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Voices: How my mother broke the mould as the only woman at her university

Akshata Murty with her husband, Rishi Sunak (PA Wire)
Akshata Murty with her husband, Rishi Sunak (PA Wire)

My mother’s always been a storyteller. Mythology, pirates, friendships... you name it, she has a story.

The one that has stuck with me and continues to inspire me is her own story: her foray into engineering. As the only female student at her university in late 1960s India, my mother chose to break the mould and study a Stem subject (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) simply because it was her passion. Stem allowed her to push boundaries both academically and professionally, and gave her a ringside seat to the technological revolution.

Fast-forward 50 years and women studying Stem is comparatively mainstream. Last month I was delighted to join a reception at Downing Street to meet young women and men celebrating the launch of the Future Talent Programme. This programme – an industry first by the British Beauty Council – exposes secondary-school students to the wide-ranging opportunities available within the beauty industry.

The scheme places an emphasis on promoting Stem education and careers, from material science study in the world of cosmetics to data science planning in retail management. I was heartened by the possibilities available for students in an exciting field, but most inspiring of all was the enthusiasm to encourage more people to take this path.

What has beauty got to do with Stem? Think of some of our brightest British success stories: the No7 range from Boots; Dame Roddick’s Body Shop phenomenon; and Charlotte Tilbury’s colour cosmetics. None of these products could have come into existence without a strong foundation in science, manufacturing and technological innovation – and the passion and determination of their creators.

Of course, the beauty industry is just one of numerous fields actively promoting Stem careers. In fact, it is hard to think of anyone who isn’t innovating. Recognising this, the government has promoted Stem apprenticeships widely across the UK, and it is great to see that the offer is being taken up so enthusiastically: 36 per cent of all apprenticeships (men and women) started in 2022-23 were in Stem.

We’ve seen a 40 per cent increase in women taking up Stem apprenticeships since 2014-15, and between 2019 and 2023 we have seen an increase in women applying for degrees in Computing by 57 per cent and Engineering & Technology by 18 per cent. A big leap from when my mother began her career in the 1970s as the only female engineer at her company.

Personally, I have witnessed the power of Stem in my own career, promoting and mentoring home-grown British brands: a vertically integrated, comprehensive online childcare agency; a new age, non-invasive wireless foetal monitoring system; and AI-powered study resources for students. A long list of UK businesses innovating with Stem as their foundation – and many of them with female founders to boot.

If we continue to invest in science and innovation, Britain can lead the world into the technological age. So we need to celebrate women studying and achieving in Stem, and encourage more to take it up.

On this International Women’s Day, I look to my young daughters and hope they too are inspired by their grandmother to think about new frontiers, to reimagine a world built on Stem innovation and to pursue their own passions. I wonder what stories they’ll be telling over the next 50 years – I hope the one about a young woman studying engineering in 1960s India sticks with them.

Akshata Murty is a businesswoman, fashion designer and venture capitalist. She is also married to the prime minister, Rishi Sunak