An Interview with the Head Stemette

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On the morning of International Women’s Day, indigo touched base with Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE to discuss her incredible journey in the science and technology industry, where she has risen to prominence as a champion for gender diversity. She shares her experience as CEO and co-founder of Stemettes, a leading organisation which empowers young women in STEM education and careers, and her excitement about a new podcast series with the Evening Standard called Women Tech Charge.

Anne-Marie was fittingly repurposing a desk lamp to adjust the back-lighting from sun streaming in through her window when she called in on Skype from South Africa. She was in Cape Town to speak at the annual YPO EDGE conference for business leaders and CEOs. ‘It’s almost like a two-day retreat,’ she says about the event, ‘there’s so much to see and so much to do!’

Throughout this virtual interview, she reveals that most of the conferences she attends are far from what one would expect. ‘It was just like London Fashion Week,’ she laughing describes a tech conference she attended early in her career, ‘Google took over the city and it became like a playground for us during this massive party!’

 

I realised that I had never been in an environment in tech with a female majority

However, it was at this same conference when she realised for the first time that she was a woman in tech. ‘I’ve never really noticed it before but there were 3,500 people attending, most of which were women, and I realised that I had never been in an environment in tech with a female majority,’ she says, a surprising statement considering that she was one of three women in a class of 70 when reading Mathematics and Computer Science at Oxford University.

‘That was the moment,’ she continues, ‘when I decided that someone should be doing a lot more about this issue. I didn’t want to be in a shrinking minority of women in this industry.’ Soon after, she founded Stemettes and it has since helped over 40,000 young women and girls realise their STEM potential in creative new ways. In particular, the Stemillion Clubs has been widely praised for its ingenuity by allowing young girls to run their own weekly STEM-focussed clubs or ‘Stemillion Clubs’ at school with the support of the organisation.

 

It was magic, having all these girls in the same house at the same time

For Anne-Marie, the Outbox Incubator, first launched in 2015 for girls aged 11 to 21, continues to be one of her favourite events, although she was ‘not meant to be picking favourites’. She explains that the Incubator was like ‘Big Brother meets The Apprentice meets Dragon’s Den’, aiming to instil an entrepreneurial spirit among young girls, where they even had opportunities to present their ideas to a panel for extra funding.

The conversation quickly turned to the idea of funding and sponsorship in the area of STEM. Stemettes stands out as an organisation as it is funded by corporate partnerships. For instance, Stemettes was able to fly out girls from all over Europe to participate in the Outbox Incubator. This funding places Stemettes in a ‘privileged’ position, where they are able to employ full-time staff and provide more impactful support for young women and girls.

 

We try to do things for people

It is interesting to see how Stemettes have navigated the growing debate on the merits of sponsorship over mentorship. Anne-Marie herself has a scholarship named after her, offered by the Computer Science department at Durham University.


‘When we talk about sponsorship at Stemettes, we try to do things for people rather than just fund them,’ she comments while acknowledging that there is a pressing need for more funding in the industry. She breaks down the Stemettes’s ‘more than mentoring’ approach, geared more towards girls in secondary and college education. ‘A mentor is more than someone to talk to or make you feel better. Instead, they will work towards a practical, tangible goal,’ she says, ‘They may help you with the university application process or open doors by connecting you with the right people to actualise your ideas’.

 

Women and girls believe that STEM is not a thing that we can do

However, disenfranchisement is not the only barrier for gender diversity in the tech industry. Anne-Marie identifies harmful ‘social norms’ that prevent women from not only entering the industry but keeping them there. ‘Women are always reminded by their peers, teachers or colleagues that they do not belong in these spaces,’ she points out, ‘not only by words but by actions, such as not promoting STEM subjects among female students or not giving women positions of responsibility’.

‘So when we hear horror stories about behaviour towards women in these spaces, it only justifies what women think they already knew – that STEM is not a thing that we can do’. Anne-Marie offers a new perspective by proposing, ‘If we take a moment to look at the history of STEM, it wasn’t just Einstein and Newton. We need to remember that we had Hedy Lamarr, Marie-Sophie Germain, Sarah Guppy, Katherine Johnson, Gladys West… all working alongside them!’

That is the main inspiration behind Anne-Marie’s latest project, a new podcast with the Evening Standard, Women Tech Charge. Every episode highlights the achievements of women in tech that are often overlooked in mainstream media. indigo highly recommends stories from Manon Lagrève from the Great British Bake-Off, Rikke Roselund from Borrow My Doggy and Louise Broni-Mensah, the first black female founder accepted into Silicon Valley’s Y-Combinator programme.

And with that, indigo concludes its virtual meet-up with Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon but not before she reassures our readers, especially young women at university, that ‘it’s never too late to enter the world of STEM. There are so many online resources that are available and free, so just try as many different things as you want!’

Image credits to Stemettes

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