities available in sectors, which they hadn't considered before. The space sector, within the UK and in Scotland specifically, is relatively new in terms of visibility. It's been around for a long time, but not as a mainstream career path.

These are key challenges that are not going to get solved overnight. It will take a multi-pronged approach to support the skills base so it grows and creates a workforce that will be there in 10 years for the industries growing today. 

Do you believe there is a certain area that needs to be the focal point of training at the moment? 

Again, many of the skills we look for are not exclusive to our sector. Generally, there's quite a lot of crossover between other tech sectors, which could be applicable in different areas. So, training to ensure that from the ground up, young people and the incumbents in these fields can translate some of those skills into other areas. As a focal point, an awareness of those skills and an understanding of where to use them. 

And should digital skills be further embedded into the school curriculum? 

Yes, but I think it shouldn't just be digital skills. I think it's an awareness of how to use STEM that the education framework needs to include more of.  

We're fortunate that our sector is vibrant and growing so we want to ensure that our young people have up-to-date and more accurate information about what is possible within these environments. So, absolutely, digital skills. But also software analysis, software development, precision tooling, machining, and an understanding of how to use data and derive insights from it.  

Do you believe the gender gap has widened, remained the same, or closed slightly over the years?  

Yes, again, I think it's different depending on where you look at it, it varies depending on the different stages of young people's career paths. If I go into a primary school, there's no shortage of excitement when you talk about STEM and space. Two things that primary school children get particularly excited about are space and dinosaurs. You never go into school to talk about space and not have everyone enthralled. The engagement is there. Then you go into high schools, and it becomes very process-driven - there are examinations, testing, assessments, etc. So, the young people's experience has gone from something quite fun and exciting to something very rigid. It almost takes the fun out of it. It takes that element of creativity and excitement that those young children had into something practical, and that's a little bit unfortunate.  

Nonetheless, in some courses, if you look at data science or earth observation, there's almost a 50/50 split between young women and men in an undergraduate classroom. But that 50/50 split is not evident within the industry. Something happens between young people going through universities, coming out with a degree or a vocational course, and then going into the workplace. And so, in the workplace, there's still a gender-diverse agenda mismatch.  

It's better but I hesitate to use that word, because better is not great. If you had one person, and now you have three out of 40 - it's better, but it's still not great. There's still a long way to go. 

And what do you think the impacts in the sector will be if the skills gap isn't bridged? 

It's a global challenge so we must find a global solution. Controversially, I might say there's not really a skills gap, but a mismatch of skills to the requirements from industry.  You could say that globally, the skills are there, but we're not matching them up in the right way. If we look at the Far East, there are a lot of tech skills coming out but are they getting the visibility of opportunities that perhaps would allow them to take those skills into industries in more affluent countries?  

I think there may be some element of mismatching going on. Some of it is also geopolitical - that's something we can't get away from. Some of it is non-sector specific, in terms of social movement - so, ensuring that those individuals from various places can move into areas of tech-specific skill sets. It's a huge challenge that absolutely needs to be addressed. The sector as well as other sectors will suffer if we don't make that connection across those areas. 

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Sofia Villegas - Scottish space firm secures multi-million pound funding for ‘critical’ development.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Subscribe

Popular reads
Back to top