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Eleanor Mitchell, high growth ventures director at Scottish Enterprise, shares her thoughts on the landscape for women today at senior levels and how this is changing for the better.

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A few months ago I had a conversation with the chairman of one of Scotland’s Innovation Centres. These technology-focused organisations have their work directed by boards with industrial and academic representatives from the scientific area they represent. 

The chairman had a couple of vacancies that he wanted to fill with people who would add a new perspective to his board, and he was looking to balance the diversity too. His problem was that despite reaching out into his wide network he couldn’t find women with the experience for which he was looking who wanted to take a position on his board. He wondered if I could point him in the direction of someone who could help.

This is a wider problem than just one board in Scotland looking to fill a non-executive position. 

The challenge

Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professions are under-represented at board levels across the world – in Silicon Valley there’s an average of just 7.1% female board directors. And the issue isn’t just at board level. Fewer than one in five of London’s Silicon Roundabout bosses are women and only 11% of tech firms in Europe are led by women.

This is all the more surprising as representation of women in some of the STEM professions is significantly higher than might be expected and may be a reflection of the focus on promoting STEM subjects to girls in schools over the last few years. 

Women make up 52% of the Scottish population, but in life sciences make up 63% of the workforce. However, this drops dramatically to 17% at director level. ICT does better at 29% of directors, but this doesn’t get close to what we should be seeing. And it’s even worse in the Engineering and Mathematics areas.

The solution

We need to tackle this issue at both ends by:

  • Encouraging more women to take the leadership route and offer them the mentoring and experience to support them
  • Working with boards, and in particular chairs and CEOs, to demonstrate the benefits of diversity and encourage practical solutions to help companies to change attitudes and working practices to enable this  

There are many organisations that are there to assist with this, and with the Scottish Government’s commitment to achieving 50% representation of women on public sector Boards by 2020, now is a great time to have the discussion.  

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