Engaging female talent in science and technology

Written by
Tom Ritchie

31 Aug 2018

31 Aug 2018 • by Tom Ritchie

Anne-Marie Imafidon, CEO and co-founder of Stemettes, believes the key to engaging young women in STEM subjects lies in promoting the creativity and altruistic qualities of careers in these fields.

Why did you found Stemettes and what does it do?

I had a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment in 2012. I was working in the technology department of a big bank, and was asked to attend a conference to talk about our pioneering work.

I hadn’t realised it was a ‘women in technology’ conference, nor that being a woman in tech was a big deal. Stemettes was born in 2013, out of the feeling I had at that conference: technology is solving so many problems, so how is it that half of society is not engaging as much as it should or could do? 

It’s about inspiring and supporting the next generation of females into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers, creating environments where girls have a positive STEM experience and see aspects of the industry up close. We arrange free events away from school, including hackathons, panels, exhibitions and mentoring schemes.

What has been your most rewarding moment since founding Stemettes?

In the summer of 2015, we had this crazy idea of inviting young women who were already working in STEM industries to live together in a house in south London, about 45 at a time, over the course of six weeks.

There were girls all over the UK and Ireland working on similar projects and we thought “you don’t know you’re living parallel lives”, so inviting them helped us make that connection.

We now have some of these girls working with each other, building and testing products together. They’re all young, but there will be a time when I’ll look at tech companies and know their chief information officer, chief technology officer and MD were living in the house over the course of that summer. It’s a powerful community.

Why is there a gender-based stigma attached to STEM?

The stigma comes from social norms, it’s not something we’re born with: “Gosh that’s a computer, it’s not something I should build because I have an extra X chromosome.”

A report by the Geena Davis Institute found for every seven STEM fictional characters on screen, only one is a woman, and even then it’s the stereotypical portrayal of scientists – but with longer hair and higher voices.

How do we break down barriers?

By promoting STEM as altruistic and creative. A lot of the girls have never been able to tie their science lessons to this feeling. We have too much focus on how to make things better, harder, faster, stronger. Science and tech are arguably
more creative than English or art, because they are about solving problems that help people.

The other step is to talk about role models. Ask a woman to name a scientist and they’ll say “Newton” or “Einstein”, but the technology that underpins wifi and Bluetooth was co-invented by the actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr. You don’t have to be a dead white male to be a scientific role model.

How can businesses promote STEM careers to young women?

We need to ensure there’s no enabling of cultures that lead to women dropping out. Businesses need to partner with organisations that can engage young women. We forget what it is to be a teenager. Parents tell me “we took her to this event, and it bored our daughter to death” or “it was a panel of men asking her to solve the problem of women in STEM”.

How do we future-proof young women's skill sets?

We have to empower women to think about how they learn, and encourage them to be inquisitive and adapt. Even though we're called Stemettes, we call for STEAM (the 'a' standing for those interested in the arts). This might sound counter-intuitive, but being able to use all parts of your brain and be creative is how you come up with a better version of yourself. 

Collaboration isn't a part of teaching, but that's what industry is all about. Microsoft was not built by Bill Gates alone. This industry is incredibly collaborative. 

Listen to our interview with Anne-Marie here. Available to download on Soundcloud, Stitcher or iTunes.