The Ada Scotland Festival: Focused on gender balance

By Matthew Barr & Anna Doyle. Posted

A young attendee of the online festival

The festival launched on Ada Lovelace Day in October 2020 to inspire girls and women to explore the possibilities of a future in computer science

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) introduced computer science into the Scottish secondary curriculum in 1980. In its first year, 2,432 girls signed up, representing 35 percent of the total.

By the year 2000, the number of girls studying computer science had reached 9,031 — a modest increase over 20 years, and still only 35 percent of the total. By 2019, however, this figure had plummeted to 1,904 — fewer than the year of the course’s inception. This compares to 8,282 boys for the same year, with the girls representing just 19 percent of the total. 

If that is not discouraging enough, the low number of girls who actually progress through the three national qualifications at school level also gives rise for concern.

It is little wonder that higher education and industry are unified in their dismay over the low number of girls and women across all aspects of computer science education and in careers in tech. To identify ways in which the continuing gender imbalance in computer science might be addressed, Matthew Barr held a workshop bringing together employers, lecturers, and teachers from around Scotland. With the support of the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA), three routes to improve gender balance were proposed: 

  • Addressing the challenges of bringing computer science into early years learning through engagement with teachers and parents

  • Rebranding computer science to address misconceptions about the subject

  • Creating a festival that brings together existing networks and organisations involved in improving gender balance in computer science education

Of course, gender is not the only diversity issue in computer science, nor is Scotland alone in this challenge; gender is simply where the SICSA group decided to make a start. Those attending the workshop all recognised that there are already many brilliant organisations and individuals working to address the gender gap, and bringing computer science to the forefront of young people’s agendas. Girl Geeks, CoderDojo, CodeYourFuture, SmartSTEMs, Inner Wings, Equate Scotland, and 30% Club are just a few examples. Despite all these initiatives, and many internal programmes running in schools, colleges, and universities, computer science continues to suffer from a lack of diversity where other sciences fare better. With this in mind, it was agreed the first action from the workshop would be to build an umbrella festival to bring together, support, and amplify all the existing initiatives. 

And so the Ada Scotland Festival was born. It was co-founded by Matthew Barr, with the support of an advisory board and two co-founders. One of the co-founders is Toni Scullion, who is a computer science teacher and founder of dressCode and Turing Testers. She is also a member of the Scottish Computing Education Committee. Speaking about some of the reasons why she got involved, Toni said: “The figures from the SQA illustrate that the gap in computer science in Scotland at secondary school is widening. This is a really concerning trend, and doing something to help address this issue is something I feel extremely passionate about.”

What is the Ada Scotland Festival?

A mixture of events and activities for women in tech and computing, the festival launched on 13 October 2020 to coincide with Ada Lovelace Day, which is celebrated each year in honour of Ada Lovelace, who was one of the first computer programmers and a pioneering woman in STEM.

One of the other co-founders is Ella Taylor-Smith, who is a senior research fellow at the School of Computing in Edinburgh Napier University. Ella had already been hosting events on Ada Lovelace Day at Edinburgh Napier University for several years, and was keen to expand the programme: “This year, I knew that we would need to move any event online. Matthew Barr was hosting a workshop on this theme and the idea came for an online festival that would unite the people working in this area, celebrate women in computing, and host events and activities for girls. Aligning the festival with Ada Lovelace Day gave us the deadline we needed to get moving.” 

There followed fast and furious activity across Microsoft Teams and Zoom as the co-founders secured sponsors and invited partners to run events. Somehow, a website was built during a lunch break. What we were all unprepared for was the huge level of enthusiasm the festival received from across education, industry, and government bodies. Professionals with already maxed-out schedules were finding time to invite speakers and put together exciting events.

Opened by Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education, and Science, the festival culminated in over 16 events delivered by twelve different organisations and initiatives. Speakers included Baroness Goudie; Inner Wings founder and chief executive of SUSE, Melissa Di Donato; and distinguished engineer at Barclays, Theresa McComisky.

In addition to the live online sessions (many now available at, activities and competitions created opportunities for participants to flex their tech and creative skills, consider their leadership qualities, and explore future pathways in tech. With the fantastic support received from businesses, education, and government bodies, and the excellent take-up we saw at the online events, the festival met its challenge to engage and inform. We hope it has helped girls and women to see the huge variety of pathways in tech and computer science and understand the importance of their role in these areas.

What does 2021 hold?

The 2020 festival got off to a great start, and we’ve already started planning for 2021. In the meantime, we’ll continue to support and promote events and initiatives across our media channels. The co-founders, along with everyone else involved in the festival, continue to strive for gender balance in their fields. The outstanding achievements of Toni’s dressCode, in particular, are worthy of applause.

We have seen over the last year how crucial tech and digital connectivity has become to our work, social lives, and well-being. If we acknowledge how ubiquitous this has become, then we must also acknowledge that success cannot be achieved without a diverse workforce delivering technical solutions fit for all members of our community. In the words of Toni Scullion: “A more diverse workforce increases creativity, productivity, and efficiency. Diverse teams with a range of skills and perspectives innovate and solve problems better.”

Sponsors and supporters of the festival

The Ada Scotland Festival ran with the generous support of organisations large and small: Morgan Stanley; SICSA; dressCode; Fridays for Futuring;– IT4U; Barclays; and VeryConnect.

Find out more

Matthew Barr

Matthew Barr

Matt is the programme director for the Software Engineering Graduate Apprenticeship at the University of Glasgow. He is a co-founder of the Ada Scotland Festival, vice chair of the British Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), and a director for the Scottish Game Developers Association.

Anna Doyle

Anna Doyle

Anna is the liaison officer for the Software Engineering Graduate Apprenticeship at the University of Glasgow. She is a board member for the Ada Scotland Festival and a volunteer at CodeYourFuture. Anna also sits on the BIMA Scotland Council.


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