As we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2021 we take the time to learn and grow from inspirational women in STEM who are all around us. We hope by engaging in these conversations we can promote positive change and make STEM careers accessible for more women.
In the first of our ‘Celebrating Women in STEM’ series we sat down with recently appointed CEO of ScotlandIS, Karen Meechan. In the run up to ScotSoft Karen very kindly took time out to share her experiences and aspirations to encourage more people into the world of tech. Highlighting that it’s not all about being great at or liking maths, if individuals are creative they could do web design, or if you like psychology then try working in UX, or if you’re inquisitive look into the role of ethical hackers.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your background and career to date? What attracted you to the STEM sector and what do you think makes it a good place for women?
I left school at 17 and started my first job as an office junior working for a training company in Edinburgh helping people who were unemployed start and run their own businesses. They gave me an old word perfect desk top computer, I’m not sure it had ever been switched, no one knew how to use it. So I taught myself. I left when I married and moved to NEC working with the engineering department, when that closed I worked for a start-up focused on commercialising near to market nano tech from within universities. From there I came ScotlandIS initially looking after the membership, one of my first tasks was selling tables for ScotSoft, back in 2004 we had 280 guests attend, eventually I prised the event from Polly and with her support and the rest of the ScotlandIS team we have over 1400 delegates attend now.
I moved through the organisation eventually taking the role of Chief Operating Officer which I held for 3 years and more recently took up the position of CEO.
I’m not sure there was an attraction initially to the tech sector, it was a very new sector back in the day but when I look back at my career I’ve always worked in/with tech companies. I’ve worked with and for a number of very talented/supportive women in this sector who encourage each other to strive for success, the opportunities are vast – I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Q. Has there been anyone who has made a positive and lasting impression on your career? How can we learn from this person and their approach?
Polly Purvis most definitely. Polly supported and continues to support me at ScotlandIS both professionally and personally. She believed in and encourage me to excel in anything I/we did as a team.
Q. Is there a clear difference in your experiences of being a female in the sector at the beginning of your career and now?
No, maybe it was the job I was doing initially, but I’ve always felt supported by the sector as a whole. I’ve never experienced anything other than encouragement to succeed and I’ve been very lucky to work with various senior colleagues from across the Scottish tech sector who didn’t care what gender I was just that we were doing a good job.
Q. If you were with a group of peers this evening and talking openly about this topic, what would be the key issues discussed?
Skills, how do I encourage more women/girls into the tech sector. How do I show them the opportunities they can access, the careers that await them. It’s not all about being great at or liking maths, if they’re creative come do web design, like psychology work in UX, if you’re inquisitive come be an ethical hacker. There are so many pathways and roles we just need to be better at highlighting them.
Q. What role do you think other colleagues have in helping organisations achieve greater gender balance?
I think everyone has a role and responsibility to promote and encourage greater gender balance and inclusion across the board in every organisation. The innovation and critical thinking that comes from a diverse group of colleagues is invaluable. We have worked hard over the years to ensure we had a 50/50 split across our board and within the team, the team is a little imbalanced at the moment but we are recruiting so hopefully we’ll be able to even it up.
Q. How do you think COVID-19 has impacted gender diversity in STEM and the capacity to fulfil potential?
I don’t think we know yet, I do think there’s been lots of work going on during the pandemic on diversity and inclusion certainly across our membership. There is clearly far more to do, we need to work at grass roots levels, ensure we’re encouraging and signposting young women/girls to the opportunities in STEM. We need to capture their imagination and interest from an early age. Not all are put off by the tech sector, many just don’t have the opportunity to get involved at primary school, by high school we’re losing their interest.
Q. Who do you think are the most inspiring women in STEM today?
There are a huge number of very inspirational women working in STEM, not all necessarily in technical roles. Maggie Morrison, Director, Hi55 Ventures has had a huge influence on me over the years (she doesn’t know this). She has held very senior roles in a predominantly male dominated industry and has gained the respect and trust of those she works with, for and supports. Thank you Maggie.
Of course there are the women I work with Nicola Taylor, Head of Operations, ScotlandIS and Ciara Mitchell, Head of Cyber. Both very hard working mums who impact the sector hugely, Nicola succeeds in everything she touches and Ciara is leading the way in cyber for Scotland. Both are innovators, inspirational and determined to help the sector and the businesses within it succeed.
I could list dozens which is a great thing to be able to say and thankfully I get to work with them all.