Talat Yaqoob

Director of Equate Scotland

Can you telling us about the organisation?

Equate Scotland has been in existence since 2006. We were firstly part of the UK Resource Centre for Women in STEM and then we became a separate organisation to align with the devolved nature of education and skills in STEM.

There are four key areas we focus on: the first being the ‘women of STEM of tomorrow’. We know that the number of women studying STEM subjects – such as computer science, data science and technology subjects – is very low. It’s around 18% studying computing studies and technology. Another problem on top of these low numbers is the isolation. On an undergraduate course of 90, there might be three, or 10, or 16 women at best – meaning that they are not the norm. Equate Scotland has the only national network of women studying STEM courses, so we bring together women from education and from all sides of the country to share their experiences and to belong. We also run the only national conference for women in STEM, which was kindly sponsored by The Data Lab and Ernst & Young this year. At the last conference, more than 100 students heard from inspiring women already in these sectors, including a panel of women who were on an all-female expedition to Antarctica.

We also provide the only paid summer placements in Scotland with 62 on offer this year with 40 technology, engineering and science employers. Every time we launch our placements we get close to 400 applications. This programme provides hands-on work experience in the industry to help overcome myths about what working in STEM means; our data tells us that if students get this type of experience during their studies, they are more likely to stay in STEM long-term. The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report last year found that 70% of women with STEM qualifications drop out from a long-term career. From those who have gone through our programme, 60% stay on in STEM jobs, so it clearly works.

The second part of our work is professional development, such as career clinics and coaching for women around issues like seeking promotion and challenging hostile working cultures. That’s all free of charge, as we do not believe in putting a financial barrier in the way of women’s progress, especially as women already experience inequality in the labour market.

The third bit, which is part of our income generation, involves training, development, consultancy and change-making. We deliver unconscious bias, equalities and inclusive recruitment training to managers and support companies to write competent gender equality strategies. If you are somewhere in Scotland, we want to work with you, and make your workplace more inclusive and somewhere women want to work and are supported to flourish. We also have our recruitment hub, which is Scotland’s first platform targeting women in STEM only, with vacancies from businesses actively trying to increase the number of women in their workplaces. We also work with businesses to write job adverts that will attract women.

The very final part of our work is a lobbying function and working with government and policy-making in relation to higher and further education equality and encouraging businesses to take positive action.


Do you work with any data sets yourself?

The data that we work with is less to do with algorithms and technological innovation, but instead focuses on social research. We conduct some of own research on the number of women in STEM and what women want from the sector. Our last big report was at the end of 2016, capturing 1,500 people and what they want from primary school programmes all the way through to the workplace. We have another piece of research coming out at the end of this year on intersecting inequalities, focusing on women of colour and women with disabilities, what they need to succeed in STEM and what the realities of their experiences in the workplace are.


Why do you think women should go in to STEM and data science?

They are the jobs of the future. The reality across Scotland in any sector is that it is becoming more technologically advanced and data rich. It’s not just traditional technological jobs; it’s areas like the health sector as well. Fields that are not traditionally seen as STEM are becoming STEM and we need to adapt to that. Our work is so important and we are determined, ensuring that women are not locked out of the jobs of tomorrow. Over the next 5 years, we’ll need 180,000 more engineers across the UK. In Scotland currently, there 12,800 technology-related opportunities annually. If we don’t engage 51% of the population, we don’t just lock out so much talent, but we harm the future economy and we will exclude the skills we need to be globally relevant.

Also, it’s about creating innovation that’s fit for purpose. Research tells us that because of human bias and largely men creating these technologies, we are embedding bias – literally man to machine – into AI and design. If we can get a more diverse work team creating the technology of tomorrow and the algorithms that inform those, we are less likely to replicate human discrimination and prejudice. For example, in healthcare, if we don’t have diverse teams understanding human biology, we will be creating medical interventions, products and services primarily designed on male bodies. We need women at the heart of the development of STEM to make the field worthy of the future and to ensure women have a place in the evolving and modernising labour force.


What do you think are the biggest challenges for Equate Scotland to achieve these targets?

Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge is that gender stereotypes are so deeply embedded – whether it’s how the media reports on women, the career advice we are given, the way we are brought up– it’s ingrained in our culture. The biggest challenge is transformation and systematic change, a sort of revolution, in how we perceive women, where girls and women are permitted to be creatives, innovators and leaders, as well as boys being able to be caring and empathetic. The second challenge is more practical. Change doesn’t happen overnight and there is no silver bullet. Talking to employers about long-term strategic change is challenging because they want change now, they have targets and bottom lines to influence. A single unconscious bias training session isn’t going to do anything. We’re interested less in singular, interventionist action and more in deeper cultural change. It’s very challenging but absolutely necessarily.


Are you feeling optimistic?

I want to do myself out of a job. If we are still talking about this in 20 years, then we have missed the boat. I’m sceptical around whether real, on the ground, long-term change is happening but I’m certainly optimistic about the change that Equate Scotland can have and I am optimistic that there are enough people in Scotland that want to genuinely do something about this.


What really excites you at the moment in your organisation?

The challenging training we deliver is getting phenomenal feedback. People can sit there with their arms folded at the beginning but by the time they’ve left, they’ve been on a bit of a journey. 90 to 95% leave saying it was very positive and they’d recommend it to someone. I take a lot of heart in that, and am very proud of our ability to facilitate challenging conversations and the willingness I’ve seen from people to engage in those. There’s learning in discomfort and we aren’t afraid in participating in that.

There are many things that are particularly exciting. Every single year, more and more employers get involved in the CareerWise placements. Also our career hub, which launched in September, has already met its annual target in the first six months. Clearly we have tapped into something Scotland needed.


Looking back, what are you proud of?

I’m hugely proud of my team. They are the most dedicated and enthusiastic women you’ll find. We also just finished a campaign called ‘This is what a STEMinist looks like’ and we had women professionals taking pictures in their workplaces. We had a woman on a rig on a boat, a woman on a wind turbine, women who were at their computers. Hundreds were submitted! This all illustrated that women don’t have to be an anomaly in STEM. Every time we received a photo in the office, we had a cheer.

How many are in the office?

There is 11 of us. It’s funny – someone will call up and say ‘can I speak to your press department?’. I say ‘speaking!’


Wow, delivering all that incredible work with just a team of 11! So what does a typical day look like for you as the Director?

There isn’t one because of all the different areas of work that we do. A typical day is probably me coming in and trying to grapple with my inbox. It’s never been at zero. (laughs)

There’s normally a catch-up with the team to see what’s going on and the events coming up. I’m normally off to a conference or event to deliver a keynote presentation to convince the public and businesses why women in STEM matter and the case for why we need more equal make-up. I hopefully get half an hour later at my desk to deal with the emails that didn’t get dealt with in the morning! I also normally have meetings with policy-makers.


What was your journey to your current work?

My degree is in Psychology and Biological Sciences. I got involved in political campaigning. For the past 10 or so years, I’ve worked in social justice campaigns, social research and external affairs, equality issues in the third sector. The causes have included mental health stigma, equal opportunities in education, women’s rights.


Do you have any tips for women and girls who would like to go in to STEM?

Seek out women and girls like you so you don’t feel alone. That isolation means that girls are less likely to pursue STEM careers. Contact and engage with organisations that offer support mechanisms and networking and peer support functions to help women feel that even if they are in a minority, that won’t always be the case. The final tip would be – everyone around you has imposter syndrome! Everyone is talking the talk. If someone acts like they know everything and they’re extremely confident, they don’t and they aren’t – they are good at performing in certain ways and pretending they are.


What do you or what does Equate Scotland do to relax when the working day is done?

We have a book club in the organisation. Sometimes I show up and I haven’t read it, shhh! (laughs) It’s an excuse to get together and have cheese and wine. We recently read Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ and Caroline Criado-Perez’s ‘Invisible Women’.


Do you have any STEM heroines?

Every year, we produce a list of leading women in STEM past, present and future. Whilst we have established heroines, some heroines are returners, or coming up through the ranks as students and graduates.

Image of Talat Yaqoob
Talat Yaquoob, interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Fields that are not traditionally STEM are becoming STEM. We are determined that women are not locked out of the jobs of tomorrow

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