Kate Forbes, Member of the Scottish Parliament and Cabinet Secretary for Finance
I am so honoured to have been able to speak to Scotland's very own Cabinet Minister for Finance, Scottish Minister Kate Forbes. She is the first woman to have ever delivered a Scottish budget, and hails from the rural Highlands of Scotland. At the heart of Miss Astronautica is the aim to represent a wide variety of careers, not strictly traditional STEM or space related ones. Minister Forbes is a perfect example of a STEMinist and shared her story with me below.
Minister Forbes is a politician, with a history degree and accounting background, and I found her story very intriguing as I researched her online. She is a shining example of an inspirational woman finding her own path, and making a difference while she's at it. It's incredible to see women following their passions and ending up in leading roles. I found Minister Forbes via a Women in Maths Scotland blog post, and am so lucky to have been scheduled in for an interview with her.
Not to mention, I also developed an interest in policy over the summer, specifically science policy, with Scotland trying to create a regulatory framework for all of the country's space activities. So I thought it would be interesting to hear about how Minister Forbes has followed her interests into politics!
Read on if you want to hear a bit more about Minister Forbes' story, as well as some insightful advice for how to get involved in politics or STEM. We even briefly touched on her role during the Covid-19 pandemic, so this is one interview you should all find interesting.
Could you please introduce yourself and what you do?
I’m Kate Forbes and I have two jobs. One is to represent the fine people of Skye, Lochaber, and Badenoch, which is a Highland constituency. The other is to manage the finances in my role as Cabinet Secretary for Finance.
What are some of the major factors that influenced your decision throughout the early years of your career?
I've done a lot of different things in my relatively short career and that probably goes back to questions at school; not knowing what I wanted to do but knowing the kind of things I enjoyed. I've always enjoyed people, their stories, and trying to change the world to make it easier for people to live full lives. I left school and went to study history at Cambridge, largely because my teachers at Dingwall Academy suggested that I would never get in if I applied, so I set out to prove them wrong.
Minister Forbes on her Cambridge graduation day. BBC article about Kate Forbes.
I left university not knowing what to do, and so worked in politics for a while, decided that I never ever wanted to spend my career in politics. So I went off to train as a chartered accountant and worked for a bank. I felt that this combined my interest in people, history, and their stories, as well as formed a better grounding in finance and economics.
That culminated in the opportunity to stand for election, which again, I went for never thinking that I would win. Lo and Behold, I was selected as a candidate and then went on to win the election. In terms of the factors, I think that there are some common themes after running through that.
Learn more about the SNP in Skye, Lochaber, and Badenoch, and Kate's priorities in this 2016 video
One of the themes is in trying to help people, which sounds like a cliche. Being part of a family that travelled around the world, where my dad worked in jobs that were trying to help other people, often for little acknowledgement, pay, fame or power instilled in me, from a young age, that you had a duty to use your time, abilities, or experience for the benefit of other people.
The second thing is that I’ve always loved to learn new things. As soon as I get to a point where I feel like I've spent long enough doing something, I think “what’s the next challenge or adventure?” and that’s how I’ve approached my career as well.
Focusing in a little bit on your career, what exactly does being an MSP, as well as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance involve?
They are two quite different jobs in terms of the daily substance. Ultimately their objectives are the same, which is to represent people in a democracy and to try to make the best decisions in the interest of those that I represent.
On the constituency side, I represent an area that is quite large, by UK and Scottish standards, and very diverse. It has both urban areas and rural areas, and a thinly spread population. Much of my work before becoming a cabinet secretary was to be out in the constituency; meeting people, speaking to them, having surgeries where they could drop in with all the challenges that they face, and trying to help find solutions. Then, representing their interests in debates and votes in Scottish parliament. That is still a full time job.
Map of Skye, Lochaber, and Badenoch (in dark red). Wikipedia
In June 2018, I was appointed as a junior minister for public finance. There, I was managing some of the fully devolved taxes. Then, in February of this year, I was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Finance. As you can imagine, my only knowledge of that role has been through a pandemic, and an economic crisis of the greatest proportions that we've seen in generations.
My job has been to ensure that we have the finances available to do everything else. To ensure that we can procure PPE, doctors and nurses can go to work, there is funding available for businesses, communities are able to access some support when it comes to mental health, providing food for young people and supporting care homes needing additional support.
Minister Forbes introducing Covid-19 business support back in March. Kate Forbes MSP Facebook.
