How are girls being encouraged to get into STEM?
Charley Rogers meets head Stemette Anne-Marie Imafidon to hear about how her vision to encourage girls in STEM came to life, and how she aims to bring a ‘London Fashion Week vibe’ to tech…
How did Stemettes come into being?
When I was 23, I worked in technology and really enjoyed it, and was sent by the company I was working for at that time to go and talk about some technology that we’d been building. I turned up at a technology conference, with 3,500 people there, all of them women. I’d never been in that kind of environment before. As a girl who’d always been in technology, I’d never understood the sense of belonging you get in a place like that.
At that conference, I learned about how in the US – and I’ve since learned this is similar in the UK – over the last 30 years, the number of women we’ve had in the technology industry in particular has been in freefall, and that is something that’s across the physical sciences and maths, and hence the terminology of ‘STEM-ettes’ came into play.
This conference now sees about 20,000 technical women go every year, but it is like London Fashion Week. It is so cool, honestly. They all descend on the city and stadiums, Google take over local parks, there are private parties. The first time I went there was a Pinterest party, with women making dreamcatchers, and screen-printing tote bags, and there’s the
Twitter reception which is exclusive, and I was a bit like, “If people knew! No-one would want to do fashion, we’d all want to do tech!” So that’s where it came from; thinking if younger people were able to to get this information, to feel a sense of belonging…
And because I was a young person – typically defined as 25 and under – I was able to access some funding from Telefonica, O2, and that was how I funded my first event, back in 2013.
Is there an element of your schooling that really encouraged you?
I had a couple of teachers in my primary school who really appreciated that I was bouncing off the walls, and that I understood things, and so I think they made comments to my parents.
School wasn’t a place, though, where I was hugely inspired to do STEM things. It was more at home, playing on my dad’s computer and creating things, where I grew an interest, and a want to explore what I could do in technology.
Being inspired, at home or at school, is so important for young people and their learning. How can the UK education system help get kids more engaged in STEM, and address the gender gap?
There is a fair amount that can be done, and my question is always around implementation. I use the example of Estonia, and the fact that they managed to get everyone digitally literate across their education system, so about a million people. Making a change with a million people is a relatively easy thing to do overnight, but we’re not a country of a million. So if we make a change we need to make sure to scale it so it doesn’t do more harm than good across the education systems.
But mostly there are three things that we need to either ramp up, or at least make sure that we’re injecting, for people who have a role in STEM teaching. The first one is creativity. The science curriculum isn’t structured like it is for English or for art, where it’s all about creating things and appreciating things that other people have created. Instead we prioritise facts, and figures, memorising and rote learning, and we’re missing the creativity.
The second thing is altruism. Again, we don’t really teach the fact that science is ultimately about helping people. I think that gets lost in the messaging, and it becomes more about needing to be a genius, and making things faster and stronger, and more efficient. Whereas really you don’t want speed for speed’s sake, you want it because then you can make things better for people, and so we need to include that as a core part of the message.
And the third one is the types of role models we have across our curriculum and in our resources. Everyone talks about Isaac Newton, we all know about him and the apple, and about Archimedes and the bathtub, but we don’t really tell the stories of Hedy Lemarr and Wi-Fi, or Steve Shirley and Concorde.
So we’re aiming to take the idea of our Stemillions clubs, and have Stemillions boxes. We’re trying to introduce a role model like, for example, Gladys West, and explain that work like hers in trigonometry is what allows GPS to do its thing; how Google Maps can direct you, and how Snapchat can geotag your pictures.
We’re trying to tie the syllabus to real role models, in particular female role models, and make it clear that there are jobs beyond maths teacher; that if you continue with STEM, there are so many options open to you.
You mentioned the importance of lifelong learning in your speech at Bristol. Is this something Stemettes is planning to work on?
Not necessarily. There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week, and we try not to work all of the hours God gives us. So I think for us, the next group we’d like to engage with is teachers, rather than lifelong learners. We’ve built up our expertise in our niche, and so the lifelong learning discussion is one we’d be happy to influence, but not necessarily something we’d then take on, as it would be a completely different set of goals.
What I will say though, is that the more digital literacy you have, the easier it is to continue lifelong learning. We have YouTube, MOOCs, all these different platforms, where anything you want to learn – even if it’s not maths, if it’s how to braid your hair, or how to cook a new dish – the information is out there. And you as an individual have a lot more access to that information than your ancestors did. It used to be that universities were the only place you could go to learn things, but there are so many different places where you can learn now that don’t have to be that formal setting, and don’t even necessarily need to have accredited certification. And that still counts as learning. The technology sector knows that they’ve got a massive problem, they know they need more people, and so the roots of entry are copious.
It’s more a matter of investing the time. For adults, these things are a lot easier than if you’re 11 or 12 and wanting to explore, find safe spaces to learn.
As an adult, the assumption is that you have enough agency, and enough awareness of the world that you know which are safe places for you to be, or whether you’re putting yourself in harm’s way by trying to learn something. Whereas for an 11-year-old the risks are slightly higher. So we’re going to focus on safe spaces for people who are more vulnerable.
Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon, MBE, DSc (hon)
CEO and co-founder, Stemettes
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