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Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon: ‘If only half of society is at the decision-making table, we’re not doing it properly’

Scientist and STEM campaigner Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE has been challenging stereotypes since she first took apart a VCR player as a child to find out how it worked. Here we explore her incredible achievements from child prodigy to Oxford scholar and President of the British Science Association, her lightbulb moment around tackling gender bias in STEM and why she believes it’s vital for everyone that women are at the centre of tech

Megan Carnegie
Thursday 20 July 2023 13:08 BST
STEM campaigner Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE on workplace bias: 'It took me a while to realise I was living in a stereotype'

For as long as she can remember, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon has wanted to know how the things around her work. While her classmates were in the soft play area, she was taking apart the VCR player, rewiring the washing machine and commandeering Microsoft Word on her dad’s research computer. “I was fascinated by the devices at home and wanted to learn how they worked,” she says. “I was excited to see what problems I could solve with all that new information.” The budding technologist showed exceptional brilliance early on and her penchant for deconstructing household gadgets flourished into record-breaking talent. By ten, she was speaking six languages and had gained two GCSEs in maths and computing; and by 11, she was the youngest girl in the country to pass A-level computing.

Prior to that, as an as-yet undiscovered genius, the pace and method of teaching at primary school had led Anne-Marie to play the class clown. “I always wanted to entertain my friends, rather than listen to what the teacher was saying – yet again,” she explains. “It was more out of frustration with the slow and repetitive style of learning, rather than me just being disruptive.” Fortunately both her teachers and parents recognised this, and Anne-Marie was put on an accelerated learning track, which included lessons and study outside of school.

Bolstered by her parents’ encouragement in her curiosity for STEM, Anne-Marie was largely insulated from gender bias throughout her home life and school career. “I was never ostracised and no one ever told me that because of my gender, I shouldn’t be there,” she recalls. “I really wasn’t aware of the barriers and divisions for girls in STEM, compared to boys – and I know I’m privileged that this wasn’t a big feature in my childhood.”

While studying maths and computer science at the University of Oxford, Anne-Marie was one of three women in a class of 70 yet still, her minority status didn’t compute. “I think my lack of awareness on the matter goes to show that if you’re not made to feel ‘other’ in these spaces, you can enjoy and thrive in them,” she explains. And thrive she did – going on to work as a computer scientist for a range of global banking organisations including Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank.

At a technical conference almost eleven years ago, Anne-Marie suddenly felt the tectonic plates of her worldview shift. “There were 3,500 technical women in one space and I thought, my goodness, this is my people!” she says. “I learned that I was part of this shrinking minority and that was a huge issue.” Without women contributing to major technological decisions that affect every single area of life, it dawned on Anne-Marie that something had gone very wrong. “I saw that women’s experiences, perspectives and problems weren’t reflected in technology which is seriously dangerous,” she explains. “If we only have half of society sitting at the decision-making table, we’re not doing it properly.”

Societal biases

Anne-Marie co-founded Stemettes to support young women and non-binary people in STEM (Sam & Simon Photography)

The underrepresentation of women in STEM takes root early – sometimes before a child can even hold a pen – and is compounded by a complex interplay of factors as they age. “Everything for children is on a gender binary, like buying different toys and clothes for girls versus boys,” says Anne-Marie. “Then there’s a lack of representation in the stories we tell, which means that the idea of a technologist, founder or researcher who’s a woman is so far out of the realm of imagination.”

The scarcity of women in STEM is evident in film and television representations too. Anne-Marie recalls the backlash around a potential female Doctor Who, essentially a “fictional time-travelling character who isn’t real!” she laughs wryly. “And of course, the tech genius in the Hollywood movie is always a man.” These societal stereotypes and biases have seeped into social norms, which impact every level of the systems we move through, from how parents treat children, to what appears in the school curriculum. “News coverage is another example – we rarely see women featured as technical experts, if at all,” she says. “There are countless signs and signals that reinforce women’s status as ‘other’ in STEM, or even just out in the world, to an extent that even we don’t realise.”

