Episode 8: WERKIN with Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon on creating a world where everyone can see themselves reflected in technology
Before founding STEMettes the UK’s leading social initiative dedicated to inspiring and promoting young women in STEM, before a successful career in computer engineering and before earning advanced degrees in mathematics from Oxford, Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon was the youngest girl ever to pass A-level computing at age 11. This is to say that Imafidon knows a thing or two about what it takes to encourage young women into STEM careers.
Imafidon was inspired to found STEMettes after attending a conference in 2012 in the US. Seeing other initiatives to bring girls and young women into STEM, Imafidon returned to the UK and got to work. Within less than a year, her vision for a supportive community for young women in STEM was a reality.
“Let's make it real. If you make it a thing then it's easier for people to get involved and for them to support and for it to flourish. But there was also a sense of ‘let's give it a good go and see where it goes’”.
It’s no wonder that Imafidon counts “communicating a vision and getting people to follow along with it” as one of her signature superpowers. She also credits a circle of mentors and sponsors she calls the STEMette Godmothers with her organisation’s success, which counts Prince Harry as one of its most avid supporters (though he is not considered a Godmother). The Godmothers representing women from the public and private sectors are “more than mentors, they’re sponsors for the organiation, they help things happen”.
Imafidon also describes a pivotal moment for defining how STEMettes could best serve young women. While attending a panel featuring teenagers in STEM, she noted the differences in how the young women and young men were treated. She saw a lack of support and opportunities for many of the young women on the panel, while the young men had been mentored and awarded traineeships to live on their own and study and work in tech.
“Why does no one see themselves in these girls? To the point where they move them to wherever they need to move for this innovation to take off, right? They’re [the young women on the panel] solving, effectively world hunger and not being taken seriously”.
When asked how adults can support young people in STEM, one of the young women on the panel responded:
“We get patted on the head and we get encouraged, everyone congratulates us for thinking outside the box, but what they don't do is support us to live outside the box”.
It was then that Imafidon knew she wanted STEMettes to expand to help young women live outside the box. She describes the sense of urgency for engaging young women in STEM before they turn 18,
“Who knows? She might be the next Einstein. She might be the next person that solves world hunger. If you don't take her seriously now, she'll become disenfranchised enough that it's not something she continues to do or if not her, there are other girls like her who maybe haven’t had that kind of support who will become disenfranchised”.
STEMettes then launched Outbox, a London incubator designed for teenaged women to live and work together over six weeks.
“It's about giving the girls an environment where they are just as comfortable sharing maths jokes on Twitter with each other or teaching each other CSSA 3, as they are blasting Journey out at two in the morning and singing along to it or making each other cups of tea until they run out of mugs.
It’s an incredibly social, incredibly vibrant kind of atmosphere where it is free to be there, there is fun, there is food and there are women in STEM, but we’re able to be here and be human and enjoy ourselves”.
This human side of technology is what makes STEMettes unique, it’s about creating an ecosystem for young women to be inspired by each other, building what Imafidon calls “STEM-confidence”.
Encouraging more women and other underrepresented communities to build STEM-confidence is exactly what is needed to make the Tech industry more inclusive.
“In 10 years I'd love it to be something where being digital is the same as being literate, this core literacy. We talk about it quite a lot now, but we're kind of near it but a long way from getting everyone to participate fully [in Tech].
Of course they'll be advances, but everyone's not part of those advances you know, they say the future is here but it’s not evenly distributed”.
Imafidon also describes the need for media representation of women in technology. Women in Tech, she observers, “are invisible” in the media and in education. She gives the example of Heddy Lamar, the film actress-turned-inventor whose research underpinned modern WiFi. “Heddy Lamar’s not a household name, but Wi-Fi in the household is on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right?"
Part of STEMette’s work is to share the stories of women in STEM, because representation matters when inspiring young women, “I can do it because she did it and she did it and she did it”. When will Imafidon’s work be done?
“For STEMettes, success will be redundancy. Success will be when we close the doors and and we don’t have to do this anymore. And success will be when that social norm has changed”.