Keynote speaker at Digifest 2019, Anne-Marie Imafidon reveals what inspired her to create Stemettes – an organisation that inspires thousands of girls and young women to take up careers in the male-dominated domains of science, technology, engineering and maths.
Everything changed for Anne-Marie Imafidon one day towards the end of 2012. Following a stellar academic career in which she had passed computer science A-level at the age of 11 and become one of the youngest ever to receive a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Oxford, she was working happily in the corporate world when she flew to the US to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – and experienced an epiphany.
“There were three and half thousand women there, all of whom were technical. I realised that I’d never really been in that environment of majority female technologists, ever,” she marvels. On her return to the UK, Imafidon started to dig deeper into the issue of representation and participation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The result was Stemettes.
Now in its sixth year, Stemettes has supported around 40,000 girls and young women taking part in its free panel events, hackathons, exhibitions or mentoring schemes, all with the aim of inspiring the next generation of women in STEM and, ultimately, increasing the proportion of women in those fields from its current dismal figure of 21%.
“Stemettes was born out of trying to take the formats and things that I saw at that conference and bringing them to a much younger audience, during their formative years, in the hope that they can have more information when they decide whether or not STEM is a viable option for them or is something that they can be excited about being a part of,” says Imafidon.
She argues that, as far as Stemettes is concerned, there are three optimum points of intervention in those formative years of a girl’s or young woman’s life.
The first is at the age of five, when the social norms they may already have gleaned from gendered toys and the interactions they have with boys are reinforced at school – or challenged. The second is the “defining time” of puberty, when decisions are made about GCSEs and Stemettes can help to reassure adolescents that STEM can be a defining part of their identity, important to who they are and how they see themselves. The third point for key interventions is towards the end of university careers, when young women are on the brink of the job market.
“It’s important to be able to give girls a good sense of the fact that there’s a wider choice for them to make, rather than it being: if you study physics you have to don a tweed jacket with elbow patches and that’s the only thing you can do with your physics degree", says Imafidon.
The barrier facing girls at all of those ages is social norms, she argues. It’s the notion that ‘technology is not for you’ if you rarely see people who look like you doing technical activities – ”the options are obscured as part of this social narrative where we don’t see technical women on TV shows, even fictional ones, we don’t see technical women in the press, we just don’t have them as part of our narratives.”
The result for society is “rubbish products and rubbish solutions to problems that don’t exist,” says Imafidon, pointing to examples as varied as Facebook founder Zuckerberg’s ‘hot or not’ tool and Fitbit’s period tracker that, inexplicably, restricted the length of a period to 10 days. “If we had more women in the room when we’re deciding what we’re building, how we’re building it and the kind of assumptions we have around it, then we’d have better products,” she reasons.
While Stemettes offers a fresh, innovative and impactful take on the issue, with its free, fun and food-filled events reaching demographics that other STEM outreach activities do not, it does not let other educators off the hook. There is plenty that those in colleges and universities can be doing to challenge the STEM gender imbalance.
For Imafidon, the first and most critical is to be inclusive in activities, in language and in narratives, the second is a greater emphasis on digital literacy and the third is for educators to embrace and keep up to date with the latest trends in technology (her speech at Digifest will expand on these themes).
Imafidon’s ultimate dream is for Stemettes to become redundant, to solve the problem and close the door. That might be wishful thinking, she admits, but, for now, she is proud of the deep impact her brainchild is having on girls throughout the UK: “We help them not just in their aspirations but also in their confidence, in their awareness, in their perception, in their preparedness for life and what comes next – even emotionally in some places, as well,” she concludes.
Anne-Marie Imafidon is making the opening speech at Jisc’s annual Digifest event on 12 March 2019. For more about this showcase of education technology, see the full programme.
Booking for the event closes on Friday 1 March 2019.