Celebrating Women in STEM - in conversation with Toni Scullion

about 1 month ago by Gillian Williamson
Celebrating Women In Stem Toni Scullion Blog

The energy and enthusiasm that Toni Scullion brought to this interview was contagious! Toni Scullion, is a Computing Science teacher and founder of the charity dressCode*. Gillian Williamson, Marketing Manager, chatted to Toni as part of our 'Celebrating Women in STEM' series to discuss the booming tech sector, and the critical importance of joining the dots from education to industry, working collaboratively to close the gender gap and encouraging more girls into computing science.

*dressCode is a charity which is aiming to inspire as many pupils as possible into computer science, but has a particular focus on closing the gender gap.

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 was attracted to computer science from a young age when I got my first computer. I still remember messing about with it and changing the background colour of a page by accident, simply by editing code. My friend and I didn't realise at the time but we were learning HTML and CSS, and we created our own little dictionary. The wonder, joy and excitement of realising that if you changed a few lines of code you could make the computer do something, that feeling is something I still remember today. I would love to bottle that feeling and spread it out to all pupils in Scotland, across the world! Working in computer science, and the wider STEM community is the future and you can make such a positive difference to so many people's lives.

I currently work at St Kentigern’s Academy in West Lothian which has high areas of deprivation and when you show videos of tech they tend to be placed abroad. There are lots of kids who haven’t had the opportunity to go abroad. So, when I talk about a career in tech it is easy to see how this can be quite daunting and potentially feel unachievable. However, it's great to be able to let them know that there are global brands on their doorstep including Oracle, Adobe, SBRC, Sky, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley.

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?

Yes, I have been very fortunate that I have had role models who have nurtured me and inspired me through all my education. From the very beginning Mr. Donoghue, my computer science teacher from high school, was so passionate about the subject and just made me love computing. My Dad, he bought my first computer so I've got a lot to thank him for, and being lucky enough to have a computer in the house.

My college lecturer Chris Sinclair. She was incredibly supportive and encouraged me when I doubted myself. Seeing her being so great and confident really made me want to aspire to be a college lecturer. She was the first person that inspired me to work in education and help the next generation of young kids. Hazel Hall, my dissertation advisor at university. I owe her so much, she believed in me and helped give me confidence and was in total awe of what she had achieved in her career. It reinforced the notion that I wanted to teach and help kids.

David Muir who trained me to be a teacher during my postgraduate. He was fantastic, and you will never meet another person like David! He made me desperate to get into the classroom to start teaching. I am so thankful I met him as he has helped shape me into the teacher I am today.

And working with incredible colleagues, I've been so fortunate to work with incredible colleagues particularly Brendan McCart. He has been a mentor and role model for me, he inspires me every day.

My pupils inspired me all the time. Particularly the Turing’s Testers who came to me about the lack of girls at a cyber security competition and their willingness and desire to do something about it. From this dressCode founded the Turing’s Testers all thanks to them. What an inspiration!

I've been really fortunate to have both male and female role models throughout my life. What I have learned from them is their openness to listen to new ideas and approaches, they have supported my wild ideas and have been enablers rather than putting up barriers. I try to bring this attitude into the classroom.

Q. Is there a clear difference in your experiences of being a female in the sector at the beginning of your career and now?

​As a Computing Science teacher, we've always had a good gender balance within the department with staff. However, there wasn't a lot of female pupils coming into Computing Science, and that was the motivation to launch dressCode. There has been a positive shift towards seeing more girls entering the Computing Science department specifically at our school and a culture shift along the way too. For the girls in our school there is no sense that they do not belong in Computing Science classes. We still have some way to go to be 50/50 however we’ve had such a positive and exciting uptake for a long time now. However on a national basis the SQA statistics show 20% females studying Computer Science.

This is the challenge we face as a country that to date we have been unable to break through. This is what my charity dressCode is focusing on.

​Q. If you were with a group of peers this evening and talking openly about this topic, what would be the key issues discussed?

I still remember being at university and there was only a small group of girls but I was never intimidated by that factor. I think my upbringing and resilience helped this. I had a positive college and university experience however I can see how some girls may be put off when they go to university to find they are in the minority.

I would urge women to reach out and ask for help, if they feel like they don’t belong, there's always people there to help you. Including incredible initiatives from the industry to close the gender gap. For example, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, both have plans in place to inspire girls from primary school, secondary, university and eventually into the industry. Don't be afraid to ask the establishments, university or industry and see whether they could create something to help make the situation better.

Also understand that whether you are male or female you are a role model for the future generation. I certainly know that the previous Turing Testers have inspired other pupils into computer sciences at secondary school after seeing what they could achieve.

​Q. What role do you think other colleagues have in helping organisations achieve greater gender balance?

Regardless of gender you can inspire, you can take the chance and opportunity to reach out, and learn from each other. Gender balance is not a problem that one person, industry or university can solve, it's a problem that everybody needs to be part of addressing. Looking at a person’s potential journey from school pupil to CEO of a future tech company there are gaps. For example, there are areas within Scotland where one school offers computing science, but the neighbouring school doesn’t. However there are opportunities to still highlight the amazing world of computer science via industry partnerships.

Being a teacher you're a role model everyday, sometimes without even realising it. It’s a huge honour to have someone look up to you and who is inspired by you. Everyone has the ability to inspire others.

​Q. Who do you think the most inspiring women in STEM are today?

Lynsey Campbell, she used to be at JP Morgan but now works for VMware and I still remember hearing her talk at one of the tackling tech gender diversity events organised by SDS and finding her so inspiring and wonderful to listen to. She made you want to work in tech!

Eve Wallace from Morgan Stanley, again very passionate, knowledgeable and really inspiring. Jude McCorry, she bring such confidence and vision in her work, I really admire her.

They are all rock stars within the tech sector in Scotland and it's such a privilege to even know them.

The Turing Testers, my pupils, are also massive role models. From 16 year old girls to multi award winning individuals who have spoken at large events. All pupils inspire me, with a special mention to my Turing Testers. I feel honoured to work in the tech sector, albeit in a teaching capacity. I love it!

​Last thoughts:

As of last year, there were 565 pupils studying advanced computer science, but only 100 of them were female. And I think if you put that into context of, you know, we've got 350 secondary schools in Scotland, across 32 different councils. And we can only inspire 100 girls. We need to recognise it is an issue and encourage any and all initiatives. It's incredible to see the Scottish Government champion the tech sector, and the incredible vision of Scotland being a Digital Nation, endorsing the Logan report and the recommendations within.

I think we've got exciting things to come, and hopefully we can start to see change but we need to inspire pupils to pick computing science, and to stick with it in order to move beyond the 20% of girls in computing science. Create a circle of role models and a circle of opportunities, to give back and inspire pupils at every age and stage to hopefully see a difference.

​Additional sources:

Jamie Hepburn, Scottish Government video as part of the Ada Scotland Festival : https://youtu.be/Yax5pORC-M4

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