Thursday 11 February 2016 3:23 pm

#WomenInStem needs to be more than a well-meaning hashtag

London’s innovation economy is firing on almost all cylinders; not for nothing is it regularly ranked at the top of league-tables like Nesta’s European Digital City Index. It is an almost unequivocal good news story, and one that we should be unashamedly proud of.

Amidst these sunlit uplands though lies one particularly concerning dark cloud. Britain’s skills shortage is keenly felt in the tech and digital sector.

Among the IoD’s members, the lack of people with the appropriate skills for expanding businesses is holding them back. Our IoD 99 members, a network for younger start-up entrepreneurs, say it is the key issue.

It makes sense, then, to look for ways to fill that gap; but we may be missing one obvious point. Some estimates suggest that, despite high-profile figures like Debbie Wosskow and Alex Depledge, just 14 per cent of the UK tech industry is female.

Mercifully, London’s tech scene is not as masculine as Silicon Valley’s, though it could always do more to be more welcoming. Instead, London’s ‘women problem’ relates largely to skills.

Today is “Women in Stem” day – catchier, admittedly, than “women in science, tech, engineering and maths courses.” And while critics would rightly suggest this is nothing more than a publicity effort, publicity may be exactly what is needed. Last year, some 25,000 men were accepted into university engineering courses; just 5,000 women made the same choice.

Hashtag activism is all well and good, but it is unlikely to result in transformative change.

Rather, we need to flip perceptions of Stem subjects on their heads. Much of the discourse around these career choices is that taking them is a ticket to a lucrative career; yet recent experiments at the University of California have suggested that emphasising the potential positive social impact of Stem courses and the industries they spawn is more likely to encourage women into these traditionally male pursuits.

In the 21st century, it (hopefully) goes without saying that women have the skills – indeed, women are now 35% more likely to go to university than men, yet in one of our most exciting industries, they remain woefully under-represented.

We also need to see careers advice in schools focus on skilling people for a changing, metamorphosing economy in which a basic knowledge of computer science and technology is only going to be more crucial; too often, advice is career-centric, rather than individual-centric.

There is much to be done, but it is work worth doing. Expanding the pool of skills available to our existing businesses – and seeing more skilled women begin their own – would secure our European top-spot. Let’s hope #WomenInStem becomes more than just a well-meaning hashtag.