In conversation with Debbie Edwards, CEO of FDisruptors, about women in STEM

Can you tell us about FDisruptors and why the company was established?

I’ve had a 25-year career in marketing and growth strategy, working with some amazing companies and talented people. Quite a lot of those were very male dominated though; women were few and far between, and so I have always understood the challenges that women can sometimes face when they enter into male dominated industries.

A few years ago I started to have conversations with my teenage daughters about where they wanted their lives to go and sadly they did not seem to be talking about tech at all – I became really conscious that if young women didn’t look at tech as a serious career opportunity they could be left out of some of the most exciting industries and innovations that we have ever seen.

When I set up FDisruptors I didn’t want to build something women didn’t want or need. I felt strongly that it was time that we started a different narrative around tech – a narrative where we showed them the magic of tech and the impact they could have in the world if they jumped on board. So I designed a pilot programme of learning and gave them access to opportunities to help to build their confidence and primarily to shift their perceptions on technology and their perceptions of what they were capable of. It was the best four months of my career to date and it formed the basis of what has now become the new FDisruptors platform.

Is there more organisations could be doing to encourage young girls and women into the tech sector?

Storytelling is key, that’s really important. Young people and young women engage with authentic stories. They want to hear about real people – people who have changed careers or failed and got back up, or taken a new unexpected path and succeeded – or sometimes not.

It’s also important to hear from women who have done it in lots of different ways and from women from lots of different places – we need different voices, opinions and backgrounds. Storytelling resonates because a girl will see that and think – if they can do it, I can do it too.

A confidence gap still exists too. To inspire girls, and make them think they can, we need to work on self-belief and confidence as well as equipping them with real world skills for a very new world of work. We cannot drive more women to choose a career in tech without giving them the tools to also thrive within that industry – if we do that then you will not only see more women in tech but they will also be driven by purpose, and will be armed with talent and skills that will absolutely transform tech across every industry.

Are any succeeding in making a change?

I’m talking to more and more companies that are very intentional in their desire to invest in diversity, which is very positive. However, it’s not just about changing the language in a job description; it’s about a layered approach. We have a huge challenge ahead of us and culturally it’s a big issue to unpick. Ultimately a more diverse workforce is good for business, good for your culture, makes you a much more appealing place to work and makes it a more interesting place to work. It also ensures that you are building products or developing services that more truly reflect the customers and communities that you serve. So there really is no excuse for not integrating diversity into your workplace – it is essential to running a successful business of the future.

What’s been your personal experience as a women working in the tech/creative/digital sector?

Overall it’s been great but of course there are some challenges. Having worked in other industries that are also male dominated though I have to say that I don’t think tech is the only industry that has challenges with diversity and the promotion of women to leadership positions.

On a personal note I was surprised to experience ageism when I was initially raising finance for FDisruptors. There can be an assumption that the majority of people developing tech platforms are young and that is absolutely not the case. Tech is the single most accessible sector in which to develop a business or a career regardless of age, background, ethnicity or gender. I just need to be armed with my creativity and a laptop and the rest is up to me – no restrictions, no limitations. If we truly want to attract more diversity into tech then we have to challenge stereotypes at all levels and quickly.

What are the barriers to women pursuing a career in STEM?

I think many women have a perceived stereotype of what a person in tech looks like. It’s a white guy; a maths genius or physics geek and they’ll be coding at a computer all their life.

When we have presented tech to girls in the past it has been a bit one dimensional – presenting only code clubs means that they only see one part of the picture. There is so much more to tech careers and being a tech entrepreneur, and it is absolutely vital that they get to see much more variety surrounding those pathways and the role models within tech across every sector.

There is definitely still a confidence gap too – it has been proven that confidence in girls experiences a huge dip during the ages of 8-15. This is key, as it is right at a time when they are expected to make some of their biggest decisions around study and careers. During my pilot programme we saw the positive results of leading with confidence training – ultimately if we can change the lens through which a young women sees herself we can change her outlook on what she believes she can achieve.

What role does education have to play in supporting more women into STEM roles and employment?

Schools have a huge part to play, and their role as influencers around careers have really come under the spotlight in the past few years as highlighted by the Gatsby Report. Ultimately, we are working with schools to help them to be able to equip their students with the skills that are absolutely needed from the workforce of the future. That is two fold for us – firstly we need to work together to get better about encouraging girls to take STEM subjects but more than that – we need to get better at helping them to visualise how they will progress into a STEM related career as without this context the stats show that even girls who do choose STEM will still not enter into this field.