Despite these baked-in biases, Anne-Marie is keen to highlight that women have always been pioneering forces in science, technology, engineering and maths. “Women technologists of all kinds are the reason we have GPS, Wi-Fi, the bulletproof vest, the flight receiver on Concorde, and why Waterloo Bridge is still standing today,” she explains. “But those stories haven’t been told, have been actively or, very rarely, accidentally erased and hidden.” She’s adamant that herstory – that’s history viewed from a female or specifically feminist perspective – gets the airtime and recognition it deserves.

This desire to spotlight history and inspire young women was the driving force behind Anne-Marie’s social enterprise Stemettes, which she co-founded not long after her conference lightbulb moment. “It was a response to my realisation that STEM was no longer this niche thing, of me playing on the computer at home – it’s driving our economies, healthcare, the way we work, play and live,” she explains. “For the sake of the world’s future – not just that of the tech industry – we must ensure we serve women’s unique needs and experiences. All of us miss out when we don’t have that perspective.”

On a mission to shatter barriers and bridge the gender gap in STEM, Stemettes empowers and equips girls and young women and non-binary people aged five to 25 with the tools and confidence needed to thrive in these fields. Through workshops, hackathons and start-up incubator sessions, Stemettes aims to challenge social norms, including that pervasive narrative that STEM disciplines should ‘belong’ to boys and men. A decade since launching, Stemettes is mobilising to ensure the curriculum actually reflects the rich herstory of women in STEM. “I want girls to understand how women have contributed to these crucial tools that we use every day and are incredibly technical,” says Anne-Marie.

Increasing visibility

In our exclusive Ripple Effect series, Anne-Marie tackled workplace bias with AJ Odudu (Independent/Sofi Adams)

Her hope is that this will enforce more positive views of what an innovator is and can be for teachers, parents and students. A trailblazing force herself, Anne-Marie has always believed that if you can see it, you can be it; a responsibility she takes even more seriously since being elected President of the British Science Association in 2022. “It’s so important for me to continue to show what’s possible by stepping into spaces people might not have realised they should and deserve to be in,” she says. “I’m conscious to make clear the value of me coming in and holding that role – and I hope that it helps others drop some of their own biases and edit some of their own systems.” She finds the trickle-down effect heartening to see, both through her leadership positions and work with Stemettes.

Anne-Marie wants girls and women to see how much optimism and creativity awaits them in STEM fields. “Often it’s spoken about as incredibly restrictive and requires a specific set of skills to enter, which puts up barriers – I want girls to know that contrary to stereotypes, you need to be creative to solve the problems we’re facing right now,” she explains. “There’s an incredible diversity of options and plenty of roles that don’t even exist yet, so my aim is to ensure women can find success in STEM in the way that they want and deserve.”

Having seen an incredible 60,000 young people engage with what Stemettes does – many of whom have gone on to take up leadership positions and advocate for other women in the industry – Anne-Marie remains hugely optimistic on women’s fight for representation and fulfilment in STEM. She continues to carve new pathways and tell her story – most recently through her book She’s in CTRL, released earlier this year, which documents how women can take back tech to communicate, investigate, problem-solve, broker deals and protect themselves in a digital world.

Anne-Marie speaks of all the green shoots to celebrate, namely the growing number of women-led spaces and workplaces run by “reasonable people, where women can learn, grow and thrive” without the power struggle associated with historically male-dominated spheres. “I see so many spaces in STEM industries where women’s contributions and perspectives are being welcomed, which proves women can be respected, purposeful and get fairly remunerated for their work,” says Anne-Marie.

The task, then, is for women to seek those spaces out and be assertive within them. “All of us can use our sphere of agency,” says Anne-Marie. “You’re in control of your own power and the application of your skillset, so you can make change and make it for others.” The more we can do that en masse, the more Anne-Marie believes we can shift the balance towards gender equity and equality – and create a new world order that everyone will benefit from.

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