Clare Adamson MSP

Member for the Scottish Parliament

Your Wikipedia page says your background is in computing. Can you tell us more about that?
Oh yes, the Wikipedia page – I don’t even know who writes that! I need to check it to make sure it’s correct (laughs). But that is right. I studied for a BSc Computer Information Systems at what was Glasgow College of Technology at the time. It was a four-year degree with a sandwich year and I was delighted that I graduated in the top three of the class.

Was computing at that time supportive of women?
It’s very interesting because I had an opportunity to go to other universities and went along to the open days. What struck me is that there were only three women at the Glasgow open day and about the same demographic at Strathclyde. However, the College of Technology had a 50:50 intake policy and their open day just felt so welcoming. The atmosphere, or what was being presented, appealed to me. The programme also had the opportunity to study psychology, economics or accounting as part of the business element of that degree. That diversity was particularly appealing.

Can you tell us more about the IT roles you had prior to your current job?
Initially, I was working for Glasgow City Council; I was a COBOL programmer. After the Council, I moved in to logistics companies. IT took me in to so many different areas of work. Eventually, I worked in consultancy with long-term contracts at big organisations. I then managed an IT company in Glasgow called McLaren Consulting – an information and data management company. I was privileged to have a wonderful career with lots of opportunities to work in different types of organisations.
McLaren had expanded quite lot and like many IT companies after receiving lots of investment, probably expanded a bit too quickly. I was asked to leave during a wave of redundancy – and that is when I joined the SNP headquarters and became the project manager of the Activate system, the first web-based election campaigning programme. The SNP then moved in to minority government for the first time.

Do you still have involvement with IT in your current role as an MSP?
In terms of the big questions around computing, technology and data – where we are going as a society – yes. I’m very interested in the questions surrounding big data and algorithms. Wherever I go, I vocally and pro-actively promote science and technology as a fantastic career path. The fourth industrial revolution is around the corner; we need a highly skilled and productive workforce. We know that IT is one of the areas where there is a skills gap problem. We have to move away from people thinking that IT is only for certain types of people. IT offers so many opportunities, such as travelling around the world, being involved in fascinating socially-conscious projects and working at the pinnacle of innovation and change. IT has the potential for all of that. The varied experiences in my IT career show the wealth of opportunities that are available.

What was the best opportunity you had in your career?
When I joined SNP HQ, it was a very small IT team so I had the opportunity to go around the country training. This meant I met lots of people – many of whom are now Parliamentary or council colleagues. This has been an invaluable network of support and advice.
I often wished I had gone back to formal education at some point – experience in IT always seemed more valuable although now I’d still be interested in studying the ethics of AI.

Can you tell us a bit about the work you do as an MSP?
I convene the Education and Skills Committee in Parliament. We are doing a STEM inquiry at the moment assessing the government’s STEM strategy to ensure it is fit for the evolving economy of Scotland. I’ve been working with educators in Scotland during this, from early years through to universities and colleges, to draw on their expertise and professional insights, which was been fascinating. I’m part of a group of people pressuring policy-makers who make decisions about spending to ensure that IT and STEM are central to these decisions.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in terms of gender equality when it comes to the STEM strategy?
I find that a very interesting question. Basically, at the time I was studying, I deliberately chose an environment that was diverse and supportive of women. They are out there. However, as I moved into industry I realised that isn’t matched everywhere you go and I was shocked at how much of a male dominated discipline it is. It’s also concerning that the number of women in IT has gone down as time has gone on. What has happened there?
One of the things I loved about my degree, and that educators and educational institutions can learn from, is that it was not just about learning skills but what you can do with those skills.
I know that one challenge is role models. We have to get out there and show young women it is a great opportunity and it brings with it many benefits. IT can offer an amazing career; it’s highly productive and well paid. Other jobs, like those in the care sector – where the workforce is predominantly female – are highly stressful and can have long term health implications.
I always say to young women – whatever it is you’re interested in, if you study IT, you can do it, and be in those environments. The skills you develop through the study of IT are highly transferable. There are IT projects in a host of different areas and it’s an extremely exciting place to be.

What would you recommend to women and girls who would like to be in the roles you’ve had?
The opportunities are there and the support is there. There are amazing organisations out that will give you that foot on the ladder and also help you to keep climbing, like Equate Scotland, who support STEM women. There is a STEM ambassadors programme, who can support and mentor women through the processes of a STEM career. Whether it’s gaming, Fintech or health services, the world is your oyster with transferable skills like IT. Women must know that the doors are open for them in Scotland.
I say to young women, go and look for it; it is there for you in Scotland. If at any point it becomes tough, which I know it can be from my own career, there are people out there who understand and will support you.

What is your vision for Scotland in terms of inclusive innovation and women being involved in the emerging data science economy?
There was a really good report released by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, ‘Automatic…For the People?’ and it tells us that robotics is going to have an impact on literally every aspect of our lives and Scotland has an opportunity to lead in that area. We need to make sure the education and the methodology is there to ensure that people are actually taking up those opportunities.
That’s what I find so exciting about your work – the Data-Driven Innovation aspect of the City Region Deal is connecting people with the government’s vision. That to me is what it’s all about. Also, making Edinburgh the data capital of Europe. Wow, what a fantastic ambition. We need to make sure as many people, and women, are part of that process.

Is there anything you wish you could do more of in your role as MSP?
It’s a privilege to be an MSP because I can get involved in so many areas of my interests! I need work that is closely aligned to my interests and passions. I am in a cross-party parliamentary group for Science and Technology. I am the Vice-Chair of the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre. These roles allow me to promote STEM in schools, which is a part of my role that is very fulfilling – especially seeing that met with widespread enthusiasm from teachers and schoolchildren. On Friday, I was at a STEM celebration at the Science Centre, which had over 50 schools and hundreds of pupils, and they were showing off their amazing projects in robotics and data security. It was electric. I wish I could be out seeing that enthusiasm all the time because it really inspires me!

What do you look forward to in your job?
The STEM inquiry is very exciting. We haven’t looked at the strategy after its launch in such detail before. We are addressing inequality and inclusion within that. We are hoping that work will reveal new opportunities and advice we can share with government and people in Scotland.

Can you share a hero, heroine and a fun fact about yourself?
Oh, goodness! My favourite scientist is Richard Feynman. That is to do with my age – he just captured me with his work and particularly how he uncovered the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986. I loved that struggle for truth and to really understand things. He has died now, but someone runs a Twitter feed with his quotes that I follow. He was so inspirational for young people. He talked often about how it’s ok not to know things.
My fun fact – here’s a joke, I love them. There are ten types of people in life, those who understand binary and those who don’t!

And what do you do when the working day is done?
I am so lucky that my family share a love of folk music so being able to relax and play together, at home or at a session, is a very special experience. And I love walking my dog Coco!

Image of Clare Adamson
Picture by Lesley Martin, interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Whether it’s gaming, Fintech or health services, the world is your oyster with transferable skills like IT. Women must know that the doors are open for them in Scotland

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