In that sense I have a role that looks right across the government's response to Covid, and in fact, even the country’s response to Covid. If money really does make the world go round, I'm making sure that we have sufficient funding to make sure that we can respond to Covid appropriately. As you can imagine, a lot of that now due to working from home is spent on Zoom, phone calls, and conference calls, from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed.
Here on Miss Astronautica, we want to showcase the variety of roles that relate to STEM, so could you speak a little bit about how you use STEM- and specifically maths- in your career?
I’ve used maths quite a lot in my career. Going back to studying history at university, a lot of that was number based. I spent a lot of time focusing on migration from Scotland to North America and looking at the reasons why people left; a lot of those are economic in nature. Understanding the state of the economy, for example, in the 1840s with the Highland potato famine, all the way through using maths in my job as an accountant, has been number based. As an accountant, working for a major bank, I had to understand the finances, and produce accounts.
Now, of course, maths is the bread and butter of my job because it’s ultimately about ensuring we can balance our budget, and that we have sufficient funding cover to do anything. At the moment, we are looking at how we provide support to businesses. I need to understand how many businesses need support, what kind of support would actually make a difference, and therefore, if we have the budget available. So maths has been pretty consistent from the moment I left school to this point.
Could you give a little bit of advice to a student looking to get involved in maths related careers who might not come from a strictly mathematics background?
If you studied a subject other than maths, and you are going into a career in maths, I would say that every career needs broad experience. Being able to combine an understanding of the numbers of any job, alongside an ability to relate to people, makes you very effective. Actually, having studied an arts subject initially and then building on that with mathematics or an economical analysis is very effective. The same goes the other way. If you have studied a STEM subject, and you have a real ability with numbers, and you can combine with that an ability to relate to people, then these are the kinds of people that are hugely effective.
Minister Forbes at a Tata Consultancy Services’ Digital Explorers event for school children. Digit FYI.
I always think you can learn. I don’t believe this notion that anybody is incapable of learning or incompetent when it comes to certain elements. Throughout my career I've always enjoyed challenges. The more challenging something is, the more likely I am to do it because I love pushing myself right outside my comfort zone. I get to do this frequently in my job.
My message to anybody would be to never assume that you are incapable of doing something, because you have no idea whether you can rise to the challenge or not unless you let you step forward. There's nothing that is too difficult to learn if you put the time and the effort into acquiring that knowledge.
What are some of the areas in government policy that you're passionate about and could you address some of the areas that you have worked in?
In terms of things that I am passionate about, I am passionate, as you would imagine, about rural areas of Scotland. One of the reasons I got involved with politics in the first place is because I come from a relatively rural area where all of my peers at school left the area when they left school, and very few have come back. I've always been passionate about ensuring that we've got a resilient population in the Highlands and Islands.
I think that it can be the same in Canada and certainly the same in Scotland, where there can often be a stigma attached to where you come from and the sense that you have only made it in life when you leave, jars with me. Making sure that there are good, well-paid, meaningful jobs in rural areas such as the Highlands and Islands is something that I am hugely excited about.
Minister Forbes grew up in a relatively rural area in the west of Scotland. BBC article about Kate Forbes.
Recently, I took part in the Convention of the Highlands and Islands, which is when all the local authorities from the different Island and Highland areas come together to talk about how we ensure we have those jobs, and how we create a thriving economy. Obviously, it’s particularly difficult right now. I have farmers in my family, and want to ensure that from agriculture, to fishing, to technology, we’ve got an economy that works for people and people don’t feel like they have to leave when they leave school.
I think another area of interest is making sure that this truly is a free and fair country and society where everybody feels like they have a part to play. Scotland has such a rich history, heritage, and culture, so making sure that nobody feels excluded or left out of the decisions that we make and debates that we have is something else. I say that as a younger person, as a woman, and as someone who has often raised eyebrows because people think that “she doesn’t look like the politicians that we normally think of. What does she have to offer? What life experience does she have? Why is she in that role?”
Minister Forbes at Urquhart Castle. Kate Forbes news.
My point is that in a representative democracy, we need lots of voices from different backgrounds. The more debate you have, theoretically, the better the decision in the end if you have people that will challenge each other. That’s the nature of parliamentary democracy where you cannot have politics without debate, and you cannot have debate without at least two people who disagree. To find those people, you need at least two people with different views, different backgrounds, and different perspectives on things. Making sure that we do have that ability to have a free and a fair debate is another interesting area for me.
What is some of your advice for someone looking to get involved in Parliament?
