Breaking Glass Ceilings and Building Bridges: A Review

Conference review

By Dilraj Sokhi-Watson

On the 15th of November 2023, for the first time post-pandemic, Equate Scotland hosted an in-person conference for early and mid-career STEM professionals. The theme of the conference was allyship. For too long, advocacy and responsibility for bringing inclusion and diversity within the workforce has inadvertently fallen on women.

Our recent research, which we will shortly be publishing, echoes what is also being identified globally, that the ‘leaky pipeline’ (the phenomena of women leaving their STEM careers), is the leakiest at the point women are five-six years into their careers, ready to embark on junior and middle management journeys.

The aim of the conference was to create a space which would inspire young women professionals to continue their STEM journeys, providing them with tools and techniques to be either be advocates of change or active supporters of their peers on this journey for there is no true diversity without inclusion of all.

In terms of allyship, the onus cannot be on the underrepresented, the onus is on the people who are in the position of power. This thinking informed the choice of our speakers for the panel discussion. A group of women, successful leaders, women that had approached their STEM careers from various vantage points- such as the traditional route or a squiggly career path and had much to offer in terms of insights.


Equate Scotland conference panel


Our panel speakers were Alex Maclaren (Strategic Projects Lead for Learning and Teaching at Heriot Watt University), Dr. Carol Marsh (Head of Digital Systems at Celestia UK), Christina MacLeod (Cluster Development Project Manager for Space Scotland and a former Equator!), Steph Wright (Head of AI Alliance) and Prof. Nazira Karodia (Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice Principal for Learning & Teaching at Edinburgh Napier University). The panel discussion was facilitated by Kathleen Hein (Director in the Product Group at World Surf League). The panellists had the opportunity to discuss their journeys and experiences of their STEM careers. Some of the key themes that emerged from the discussion-

  • Gender stereotypes still prevailed – where some of the panellists were still witnessing those in the spaces they operate in. The stereotypes range from the basic, reductive norms we are exposed to from our childhood to the institutional ones where women are expected to ‘fit’ into the system for example, by taking up golf or integrating themselves into a party culture.  Where the burden of integration lies with the women where they need to consciously unlearn behaving like males to try to fit in.
  • Tropes around how women are or how they should conduct themselves are quite prevalent- such as women being labelled as too emotional or aggressive when they are being assertive, a description not often applied to men. Interestingly one of the panellists a senior leader in their field observed that one doesn’t have to be loud. If one is clear on one’s values and methods of dealing with resistance one can be quiet and bring allies along with oneself. There might be times when one might have to shout, that too can be done in a measured and considered manner. It is possible to be assertive, without being loud.
  • The burden of inclusion always falls on the senior women leader, where they are also expected to be the expert on equality, diversity, and inclusion. While that is a responsibility which one bears throughout one’s career, we can use our voice in other ways as well, ‘your voice and that of others matter’.  In male dominated spaces, it is critical that leaders listen to women’s voices and their needs and create a good working culture which is considerate and inclusive.  It’s important to know your own strengths and how you want to be treated.
  • Pick your battles- Rome was not built in a day, consider helping good companies to grow, over trying to fix the employers with a bad culture.
  • Identify your support infrastructure and build on it- whether it is finding tools and techniques that enhance your resilience, coping mechanisms which help you deal with toxic behaviours or a mentor that will help you assess your experiences and be an ally on an onward journey.
  • Don’t forget the one’s behind you- Once you’ve reached a position of responsibility and ally, stand up for other women helping them to progress in their journeys.

After the panel discussion, three facilitated workshops provided the attendees with self-reflective tools on the following themes:

  • Understanding internalised misogyny and internalised societal prejudice, how do these make us feel, and how can we build resilience against them.
  • What impact gender stereotypes and unconscious bias have on women’s career progression, when women opt not to apply for opportunities due to negative beliefs.
  • How one can be an active bystander in situations where our peers need that advocacy support.

Equate conference workshop photoWe also launched our women’s research where the key findings mirrored findings of recent global studies.

  • Flexible work arrangements are essential to recruiting and retaining women into STEM sectors in Scotland.
  • Caring responsibilities and a lack of accommodation for access needs are driving women to leave STEM roles.
  • A large majority of respondents have faced discrimination or harassment at work.
  • Seeking accommodations for gendered health issues is a major concern.

The session was concluded by recognising the work and input of some our key allies in the space, where their work was recognised through the Equate STEMinist awards for 2023

The Equate STEMinist awards give us the chance to celebrate a person who is going above and beyond to advocate for gender equality in STEM. We put a call out for nominations for people who have taken the initiative to set up a network or organisation, mentor others, support inclusive workplaces, encourage underrepresented groups to participate in their sector, or any other work that is promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion in STEM.

Our STEMinist of the year, Dr Margi Vilnay, was nominated by three separate people for her fantastic work at the University of Dundee, working with students, leading widening access and inclusion projects, and leading the EMBEDD project.

We also gave a Special Recognition award to Professor Sally Smith from Edinburgh Napier University, who has chaired Equate’s steering committee for the last few years and who works tirelessly to get more people upskilled in computing and data.

Dr Margi Vilnay receiving STEMinist award

Dr Margi Vilnay receiving STEMinist Award


Prof Sally Smith with STEMinist award

Prof Sally Smith with Special Recognition Award

In Summary

To summarise the conference as a whole, it is important that the conversation on allyship cannot be had without the men in the room, and this thinking was voiced all throughout the conference. In terms of next steps, our key learning from the conference has been to explore how men can help improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Please watch this space, we will be exploring how men can be allies in challenging the structural causes that disadvantage the underrepresented, including women.