It is also about delivering tech skills to every single young person, regardless of their chosen career, so they are more equipped when they join the world of work. Tech should be integrated across the curriculum giving us the best possible chance to send fully fledged digital citizens out into a world that is now digital by default.

I had a really amazing conversation with a head teacher recently about how they want to create more alternative pathways for young people – she said it was time to look at students as individuals and who they are right now, so they could provide better careers advice and not only drive students towards Universities but support them into a much wider variety of career options. This kind of approach is great to see, but it will require much more support and funding for careers in schools if we have any hope of integrating it in this way.

Who are your female role models in the STEM sector?

For me, I love people that are doing things quietly but brilliantly.

There is a fantastic free app on the market called Clementine, which is designed by women for women. It’s all around confidence, self-belief, reducing anxiety and focusing on sleep, meditation etc.

I also love people like designer Stella McCartney who is reaching out and collaborating with tech in a way we’ve never seen before. She has worked with Bio Tech pioneers, Bolt Threads, on a project to create ethical, sustainable fashion using science and new technology. It’s a brave and bold move but it is so exciting to see pioneers coming together to produce something new and unique that might just change the way our clothes are made and ultimately save the planet.

There’s more information on the FDisruptors website.

In conversation with Erika Leadbeater, Operations Director at TSG Marine

To mark International Women’s Day (Friday 08 March), we spoke to Erika Leadbeater, Operations Director at leading engineering company TSG Marine, about gender balance and her experience of being a leading female figure in the North East business community.

International Women’s Day this year is focused on building a gender-balanced world. What do you think we can do here in the North East to improve gender equality?

We need to focus on promoting the benefits of inclusive workplaces. We need workplaces where difference is celebrated for the positive impact it can bring to an organisation; both in terms of a positive workplace culture but also ultimately bringing commercial success.

In this ever-changing world innovation is a necessity. Innovation requires creativity, and creativity needs new ideas, which more often than not come from different points of view. You will only get that diversity of thinking in organisations if your workforce has a diversity of experience.

That diversity of thinking has been key to the success of our business, TSG Marine. The value we bring to our clients comes from us looking at things differently; always seeking to find quicker, safer and more cost-effective solutions.

The North East is leading the way in a number of sectors due to our innovative approach. I think that is due to a willingness to embrace change and meet challenges head on. We just need more of that approach, which will in turn reinforce progressive mindsets and inclusive behaviours throughout the region.

Have you ever experienced discrimination during your career because of your gender?

I assume equality in every situation. I have always found that to be an effective and positive way to approach life. I also strongly believe that we cannot control the actions of others, but we can control our own reaction to those actions. The knowledge that I always retain the control of my reaction gives me strength and resilience.

Would you consider the engineering industry to be male-dominated, and if so, how can we encourage more women to join the sector?

Historically, not enough women have considered engineering to be the interesting, challenging and rewarding career that I know it to be. I think that is in part due to the variety of careers in engineering not always being appreciated and also a lack of understanding that a career in engineering will allow you to continually develop your skills.

I did not go directly into engineering. I did law first, working in a large law firm before starting at TSG Marine as a Contracts Manager. Over the years my role has developed and now I am Operations Director. My job still involves reviewing contracts, but it now has a wider business focus.

However, the point is I am not an engineer; but I do work in engineering and I could not now see myself doing anything else. It is such a vibrant and interesting industry. That is because the sectors that the engineering disciple underpins are constantly progressing. For instance, at TSG Marine we started in the Oil & Gas industry and now we are firmly in the emerging Energy Sector. That is exciting, I love working in an organisation that is constantly looking for opportunities to improve the way things are done.

What advice would you give to other women interested in working in the engineering sector?

Value your difference. Having a new or alternative point of view is a strength, you just need the confidence to demonstrate that strength.

Be curious. Engineering is a progressive discipline; you should always be looking to learn and develop your skills, you will only do that by being inquisitive.

Have you been inspired by any female leaders in business?

I am inspired by both female and male leaders. The people who inspire me the most are often not the best well known, but the ones who are courageously approaching issues, such as gender, positively and authentically.

I recently read an excellent book called Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. I was inspired by Brené’s work as it is honest and it makes leadership accessible. She is striving to create braver leaders and courageous cultures. The book sets out that we all have a part to play in promoting change, and it reminded me that one of the central skills of a good leader is curiosity.