First of all please do be interested, and please get involved. Anybody who tells me that they are not interested in politics is telling me lies. If you are interested in your family, local stores, local health services, whether or not you can get an education, or whether you can go to university, all of those things are political. As soon as you are interested in anything that happens outside or inside your home, you are interested in politics. You just may not make the connection. Politics isn't just about the big debates that happen for us in Scottish parliament. It is about the decisions and the values that inform those decisions. Therefore, everybody should be interested and get involved.
Minister Forbes campaign about plastic straws. I News.
If you are interested and want to get involved, the three things I would say are as follows. One, figure out what you are passionate about. What makes you angry? What makes you excited? What makes you enthusiastic? What makes you want to get into arguments and defend your position? These are what will motivate you to go stand and get involved.
The second thing would be to get the experience. You need the ability to make your case persuasively; to stand in front of people and argue a case. You need a strong work ethic, and you need to be able to care about people. Find ways of practicing those things. Nobody is born with an ingrained ability to stand up and hold forth. We all have to work at it. So what are the opportunities at university or elsewhere to do that?
Minister Forbes sets out the Scottish Government's commitment to sustainable and responsible finance.
The third thing is to get stuck in now. How can you get stuck in? If you are passionate about something, which was point number one, then what are you going to do to make a difference? What organisations can you get involved with? Can you write to your local Member of Parliament? Can you look for work experience? How are you going to further those issues now? You don't have to wait and you should not have to wait until you are elected into parliament to try to make a difference. You should try and do it now.
Can you speak a little bit about your vision for the future of women in STEM in Scotland?
There is great potential for women in STEM roles. The job that we all have is to encourage more women to be in those rules. If I think of technology as one example, we know on one hand, the tech sector says that they cannot recruit enough people. On the other hand, only 23% of the workforce are female. That suggests to me that the fastest way of ensuring that there are more people that they can recruit is by targeting the people that are not working in that sector now, and that is women. There is no good reason why women shouldn't be in those roles.
Minister Forbes was the first woman to present the Scottish budget.
One of my favourite memories is going to Stornoway Primary School and seeing little Primary 1s, boys and girls, in a STEM class. They were coding little robots, and they were both equally excited, irrespective of gender, about the task at hand. So the question for us is why between the age of five to the age of sixteen, does the interest drop off?
I think that that is the problem as to why we don't have enough women going into STEM. We need to get more women that are excited about it, more role models, more people demonstrating that women have a really important role to play. I think that there is widespread acknowledgement about that need, and that’s why I think now is a hugely exciting time to be a woman in STEM. There are huge opportunities and there is huge potential. Employers are looking for women in these sectors because they know they bring other perspectives to the table, and they know that they need a diverse workforce. So now is the time to be a woman in STEM because of the great potential.
Do you have any specific advice for women looking to work in any area of STEM? Or even those coming from non-STEM backgrounds and looking to transition into one?
I think it's probably the most exciting area right now to be working in. I have a particular interest in tech, but I mean, there are so many roles that support tech, in terms of maths, engineering, and other sciences. If you think about the future of the economy, and how we pioneer new solutions to the problems that we face, these are things that are on the front line of our response to the pandemic, and our response to the economic catastrophe. We need people that are thinking creatively and are willing to use their abilities.
Minister Forbes recently spoke about how Scotland's economic recovery must be tech driven. Digit FYI.
In terms of advice, I would say first of all, recognise that it's such an exciting place to work. Secondly, if there are any opportunities you can do to get the skills that you need or the training that you need to to do that, take advantage of them. There are so many initiatives right now trying to encourage more women into STEM. Take advantage of those opportunities, either at school, university, or as a career changer.
You might be in a job that you may or may not like, why not think about changing your career, and retraining. Again, I’ll go back to digital as an example. We have an organisation called CodeClan which can retrain people intensively over a three or four month period with all the skills they need to be software engineers and coders. I’ve met some people who used to study languages, some who used to be teachers, mums who have been out of the workforce for a while and getting back into it. There are those opportunities there. So A, get excited, and B, look for the opportunities.
What are some of your upcoming goals?
I am standing for election again next year in May, so that's probably the next thing on my horizon. Apart from that, we’ve got this issue of trying to navigate our way through a pandemic and global crisis. Those would probably be the two things, in terms of goals, right now.
I hope you enjoyed my chat with Minister Forbes, it was super inspiring to speak to such a leading woman in Scotland. It's also great to see someone representing the rural areas of Scotland, since I have family whose lives are directly affected by politicians such as Minister Forbes.
Definitely stick around for the next interview!