How can we boost the number of women in STEM careers?
We need to make a long-term investment and expose girls to STEM while they are young. I practically grew up in my father’s laboratory, but my case is rare; many girls have little or no exposure to STEM so they are unlikely to see a future for themselves in those careers. This year I'm working with local primary schools to spread the message that STEM jobs are the coolest, most fun jobs around. It needs to start as early as possible because the default influences aren’t always helpful: just look at ‘girl’ toy aisles full of pink dolls vs ‘boy’ toy aisles full of robots and construction kits.
Who has inspired you in business?
My mother. She started a business with my father when I was five, and during school holidays had me substitute for various employees who were taking their vacations. I got to operate accounting software, ship products, invoice customers, do light assembly, scrub the floors - you name it! It gave me a first-hand glimpse of what it takes to grow an organisation; something they can’t teach you in school.
What is the biggest challenge facing women in business today?
Culture. Culture is so powerful at any level; it can be as small as your family unit or as big as the internet. Culture creates norms. Is it normal to have a woman on an executive board, or is it weird? Is it normal to have a woman working in a STEM job or is it weird? Pursuing your dreams is easier when culture has your back. I don’t think wider popular culture is quite with us yet, which is why conferences like MT’s Inspiring Women in Business are so important.
What is the biggest challenge you have overcome personally, and how did you do it?
In 2009 my son was born with a rare, non-inherited genetic condition which causes some challenging disabilities. When your child is suffering, or you are told his life will have serious limits compared with your own, it is indescribably difficult. It challenges your world view and your priorities. In my case, it just about crushed me. Somehow I had to become a stronger person - whether I liked it or not.
I researched my son’s condition and found out it’s not well understood. I remembered a story I read years ago about a family who created an initiative to speed up medical research for their sister's condition through private fundraising. The article made a huge impression on me. I thought at the time ‘that’s exactly what I’d want to do if I were in their shoes’.
It took a few years, but we are now collaborating with a dream-team of geneticists - including women I’m happy to say - conducting pioneering research at a major US university. The initiative aims to unmask causative genes which hold the secrets to certain unexplained conditions, so we’re calling it the Secret Gene Project. People close to us have been mind-blowingly generous in helping to make it happen.
I can’t ‘overcome’ my son’s challenges for him. Some challenges are stubborn that way. But in pursuing greater understanding of his condition I do hope someday he will benefit, along with others. And I’ve learned this: the selfish drive to feel less powerless is nothing to be ashamed of. It's a great motivator.
Hear more from Caroline Jones Carrick at MT's Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh on 17 March (book below).