“We need to move the social norm”

By Sian Williams Page. Posted

© Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

Anne-Marie Imafidon tells Sian Williams Page how she devised the approach of the social enterprise Stemettes, and her plans for wider social change in 2021

In 2013, while working at Deutsche Bank, Anne-Marie Imafidon started Stemettes, a social enterprise with a mission to inspire the next generation of girls and non-binary people into STEM careers. Since then, the organisation has held events — each with the mantra ‘free, fun, food’ — for more than 45,000 young people. For her groundbreaking work, Imafidon was awarded an MBE in 2017 and an honorary degree from the University of Bristol in 2019. We spoke in December, at the end of another busy year for Imafidon: she had published her first book — How to Be a Maths Whizz, for young children — alongside leading Stemettes through a period of extraordinary change due to the pandemic.

“We had to kind of put down the train track as we were steamrolling ahead … We have translated to allow that kind of ‘free, fun, food’ thing to still exist. We’ve been posting food out. We’ve been still keeping the fun up. We’re still having music in the background, still allowing people to kind of connect, and build, and get technical.”

Imafidon explains that the adaptations they’ve made have also considered young people without access to technology at home: “We have had to send laptops out, we have had to pay for data packages, we have sent dongles.”

One upside of the way they have adapted to the pandemic, she explains, is that Stemettes can now reach young people outside of the UK. In their summer programme, nearly 400 young people gained certifications in subjects like Python and cybersecurity: “We’ve had people from 13 or so other countries joining us for these programmes. And because everyone was virtual, they felt as if they literally were here, because everyone had the same experience.”

Imafidon explains that she came up with the idea for Stemettes after attending an event for women working in technology in 2012: “I remember the feeling of being in a majority-female technical environment. Tech has always been my thing. But being there, I was like, ‘How great is this? This is what it feels like to be in the majority in a technical space? Who knew?’ It was like, ‘Here is where the magic can happen.’ And so it was taking that feeling and that experience, and mapping it to a slightly younger audience, and giving people that positive experience in their formative years.”

The Stemettes’ approach of fostering a sense of community was instinctive, she explains: “That’s just what I’m like … I’m very much at the centre of whatever community I’m in and I like to enjoy time with my friends. I was never a gamer. So that kind of singular thing you see in the movies just isn’t me. I’ve never watched Star Trek or any of that kind of stuff, and I don’t play Worms. So I think for me it was, ‘Look, I’m me, and I’m technical, so you don’t have to be that geek thing … I went to Oxford. I did maths and computer science. I finished a year early, I kind of know my stuff. And so the whole Star Trek thing can’t be a prerequisite. The whole ‘Don’t talk to people’ thing can’t be a prerequisite, because I did.’”

Imafidon explains that by focusing on girls and non-binary young people, it felt as if she was going against the tide of other organisations. “When we started, a lot of people were like, ‘No, no, no, don’t focus just on the girls, you can’t do that.’ And it’s like, ‘Why can’t I? Why can’t we be overt?’ Because being subtle to whatever level hasn’t worked and being serious and being curriculum-led and being so very focused on the technology above all else, it doesn’t help. It’s also not really the way the tech industry is set up now.”

Stemettes measure their success by looking at where their alumni are working by age 25, rather than focusing on getting more girls to take computer science at school. “As much as I want to tell them to take it, lots of girls can’t, because they don’t have the option. And the girls that do have the option, a lot of them end up having an awful experience in that classroom. A lot of them, it’s because of their peers and their teachers. Some of them, it’s because of the curriculum … I don’t want them to have to go through that.

“If you look at Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project, the number of those that are computer science lesson experiences … Until we stamp out the blatant sexism and racism that we’re seeing in these classrooms, I can’t say at a Stemettes event, ‘Everyone here must now choose computer science.’ All I can say is, ‘This person works at NASA, and here’s what they did to get to where they are. So here’s why, when you’re sat in your computer science classroom and people are treating you how they’re treating you, you might want to hold on to what you’re studying, because it’s not about your peers. It’s about what you’ll be able to do next.’”

While Imafidon thinks there should be a shift in the English computer science curriculum — “What you’re going to have to do with computer science, you write non-white men into it and you write the altruistic end of it into it, and you write creativity at the core of it” — it’s not her focus. Instead, she says, she’s trying to cause a shift in the attitudes of people who have already been through the school system. She explains that she has plans for a second book project in 2021, this time for adults, alongside work with NATO, G7, and the Institute for the Future of Work, where she is a trustee.

“It needs to be a societal thing where all of us wake up … We have bulletproof vests, we have GPS, we have WiFi. All of these things we have because of women, but no one has that association ...

“I’ve said since the beginning of Stemettes that we need to move the social norm. I think it’s something we’ve been able to do for the fifty thousand-odd young people we’ve worked with … The next step for me, at least for next year, is definitely going to be, how do we go up a level?

“With the institutions at the top of society, how are we going to push things in a particular direction? How are we going to ensure that if you’re an academic as a woman, you don’t have an awful time? How do we make sure that if you’re a Black woman, you don’t have the most awful time? And how do we make sure that if you’re using the technology — you know, technology is power, right? —  how do you know you’re not abusing your power and creating more problems?”

How to Be a Maths Whizz by Anne-Marie Imafidon, published by DK Children, is available now.

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