Girls have never had an interest in science, technology, engineering, or maths. Or at least that's what the current narrative would have you believe. But what can be done to change this and encourage girls to consider STEM subjects at school and beyond?
We caught up with Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of Stemettes and the youngest person ever to pass an A Level in Computing, to find out why she loves STEM and how she thinks other girls could be encouraged into science, technology engineering and mathematics.
Where did your love of technology come from?
I have always really liked technology and really enjoyed maths from a young age for different reasons. It's always been something I've been interested in and wanted to do more of, always done well at as well so it's part of me.
I'm a really creative person at heart so I really enjoy making things and computer science was a way for me to express that creativity because I hate writing and reading so in the way that some kids would write a story, I quite liked building stuff and making something, whether that was physically building something or taking something else apart and putting it back together in a different way. I really enjoyed doing that and the more that I studied about programming, the more I could build and the more creative I could be. I think that's where my love for STEM subjects really grew from.
How has that love of technology and maths changed the way that your life has gone so far?
It's definitely something that's at the core of me, I like being creative and building new things. And I chose to study mathematics at university so it's definitely affected my career, what my first job was and what I do now. It's all part of that same first passion and interest, creating things, thinking things up and making them happen using technology. It's something that I'm still doing and still enjoy but also something that's helping me pay the bills now.
You founded Stemettes, an organisation that is all about encouraging other girls into STEM, how did that happen?
A couple of years ago the company that I work for sent me to America for a conference to go and speak about what I do, and while I was there, I realised that it was actually a conference just for women in technology. I hadn't really thought of myself as a 'woman in technology' up until that point. While I was at the conference I heard about the statistics and the numbers and the statistics that exist around women in technology. For me, as someone who was basically born to be a woman in technology, it seemed really strange to think that this was something that needed addressing.
When I was younger and just learning about programming it was very niche to use the internet or know what it was, but now it's a very normal thing for people to have start-ups and be creating products. Now everyone knows what Facebook is and what Instagram is and all these technology companies are really big companies. So to me it seemed really strange that even though all that change had happened and technology is now more mainstream, we still don't have as many women who are like me - and I've never realised that technology 'wasn't a woman's thing'.
So that's where Stemettes came from, it was kind of a realisation that I'm a woman in tech but there are also loads of other girls who could also probably be women in tech, or women in science, or women in engineering, but don't realise that it's an option for them. They don't know enough people in these industries for them to be able to explore it to know that it is a viable career option for them.
How does Stemettes look to address the lack of women in STEM industries?
We're all about getting girls and young women (that's females aged 23 and under) to meet women in industry and also to get to see industry up close. We run public events where you can come and learn to build a game, we match girls up with women in industry and they take them along to an event.
We've also run a residential tech incubator for young women across Europe, where we ran a six week programme with 45 girls living under one roof in London and various experts coming to give them sessions on coding, or marketing, or product development. Everything that they need to know to run their own tech company. And they've all been able to pitch for funding for their ideas too and receive mentoring from people already in the industry.
But everything that we do follows our founding principles of the three F's: free, food, and fun. So it won't cost the girls anything, we'll feed them and we promise that they'll have fun.
But how do we solve the women in STEM issue on a wider scale?
It's a multi-faceted problem so the solution needs to be equally multi-faceted. It's a mixture of companies themselves and how they treat the women that work at those companies, the government and their awareness of the issue and all the different drivers and also of the technology itself, and I think it's also about a lack of understanding in wider society.
I think there needs to be education on what the jobs are in STEM and how much they pay and that they are places for women, and not just for women who don't mind wearing hardhats and getting dirty. It's really a mixture of things.
So practically, what more would you like to see the government doing?
It's not just the government's problem. It's not something that can be solved with a policy where every girl is told at 8am every day that she can be a scientist or engineer. It's more of a societal thing. We don't have as much of a problem in places like India or in some countries in South America, it's definitely a societal thing.
But if the government changed that from the top, then there could be digital literacy programmes and STEM education programmes where politicians get educated on all this sort of thing so that they have a better understanding so that the perceptions about STEM industries are broken down. It's one of those things that a direct policy isn't going to solve but indirectly in some of the policies that politicians come out with at the moment show that there's a real lack of understanding.