I think the most inspirational leaders are those who positively encourage and actively facilitate open conversations on difficult issues, conversations where people feel safe to ask questions and test their own opinions. In my view these are the leaders that effect real change.

North East LEP publishes updated Strategic Economic Plan

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has today (Thursday 14 February) published its updated Strategic Economic Plan, which outlines how it will help create 100,000 more and better jobs for the region by 2024.

The newly updated plan reflects on recent changes to the global and national economy as well as the UK’s imminent departure from the European Union. It also looks at how the North East can maximise opportunities around the UK’s Industrial Strategy, particularly in areas such as green energy and an ageing population.

Andrew Hodgson, Chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “2014 saw the publication of the North East LEP’s original Strategic Economic Plan, which set out in clear terms our approach to growing the regional economy and creating 100,000 more and better jobs by 2024.

“Fast forward to 2019 and our ambition remains the same, but what has changed is the political and economic landscape we find ourselves in. We’re on the brink of leaving the European Union and a new Mayoral North of Tyne Combined Authority has been formed.

“It’s for those reasons and more we’ve chosen to launch a refreshed Strategic Economic Plan, one that reflects the significant changes we’re experiencing as a country, and a region.”

The North East Strategic Economic Plan identifies four areas of strategic importance that will improve the region’s economic competitiveness. They are the digital, advanced manufacturing, health and life sciences and energy sectors.

Five programmes of activity, delivered by the North East LEP and its partners, support these areas of industry to grow, helping boost the economy and create more jobs for the people that live and work in the region.

They include helping North East businesses to grow and scale, and to compete on a global level; embracing Industry 4.0 and integrating technology and innovation into everything we do; improving skills and careers education across the North East; forging better and more sustainable transport links across the region and Northern Powerhouse; and investing in major capital infrastructure projects.

Andrew continued: “Whilst the current economic and political climate may pose challenges for our region, it also provides a number of opportunities. The refreshed Strategic Economic Plan we’re launching today outlines how, as a region, we can maximise those opportunities to strengthen and grow our economy.

“A good example is the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change and promoting clean growth. Here in the North East we are the leading location in England for the wind energy sector and our world-leading businesses and strong local supply chain puts us at the very heart of the clean energy revolution.

“We’re also global players in the health and life sciences sector, with our infrastructure, expertise and research into ageing one of our major strengths. This year alone we’ve seen the arrival of The Biosphere and National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle Helix, and NETPark in County Durham continues to thrive, helping new and emerging health and life sciences business go to market.”

Since the launch of the Strategic Economic Plan in 2014, 64,600 new jobs have been created with 77% of those classed as better jobs, in managerial, professional and technical roles. The region has also seen improvements in its employment rate, economic activity rate and productivity.

Read a copy of the updated Strategic Economic Plan.

Representing the North East at National Careers Week

As National Careers Week Ambassador for the North East of England, I’ve been delighted to be able to take a proactive role in encouraging employer engagement across the region and promote the benchmarks within the Good Career Guidance Report, which identifies what ‘good’ careers guidance looks like.

Networking across the North East is key to careers guidance success and the generation of meaningful encounters. Experiences of the workplace, between employers and young people is critical in achieving the benchmarks. My role involves liaising with the national ambassador team, sharing resources and case studies to encourage and promote these meaningful experiences.

As an Enterprise Adviser for the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, I strongly support the delivery of its North East Ambition programme, which promotes skills across the region to improve the economy of the North East. Good careers guidance and the access to employment that is right for the individual, is a critical part of this drive around skills.

During National Careers Week (5-10March), I attended a series of events, actively promoting the fantastic work that is being delivered across the North East on careers guidance benchmarking and best practice working with employers.

I have been working particularly closely with Sue Taylor, the careers lead at Heaton Manor School in Newcastle upon Tyne. The school has been making great strides to achieve the benchmarks. Sue and the team have identified where the gaps are, and they are taking an innovative approach to making real connections between employers and young people.

To give the students access and exposure to a range of businesses, Heaton Manor School held a series of lunchtime talks for the duration of National Careers Week and beyond for a further week.

Attending employers include Accenture, Tarmac, Virgin Money, Digital Union, NBS, Ronald James, Baltic Training and Equiwatt, a green energy start-up company.

What an amazing opportunity for that group of Year 9’s to get first-hand information from a diverse range of employers, including small business, corporates, membership organisations and self-employed business people – all willing to talk to these students and create just the right conditions for excellent careers guidance.

