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International Women’s Day | Q&A with SDS’s Digital Skills Team

Michael Behr

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skills

Tech needs you! There are many reasons to pursue a career in tech, and companies working in digital fields need a wide range of skills and experience.

With digital transformation comes a need for new skills. The likes of coding, cybersecurity, and software development, are all needed to drive modern society.

However, with some of these fields being barely decades old, there is a notable skills gap between what is needed and what the workforce can do. As such, getting new talent into the workforce is paramount.

There are challenges to this. One of them is the lack of women in the tech sector. When faced with a skills gap, neglecting 50% of the population means failing to develop an enormous pool of talent.

As part of International Women’s Day, DIGIT spoke with Skills Development Scotland’s Digital Skills Team to find out about how they built their careers in the tech sector.

These are the group’s Digital Technologies Sector Skills Manager Claire Gillespie; Cyber Skills Project Manager Laura McEwan; Digital Skills Project Manager Debbie McCutcheon; and Cyber Skills Project Executive Roz Denham.


Have there been any positive role models that helped you in your career?

Gillespie: I don’t think I was aware of it at the time but looking back I was fortunate to work in a lot of gender-balanced teams, and have for most of my career had female line managers. Being surrounded by women holding management and senior positions meant that it never occurred to me that I couldn’t progress with these organisations, and achieve what I wanted to.

McEwan: In my instance, it was my father. He has always encouraged me to do what I love and seek out opportunities and new experiences. His work ethic, his humility and his zest for life is the reason, even now, I consider him my No. 1 role model and someone I always aspire to be like. He taught me that gender, race, sexuality or any other label should never be a barrier to achieving your full potential.

McCutcheon: My first job after university was in a tech startup that had developed a product targeting the construction industry. I knew nothing about technology nor construction.

My boss was an amazing, strong, determined and kind woman. She taught me, very quickly, never to second guess myself and always believe that I had the ability to do whatever I put my mind to. At first, I struggled with this but after working with her for four years my skills and confidence grew massively. I ended up working for her again a few years later, again in the tech sector working with SMEs.

Denham: I have been fortunate to have had a diverse career to date from Mechanical Services Assistant to a Prison Custody Officer.

Along the way, I have experienced many colleagues who have supported and encouraged me to reach my potential. Many probably wouldn’t identify themselves as a role model, but you should never overlook how much a little acknowledgment, recognition or even constructive criticism means!


How has the level of diversity in your workplace changed over your carer, and are attitudes different?

Gillespie: Yes definitely. Not long after I started in my current role, I entered a room for a meeting which I was chairing and one of the all-male attendees asked me to get him a coffee. I assume he thought that as the only female in the room that I was someone’s assistant!

Now eight years on I just cannot imagine that situation ever happening. And it is really unusual to be in a meeting which is either all male or female as there is generally a much better balance in the workplace, and not just of gender but diversity of age and background. People don’t all dress the same, haven’t all gone to university and don’t always share the same opinions, which I think is massive progress.

McEwan: I have seen a shift, particularly in the last 10 years where the level of diversity has changed. I see far more women at management and board level now for example, and this is more common particularly in the technology sector which is great to see.

McCutcheon: In my first job in tech, over 20 years ago, I never really questioned the fact that there were very few woman around; in the business, the building, on the phone, email, anywhere!

Today it’s totally different, with a lot more focus on encouraging diversity across all roles, which has been amazing. Sitting in large meetings now with almost a 50/50 gender split still makes me smile.

Denham: I’ve seen more and more businesses encourage flexible working hours and the option to work from home. Skills Development Scotland has been a champion in this area and ensures equality and fair work principles are at the heart of everything we do.


Is there anything you can point to that has helped change attitudes?

Gillespie: For technology we have some amazing role models in people like Gillian Docherty who is now CEO of Data Lab. And through programmes that work in schools we have a huge network of female ambassadors who inspire young girls and young people about working in the industry. Being able to showcase talented tech females is important, but I think it is broader than this and there has been a step change in society and diversity is no longer just seen as the right thing to do but as a real positive and one which can bring business benefit.

I also think some of the things which have changed to support diversity in the workplace are a positive for everyone – for example who wouldn’t want to benefit from flexible working practices?

McEwan: There is less societal pressure of women now as there was 30+ years ago. When I had my son many years ago, I went back to work quite quickly and I was the main earner, and thankfully I was encouraged and supported to be able to do this and I think that’s a big momentous shift in our thinking. Things like equal working rights and workplace benefits has also meant that the financial burden of juggling life with work is easier to achieve.

McCutcheon: If I’m honest, this change in attitude isn’t something that I truly became aware of until I started working at Skills Development Scotland.

There has been amazing work done to tackle the gender balance in the tech sector by encouraging more women by highlighting the variety of roles and that many women have great transferable skills, as well as the flexibility and part time options of roles. This along with getting more girls into tech at school level has been fantastic.

Denham: Until I came into my current role, I didn’t appreciate there was such a gender imbalance in the tech sector. A lot of work has been carried out by Skills Development Scotland and partners to try and tackle this issue. We now have the Tackling the Technology Gender Gap Together report which will help produce a gender imbalance action plan.

A key feature of the action plan is that it will provide a framework for partners to collaborate and jointly implement actions which will contribute to an increased number of women studying and working in digital technology.


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What advice would you give to other women looking to enter tech?

Gillespie: That you don’t have to focus on the tech, but instead what the tech can do. For me the most exciting thing about technology is the difference it can make to people, to our economy and to our planet.

Covid-19 is a current example of how powerful data science can be to developing healthcare solutions, but this is just one of many amazing applications of tech. For example, we have just partnered on a schools programme called Save the Rhino which is about using technology to help save the environment.

I would also tell everyone that tech is no longer optional, we are very much in a digital economy and it is important we all take the opportunities to learn technology skills.

McEwan: Just do it. It’s such a diverse and growing sector and there are so many opportunities available. It also doesn’t matter where you are in life, whether you are at school and wondering whether to take the leap and study Software Development at College or Uni but worry you will be the only female in the class (you won’t be!), or maybe you are looking to change career but don’t know if you’ve left it too late (you haven’t).

McCutcheon: Go for it! You won’t regret it and will without doubt enjoy the challenge and excitement of the sector as it’s always changing.

Remember to focus on what you bring to the table and why you were recruited to do the job. You are part of whatever they are building or delivering, and you want to be part of their success. So, speak up!

There are loads of great ‘Women in Tech’ type networking events online and, hopefully again soon, in person, these are great to broaden your network or to be inspired by the amazing women working in tech, women empowering other women can really make the difference in staying in the tech industry.

Denham: You won’t know if you like it unless you try it! And don’t choose a career path because it feels like a safe choice. Finding something you love to do and that keeps you interested is much more fulfilling.

While we don’t have the ability to predict the future, we can offer speculations on technology’s evolution. We are constantly seeing emerging media and new trends in technology to follow.

Look at how technology has evolved in the past 10 years? Where will we be in another 10-20 years’ time? How exciting to be a part of this!

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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