Until we stop trolls attacking great women in science, girls will never truly feel welcome in Stem

On International Girls in ICT Day, we must give women and girls the credit they deserve so that one day soon, drives for equality will be redundant

Anne-Marie Imafidon@aimafidon
Thursday 25 April 2019 14:43
'Already we've learned so much' says Katie Bouman the scientist behind the first image of a black hole

It’s not just our recent spell of good weather that has given rise to green shoots. At last, it seems that progress is being made in female representation in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). Today, around 21 per cent of people working in Stem industries in the UK are women. In 2013, it was 13 per cent.

Grassroots Stem talent among girls is also being cultivated within good schools. For example, in 2018 there was a 13 per cent year-on year increase in the number of girls who took the full-course computing GCSE – despite the fact the subject isn’t widely available.

This trend is creeping into the mainstream too, where examples of successful women in Stem are starting to emerge in popular culture. I was heartened by the recent Hollywood movie, Little, about a black female tech CEO who magically transforms into a teenage version of herself. Not only does it centre around a powerful role model wrapped in a fun storyline, it normalises female tech ambitions and makes them accessible.

This is all good and progress should be applauded, but we can’t pretend our work here is anywhere near done. 17 per cent of those currently working in the technology industry identify as women. The routes into the industry are many – from apprenticeships to degrees to informal courses. Not enough is known about these options or the upside that can be gained from the altruism and creativity of a tech career.

For me, one of the most pernicious influences are the social norms that surround girls and Stem. Our tendency to tolerate, not celebrate, women in Stem is a habit that is apparently hard to shake.

A case in point is the recent trolling of Dr Katie Bouman, the woman behind the world’s first image of a black hole. Dr Bouman is a genuine scientific pioneer, yet a vocal minority felt that her credit was undeserved.

Research has shown that positive role models are one of the most effective ways to inspire young girls to get into Stem. Dr Bouman and her peers have the power to inspire an entire generation, if only we told their stories in the classroom and beyond.

International Girls in ICT (information and communications technology) Day is expected to directly reach and engage 357,000 girls around the globe. Just imagine how many more little girls’ ambitions could have been sparked or reinforced by more public celebrations of Dr Bouman and her achievements?

Over the next 10 years, there will be more than two million jobs that cannot be filled due to a lack of qualified ICT specialists. We need to create the circumstances for teenage girls to be able to take their rightful place in this gap. This includes sending the right messages about technical women to their peers, teachers, parents, guardians and future employers.

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Put simply, if women are not inspiring, designing, creating and commissioning technology, it will never serve society in the way it should. We need to do better as technology becomes even more core to the workplace and the way that society operates – especially seeing as teenage girls have incredible ideas with the potential to transform some of the current problems we face within that field.

The good news is that industry is stepping in to help organisations like mine, Stemettes, to grow and reach a wider number of girls than ever before. Stemettes partners, such as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, are helping to tackle the pressing issue of Britain’s Stem talent shortage. But while private money is forthcoming, this should not send a message to the government to stand back. To the contrary, the need for women in ICT is greater than ever before and risks becoming a national crisis without an intervention.

Until then, we all have a responsibility to erode those gender stereotypes that are preventing young women from choosing Stem subjects. Tolerance is not enough – the female heroes of Stem must be given a platform and the credit they deserve, so that one day there will be no need for International Girls in ICT Day or even organisations such as mine. I can’t wait for the day when all girls feel empowered to make stereotype-free decisions about their own Stem journeys – whatever career they take up.

Anne-Marie Imafidon is CEO and co-founder of Stemettes, a social enterprise that inspires and supports young women into Stem careers supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch

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