Cathy Mitchell

Assistant Director, Scottish Funding Council

Can you tell us about your journey to your current role?
I took a roundabout way to get to where I am, like most people do. My undergraduate was in Law at the University of Edinburgh but I quickly realised the lawyer career was not for me. I then stayed on at the University of Edinburgh and did a Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice. I was really interested in prison sector reform and reducing the prison population.

I then went travelling for a couple of years, mostly in Australia. When I returned I realised that working in prisons was not what I wanted to do, which is when I found the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), who are the Scottish Government agency responsible for funding colleges and universities in Scotland. While I was applying for grad jobs I took up a temporary position in the European Social Funding team at SFC and become interested in the work of the analytical team and the huge amounts of data they used.
I got a permanent job here and got SAS software training, data publication training and I also completed another MSc in Social Research which tied everything together for me – a social policy angle and data and programming skills. Shortly after, I became head of one of the data teams and focused on making the most of the huge amount of higher and further education sector data we hold.

About a year ago, I took up another promoted position. Right now I am an Assistant Director with responsibility for the south of Scotland. I’ve maintained a lot of interest in the work I was doing in the analytical team, remaining engaged in UK-wide education data, and still supervising the data student placement projects which I started at SFC.

Can you tell us more about the datasets that you work with?
An organisation called the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) collects all the university student data for the UK – who the students are, what they study, who qualifies and where they go after graduation – we receive all of that data. The college data for students in Scotland is collected in-house at the SFC and that’s the same kind of profiles – what courses they took, how well they did. It’s around 300,000 enrolments per year in colleges and 250,000 students per year in universities. These span about 25 years so that gives you an idea of the breath of our data sets.

What do you find to be the most exciting part of your current role?
I’m now working in a role focused on the south of Scotland. The Scottish government is investing a lot in developing the region so there’s a lot that’s new and changing and part of that is developing further and higher education. That is so exciting and it’s particularly steering towards digital delivery and tech. For example, both colleges in the region recently secured £6.6m to develop a digital Skills and Learning Network and Borders College are involved in digital skills and data science up-skilling projects through the Data Driven Innovation Fund.

In terms of data, it’s an exciting time to be working in education because data is being used in new ways like never before. For one example, the UK Government Department for Education (DfE) is now linking student data with tax records to report on graduate earnings, allowing us to assess things like the effect of gender on salary controlling for degree subject and award. There’s a huge amount of data innovation and it’s a fantastic time to be in the sector.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for women in data?
I think it’s the persisting perception of things that men and women are ‘meant’ to do. I’ve got a really big sporting background, so really early on I was aware of gender differences in sport in terms of how men and women are treated and I’ve always had that motivation to promote equality. Working in data analysis, I am really aware of when I’m the only female in the room or when people make assumptions about the type of work I do.

I find it really interesting that there is better gender balance in STEM subjects that have a link with society. Women are much more likely to be in these fields, not because they’re less capable in other areas, but because there are fewer barriers and it feels more compatible with their outlooks. This was my way into working in the sector and because I love working in data, and because of how interesting I find it, I love seeing bright, young women having the opportunities I did.

What would you recommend to women and girls who would like to be in your position?
Don’t be so afraid to show off – or what you may feel like is showing off. Men are so much better at saying “look at all this work I did”. Women could be doing the same work and not talk about it. Don’t be scared to self-promote. You’ll always feel self-conscious when you first start off at something but you’ll get over it!

Overall, would you say your work is supportive of women?
Definitely yes overall. We have great flexible working policies and a strong theme of promoting equality, but this is another reason why I’m interested in focusing on women in data and tech. People can assume that everything is fine and there are no inequalities between men and women.

I guess because people don’t think about it as much as they should, it becomes invisible. We should be more aware of it to tackle that lack of understanding that still exists in specific fields and for specific groups of women.

What do you look forward to in your work and in the field?
We work in an area where you can actually have impact and improve the academic experience. For example, right now I’m excited about a project that is analysing student drop-out and retention which is brilliant because better understanding of why students drop out could help prevent it. I look forward to the positive changes that data can inform, and to building the personal and organisational capacity to allow this to happen,

What do you think are the benefits of your line of work for women and girls?
It’s such an exciting field to work in because the analytical teams at SFC cover almost all policy areas and are involved in so much of the work of the Council. There really is never a dull moment. I learned so much working in the analytical team and had the opportunity to find out the areas I was most interested in.

There are also lots of opportunities to continue to learn further analytical skills. After five years I know my learning is far from over. These skills are transferable too, and in high demand. The opportunities for progression are another benefit, and one that it would be great to see women benefit from.

To finish off, do you have a fun fact or a hero or heroine to share?
Hero – Becky Hammon [assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the second female assistant coach in NBA history]. She’s achieved so much and I really admire how hard she has worked and the risks she’s taken to get where she is.

Image of Cathy Mitchell
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Because I love working in data – and because of how interesting I find it – I love seeing bright, young women having the opportunities I did

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