This is just one example of how the North East is generating engagement between schools and employers and there is a real understanding of the benefits of developing these meaningful encounters with young people.

I am looking for more schools and business leaders across the North East that are making great strides in careers advice, generating real connections and headway in achieving the benchmarks, to use as positive case studies for our region and showcase them on a national platform.

Please communicate your successes on social media, using the hashtag #NorthEastAmbition when you tweet and tag us @northeastlep

Let’s shout about our careers guidance successes across the North East and on the national stage.

I welcome contact from schools, colleges and business leaders that would like to discuss future opportunities to network and create meaningful careers guidance opportunities.

Catherine Boland is currently HR Director at until she moves to her new role as Business and Community Engagement Lead with Baltic Training at the end of April. Catherine is National Careers Week Ambassador for the North East of England.

National Apprenticeship Week – What next for the North East?

North East LEP Skills Director Michelle Rainbow gives the lowdown on apprenticeships and calls on the Government to listen closely to businesses and help create more demand.

The Government plans to create three million apprenticeships by 2020. It’s an increasingly ambitious target, not least because the number of apprenticeships has dropped since the Apprenticeship Levy was introduced in April 2017.

So what’s going on? Here in the North East it’s a mixed picture. Having seen apprenticeship schemes promoted heavily, pupils, parents and schools have understandably bought in. Conversely, businesses have been hanging back, waiting to see what the quality standards will be like – so there is supply of eager applicants but less demand.

The complexity of the Apprenticeship Levy hasn’t helped. An early assessment report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that 22% of employers don’t know whether they have to pay the Levy or not.

This plays out here, where SMEs continue to seek clarity. There is a big difference between sectors which are used to hiring apprentices, such as construction, manufacturing and engineering, and those for whom this is still a new innovation. It’s one of the reasons our case studies focus on the fields of pharmaceuticals and law as they’re not traditionally associated with this type of scheme.

Right now our ask of Government is that it continues to liaise closely with employers to understand their needs, provides reassurance about quality standards and simplifies how the Levy works – and this has to include clarification on how unspent monies will be used to set the record straight.

We need an agile system which can flex and respond to opportunities and issues in a much quicker timeframe. We also need to create real business demand.

Better qualifications and better jobs for all

Here at the North East LEP we particularly welcome higher and degree apprenticeships as we strive to create more and better jobs to support the local economy.

The North East Growth Hub lists the various providers and is well worth a look for those looking for more information.

However we are keen that the government takes steps to ensure these remain open to everyone.

Access to affordable degree-level education will of course prove popular across the board as more people understand the opportunity and move to maximise this. As such there is a particular need to engage with the more disadvantaged and not just the squeezed middle classes if we are to raise ambitions, keep a level playing field and make sure no one gets left behind.

Ultimately the apprenticeship drive is moving in the right direction but implementation always brings new challenges, as well as the need for expectation management.

Rest assured, we will continue to work with the business community, schools and parents to represent their needs with Government and do all we can to achieve the greatest success possible.

North East LEP ONS Regional Labour Market Statistics reaction

North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Senior Economist Victoria Sutherland gave her reaction to today’s regional labour market statistics.

“Today’s statistics for the North East are mixed. We are disappointed to see that employment has fallen by 15,000 over the quarter. However, employment growth has been strong over the year as a whole with 25,000 more in work than a year ago and the North East having experienced the largest improvement in its employment rate of any region in the UK.

“Unemployment has declined over both the quarter and the year, with 21,000 fewer individuals’ unemployed than a year ago. We are particularly pleased to see that the North East’s unemployment rate has continued to decline over the last quarter given that it has increased across the UK.

“The decline in employment and unemployment in the North East over the last quarter has been offset by an increase in economic inactivity. Individuals can be economically inactive for a wide range of reasons including that they are in education, have health issues or disabilities that prevent them from work, have caring responsibilities or have retired.

“The number of working age people (16-64) that are economically inactive has increased by 15,000 over the quarter, although it has decreased by 8,000 over the year.

“The North East LEP will continue to work with its partners to deliver the Strategic Economic Plan’s ambition of more and better jobs and to help local residents to connect with available employment opportunities.”

Education Challenge Project Manager appointed

A project manager has been appointed to support the delivery of a ground-breaking education programme.

Neil Willis will lead the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s Education Challenge.

The role will see Neil spearhead the Next Generation Learning project, which aims to reduce the gap between the region’s best and lowest performing secondary schools and improve social mobility in our young people.

