If more girls are to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at university, then attitudes among parents and society at large must change – that’s according to Anne-Marie Imafidon, a speaker at the EU’s Innovation Convention in March 2014. She passed an A level in computing aged 11, and at 20, she obtained a master’s degree. She is the founder of Stemettes, an organisation which encourages girls to get into STEM subjects by connecting them with women working in the field.
Why did you decide to start Stemettes?
‘I was one of three girls in my class of 70 at Oxford (University) reading maths and computer science. I don’t mind it being a minority but when it’s getting smaller, when technology’s a big driver for our economy, it’s exciting, it’s the twenty-first century, it’s all about technology, then it doesn’t seem right that a particular gender is just sat out from it and not going into it. As a natural problem solver, I figured I might as well get doing.’
What is Stemettes doing to help girls get into STEM?
‘Stemettes is about exposing girls to women (working in the field) but also to experiences, so that they can see what a career in STEM is like, to see what the skills are but also to see themselves in those that work in STEM and see that there is something for them to take hold of or take advantage of and it’s something that is going to help them be influential and have a seat at the table in the future.’
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the STEM fields?
‘Just do it. We have the internet these days and there are so many organisations and online communities that you can get involved with to help sharpen your skills, to help get clued-up on what is involved and also to leverage opportunities and people really are just waiting for you to reach out and do it. Don’t think that because you’re a girl and you don’t know any other girls doing it that it’s not something you should do. Life is about taking opportunities and finding your own path. It’s not about: no one else in my school is doing computer science, I don’t want to be the only girl. It’s about: no one else is doing it so I’m going to be the only girl, I’m going to be the one that sits in that class, I’m going to be the girl that knows all of this stuff and I’m going to be the person who wins. Go to events and drag along your parents – they should be supportive and if they’re not, find surrogate parents or other mentors to take you along and really just get stuck into the community, it’s a wonderful place, incredibly creative. Problem solving for me has always been a driver and that might be for other girls as well, or the fact that you can build something that can help the lives of others, that can be an innovation in health or in education, and you can really make a difference using technology and the knowledge of technology.’
What are the hurdles that need to be overcome?
‘We do need to make sure that we have both genders represented, the whole way up the pipeline.’
Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of Stemettes
‘I think for a lot of it the challenges are all social and they’re kind of psychological rather than being actual challenges. There’s nothing stopping you from going and studying that subject or pursuing that career. If we look at a macro-scale and the wider thing of women in entrepreneurship and women in technology, then I think that government and society as a whole needs to be a little bit better and a little bit more vigilant towards not discouraging girls from going into this and not playing on gender stereotypes too much … and not being the parent who says: “why are you studying biochemistry at university, what are you going to do with that?”, or: “if you spend too much time on the computer, you’re not going to find a husband or get married”. We need to stop all of that and stop making it look like a boy’s thing. You should be buying Lego for your girls as well as buying Lego for your boys. As a society we have a responsibility to do that and to change our attitudes towards STEM and in particular STEM for girls. I think that’s what needs to change.
‘I also think that VCs (venture capitalists) and those that have the money and hold the purse strings, for now, at least, need to be a bit more open and be more conscious of their unconscious bias. We have this notion where, sometimes where you’re making a hiring decision, you’ll hire the person that looks like Bob who’s just retired rather than hiring the person that you actually need for the role and just sticking to familiarity. I think that we need to look for talent, innovation, and our new workforce from places that we’re not used to seeing them before.’
What can the EU do to improve the situation?
‘The EU can do a little bit more, maybe around funding and universities. We’ve got the Athena SWAN project in the UK which is talking a lot about a ‘kitemark’ or accreditation where the way that you treat the women and the girls in your STEM departments is measured against certain KPIs (key performance indicators). There’s a lot of work going on around that and I think having something like that across the EU, that’s tied to funding, which is now what’s happening in the UK, would definitely push the needle and make people feel like they need to do something about it. But, I think just promoting the discussion, promoting the female role models that we do have, celebrating their success, and maybe providing environments where girls can explore this outside of just relying on education, to me is definitely a big thing that they can do.’
Is the situation in the rest of Europe the same as the UK?
‘It’s not exactly the same. Places like Estonia, for example, have spent a lot of time, they’ve invested a lot and they’ve thought a lot about being called “E-stonia”, by having a very digital young generation and embedding coding and innovation across the curriculum rather than teaching it as a separate subject. So no, not all countries across the EU are in exactly the same place. But no one, apart from perhaps Estonia, is doing excellently. Everybody still has less than 30 %, less than 40 % participation of females in STEM. If we are serious about that, then we do need to make sure that we have both genders represented, the whole way up the pipeline.’
In 2012, the EU launched a campaign to help promote gender equality and encourage girls to follow careers in science and research.
The campaign was in response to the low number of young women opting to study STEM subjects in higher education.
Across Europe, around 40 % of university graduates in science, maths and computing are women, while on average women make up just over 30 % of career researchers.
For more information, visit the Science: it’s a girl thing! website.
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