Blog by Douglas Morrison, STEM and Innovation Lead at City of Glasgow College

Graph showing Proportional Representation of Women on Mechanical Engineering Courses (HE) at COGC

I am often asked how we have been able to implement positive action strategies to encourage more balanced gender representation on STEM programmes at City of Glasgow College. Common concerns include:

  • The legal status of positive action
  • How to engage and support students who have not previously engaged in the subject area
  • Differences between positive action and positive discrimination.

Positive action is legal under the Equality Act of 2010 provided that there is an evidence-based under-representation of people with a shared protected characteristic, and where barriers are connected to that characteristic. In the case of our women-only engineering programme at the college we were able to demonstrate that women were disproportionally under-represented in engineering programmes. Feedback from girls and women attending the college on open days and careers events identified the three most common perceived barriers to engagement in STEM programmes as:

  1. Lack of awareness/engagement relating to career options
  2. Entry into a male-dominated environment
  3. Concerns relating to securing employment.

By combining statistical evidence on proportional representation from the Scottish Funding Council with this feedback, we were able to demonstrate that positive action strategies were appropriate.

Robot lab imageWe also considered how best to engage and support students on our women-only programmes into mainstream (mixed-gender) courses. This is a vital consideration in ensuring the intervention is on firm legal ground. To do this we clearly signposted routes into higher levels of study and/or employment and worked closely with EQUATE Scotland who provided careers advice and mentoring support during the transition to mainstream education.

I occasionally receive contact from parents who feel that their son could be disadvantaged by the associated reduction in places on mixed-gender programmes. These can often be difficult conversations and there is rarely an easy answer, particularly if the parent’s son has been unsuccessful in gaining a place on a programme.

The places on our women-only courses are additional to our planned mainstream programmes. We can therefore demonstrate that our approach presents no detriment to potential students of any protected characteristic. This is the fundamental difference between positive action and positive discrimination. Positive discrimination relates to the preferential treatment of a group which does not meet the positive action conditions detailed below:

  1. Ensure there is an evidence base to demonstrate the justification for positive action
  2. Ensure the evidence is reviewed on a regular basis and incorporate a ‘sunset clause’
  3. Ensure there is a clear focus on mainstreaming.

Equality of opportunity and outcomes is vitally important if we are to realise our ambitions to be an inclusive, fair and equal society. The business, legal and moral cases for diversity are well documented and compelling. I believe that Scotland’s Colleges will play a vital role in ensuring that career pathways into STEM are available to everyone. Positive action strategies are not the only answer; indeed they are only suitable in a small number of cases. However, where implemented appropriately they can have a significant impact in tackling gender inequality.

This blog is part of a series of contributions by the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Tapping All Our Talents Review 2018. 

Graph showing Survey of 14-16 year old female pupils with interest in engineering