By 2020 there will be a deficit of 300,000 digitally skilled workers in London. This is a skills gap that cannot feasibly be plugged by men alone. What is being done to encourage women into the STEM sector?

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” If these words had fallen out of the script from a Harry Enfield & Chums 1950’s parody sketch, swiftly followed by the punch line “Women, know your limits!”, they would perhaps be funny. That is to say, ‘funny’ in a ‘did people really used to say things like that?’ type of way. Sadly, though, these were the words of Nobel prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt, uttered as recently as June this year. Armed with an enormous hole-digging shovel, he then went on to say that he was in full favour of single sex labs, qualifying that he “didn’t want to stand in the way of women”. Well, that is a relief!

Thankfully, the Royal Society was quick to distance itself from these comments in the Twitter and media storm that followed. But, however extreme an example this may be, it does outline a well-documented fact. Women in STEM are under-represented in the UK. Not only do they face barriers at the point of entry, but also through the stages of progression. Women fill just 3 in 20 STEM roles in the UK, and only 2 in 20 STEM managers are female. In engineering alone there is a major issue. Whilst the sector makes up a fifth of our economy, less than 1 in 10 employees within it are female, and UK engineering ranks the lowest in Europe for female representation. The IET (Institute of Engineering and Technology) annual survey paints a bleak picture for the future of STEM, unless an overall skills shortage is addressed. By 2020 there will be a deficit of 300,000 digitally skilled workers in London. This is a skills gap that cannot feasibly be plugged by men alone.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, and WISE (Women In Science, Technology and Engineering) have shown us a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. Female representation in the UK STEM workforce is slowly on the rise, with a 15% increase in 2015 compared to 2014. But, with women still only making up 14.4% of the mix, we are still a long way off WISE’s goal of 30%.

Imagine (and work with me on this) a leaky garden hosepipe. The water supply is turned on at full tilt and the hose is connected up. But somehow, somewhere along the pipe, blockages and leaks have sprung up, and all that seems to be coming out of the business end of the hose is mere trickle of water. The analogy hardly needs spelling out. Increasing numbers of girls are engaging in STEM GCSE subjects at school, and they are even attaining better results than their male peers. So where are the leaks and blockages in the pipeline, and why aren’t we seeing this convert into similar levels of involvement at A Level, further education and career choice stages?

A study by Williams, Phillips and Hall identified some key challenges faced by women interested or engaged in STEM careers. Unconscious bias plays a major part in turning women away from the STEM sector. In a 2012 randomized double blind study, the same application materials were presented to hiring managers, with either male or female names attached. The results showed that hiring managers (across both genders) perceived the male applicants to be more competent and hireable than their identically equivalent female applicants. But this is not the only hurdle for women. Those fortunate enough to secure their place in the STEM world are compelled to prove their expertise time and again, to an extent not expected of their male colleagues. As for the issue of ‘fitting in’, many females working in the STEM sector find themselves walking the thin tightrope of acceptable norms. Being taken seriously within a heavily male dominated environment arguably requires a level of assertiveness, directness and competitive spirit which is not typically aligned with more expected ‘feminine’ traits. And, of course, the ultimate leak in the STEM pipeline tends to come hand in hand with the onset of family commitments. Many women returning to work after a maternity break find that they hit a brick wall, with flexible working arrangements in limited supply, and levels of commitment brought into question. In such a male dominated culture, women often find themselves competing for opportunities with men who do not shoulder the childcare responsibility.

So, what is being done to fix the leaky pipeline in the STEM sector? Lots of positive steps are being taken, and there is no doubt that it will take time before we see a significant step change in gender representation within this field. The education sector has stepped up to the plate, recognising the need to engage, inspire and encourage young girls to take up STEM subjects and to consider STEM careers. Many companies are working hard to partner with educational institutes to support their efforts (and to build a pipeline of female talent) by offering work experience and mentoring programmes for young girls, and ensuring female representation at careers fairs and events, and early education.

Industry commitment to addressing the gender imbalance in STEM undoubtedly sends the loudest message of all to budding female engineers, computer programmers and scientists. Large companies such as Google have very recently released workforce diversity data, and although the results made for some uncomfortable reading, they have at least opened up a very public discussion on the issue of female under-representation, and demonstrated their commitment to recognising and addressing the problem. Google’s ‘Made In Code’ campaign is designed to get young women excited about learning code and about pursuing a career in the field, and is a definite step in the right direction.

David Cameron is also giving the issue full backing, recognising that “science and technology are driving our recovery and if we are going to maintain the UK’s exemplary success then we must draw from our full talent pool”. This month sees the launch of the doteveryone scheme, with a full mandate from government and the backing of many major industry players. Spearheaded by Martha Lane Fox, and coming on the back of her Dimbleby Lecture (in which she highlighted women in STEM as an issue), the programme includes a key objective to ensure that 50% of the people that design and make Britain’s networked world will be women. From February 2016, the project will map and assess the activity of women in digital, build evidence of the challenges faced by females, and create a funding vehicle that invests in sustainable social enterprises helping girls and women in digital.

And, since we mention Martha Lane Fox, this leads neatly on to the issue of role models. On the basis that you can’t be what you can’t see, the more Sheryl Sandbergs and Marthas of this world that speak out, the better. Last week was a great week for tooting the horn of female success in the STEM sector. Naomi Climer was appointed the first female President of the Institute of Engineering & Technology. But role models don’t always have to be household names and super achievers. Look around your own organisation – there’s sure to be plenty of successful and driven women at various points within the pipeline, who would be proud to champion the cause of gender diversity in STEM. Maybe it’s time to recognise them more publicly and give them a voice.