Neil brings extensive experience to the role, having spent 16 years as a science teacher and in senior leadership in secondary schools in the North East.

In 2016, he began working across schools as an Education Consultant, developing projects including STEM-specific provision through the National STEM Centre, teacher training and CPD, faculty improvement and school improvement.

Over the past two years, Neil has been involved in North East Futures University Technical College (UTC), which saw him build a significant amount of partnerships with regional industry to enrich the curriculum and bring industry into the classroom.

Newcastle University graduate Neil said: “I am very excited to play a part in shaping the education landscape and driving change through the LEP’s Education Challenge.

“Building on the success of Gatsby Foundation’s Career Benchmarks, the Education Challenge will support teachers, schools, governors and leaders to integrate careers learning into the curriculum to ensure those entering the workforce in the future have the skill level to support our diverse economy and are fully aware of the progression routes available to make this happen.”

The appointment comes after the North East LEP area was selected by Ford Next Generation Learning and The Edge Foundation as the first area internationally to translate elements of the successful ‘Academies of Nashville’ model to the UK.

The Academies of Nashville model transformed attendance, attainment and progression by placing employers and business partners alongside teachers and school leaders to develop highly personalised approaches to progression.

The Next Generation Learning project aims to replicate this success.

Michelle Rainbow, Skills Director at the North East LEP, said: “The North East is leading the way when it comes to implementing outstanding careers provision within education.

“Neil brings with him vast skills and experience, which will be a great asset to furthering the aims of the Education Challenge. We are delighted to welcome him to the team.”

North East LEP ONS Regional Labour Market Statistics Reaction

North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Senior Economist Victoria Sutherland gave her reaction to today’s regional labour market statistics.

“We are pleased to see that employment continues to grow across the North East region. Today’s data shows the number of people in employment has grown by 34,000 over the last year, with 11,000 more people in work over the quarter.

“Once a quarter we get more detailed statistics than in other months and today is one of those occasions. These additional data show that there has been growth in service sector jobs of 24,000 over the year. Within that, we are particularly pleased to see growth in the information and communications sector, which includes many of the region’s digital companies, and growth in professional, scientific and technical activities.

“We are also pleased to see that the manufacturing sector, which has always played a critical role in the North East economy, has grown, with 8,000 more jobs over the year.

“We are continuing to see unemployment decline. Our unemployment rate is now 5.2%, compared to 6.8% last year. This is the largest decline in the unemployment rate of all English regions over the year.

“The number of people unemployed is down 7,000 over the quarter and 20,000 over the year.

“There has been growth in both full and part-time workers and across both employee jobs and self-employment. This is different to the national picture, where self-employment has fallen. We have seen a decline in the number of workers with second jobs and the number of people in temporary jobs. Combined, these suggest that demand for labour is growing.

“The North East LEP will continue to work with partners to ensure individuals have the skills to take up the opportunities being created by the North East’s employers.”


Our Plan for Higher Education – Diverse, Employment-focused, Value for Money

New independent report points the way forward for Higher Education

We welcome the publication of the Edge Foundation’s Plan for Higher Education which sets out how greater diversity of provision, more employer engagement and a keen focus on value for money can ensure that HE helps to close the skills gap.

Here, Olly Newton, Director of Policy and Research at The Edge Foundation sets out his thoughts on Higher Education Diversification

New polling data commissioned by Edge for the report raises some significant questions about perceptions of value for money amongst graduates. The percentage who felt they received good value for money for their degree has fallen steadily from 93% of those who graduated before 1980 to just 58% amongst recent graduates. Meanwhile, the majority of graduates from the last five decades (52%) would choose not to go to university in the current funding regime.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The report highlights some amazing programmes here and abroad that are helping to ensure excellent employment outcomes for students. This includes a diversification of provision to include accelerated, part-time and sandwich courses and a reinvigoration of L4 and L5 qualifications to give us the technicians we need to power industry in the North East. It also includes high quality careers services and employer engagement, which many of the universities in our region pride themselves on.

The report also points to two ambitious international models to provide inspiration for the future. DHBW in Stuttgart is a University entirely made up of degree apprentices studying whilst employed with leading firms and their supply chains. The Minerva Schools based in California is an international university with no campus that achieves excellent results at a fraction of the cost of traditional tuition through innovative online seminars.

We are blessed in the North East with fantastic Higher Education partners and we are keen to learn from the best models nationally and internationally to help them continue to be a powerhouse for skills and growth in the region.