Women in STEM: The root of the problem

This is a guest blog from Michelle Perkins, director of Schools Outreach Programme at Capgemini


I blame the Dentists! Truly my work encouraging young people, especially girls, to consider an IT career has shown me that the root cause of the problem is dentists.


I’ve never been that keen on dentists, so perhaps I’m being a little harsh?  But so often when I meet the parents (primarily the mothers – sorry girls!) of smart, determined and STEM aware young ladies they tell me their ambition for their daughter is dentistry.  Putting aside any possible Simon Cowell fetishes – what on earth are the attractions of dentistry?


One of the main points I hear is…”You’ll always need dentists”. Yes, absolutely.  And with so many young unemployed people in the UK, as parents we have a duty to encourage career choices of the future. However, the dependence on IT in our society is staggering, and while I would say there are a finite number of teeth to be drilled, there are endless uses of technology.  It’s an industry just waiting for a bright spark to create the next big thing. 


“It’s a global job,” which is indeed true, but technologists are also in demand the world over. The opportunities to work globally in a company like mine are fantastic. 


“It’s flexible so good for working mothers?” This is probably where technology as a career beats pretty much anything else into second place – after all its technology solutions that are enabling dynamic and flexible working.


It seems to me that what dentists have over IT is a more positive perception amongst parents, despite fantastic role models such as Tim Berners Lee. It is therefore up to us, as an industry, to improve this perception and encourage parents to support their children’s ambition to enter a career in STEM. 


The true scale of this task was laid bare recently with new research by O2 zeroing in on the ‘parental factor’ when it comes to influencing young people’s initial career directions. Surprisingly, almost a quarter (23%) of the 2,000 parents surveyed deemed key skills, like web design and coding to be “irrelevant”, whilst 38 per cent said they would urge them to follow a career in law or medicine.


An eye opener indeed. Yet, however surprising these findings may be, it’s hard to overestimate their effect as parents’ views of possible career choices are very influential with young people, especially during the formative years. It just goes to show how deeply attitudes are entrenched across society and any engagement has to focus not only on young people but with parents too.


At Capgemini, we’ve been working closely with schools to help nurture the talent, skills and creativity of young people through our Schools Programme. The experience it offers allows young people to see technology as a solution to problems – not simply an end in itself. If we’re going to beat the likes of dentistry for the best students we need to show them how they are impacting the future.

The technology industry continues to drive the UK’s economic future – the sector will generate over £4bn this year alone and we’re the already the largest tech hub in Europe. Just imagine what more we could achieve if we unlocked all that potential.


With this in mind, Capgemini has also devised a series of initiatives designed to reach out to parents including our Insight Events which invite parents to attend interactive workshops alongside their children at our offices, giving a taste of the life working in IT and business.


Capgemini also supports Apps for Good, an open-source technology education movement that partners with educators in schools to deliver our course to young people 10-18 years of age.  Apps for Good showcases how technology can provide a great solution from pocket money budgets to issues around sexuality and bullying  – it fits well with Capgemini’s own philosophy.


Attitudes by their nature take time to shift and we should be under no illusions that we’ll be in this for the long-haul. My message is let’s all get behind this goal of encouraging young people and in particular girls into STEM careers.