Making STEM 'the norm' for girls and young women
Support To recruit more women into STEM, girls as young as five need to know that it's a viable — and fun — career option for them, says a leading female social entrepreneur.
When she was studying maths and computer science at university, it didn't dawn on Anne-Marie Imafidon that she was in the minority. But, looking back, she was: of the 70 people on her course, only three were women.
“I didn't have my epiphany until much later,” admits Imafidon. “I only really noticed the gender disparity when I started working in the tech industry and was sent to the States to attend a women in technology conference. I was sitting there with 3,500 people who were exactly like me and realised we were all in a minority — and a shrinking one at that, because the numbers of women in the industry were in freefall at that time.”
Ultimately, this was the moment that led Imafidon to co-found a social enterprise called Stemettes, which for the last four years has been working across the UK and Ireland to inspire and support girls and young women (from the ages of five to 21) into science, technology, engineering and maths.
"It should be normal for girls to be involved with science, tech, engineering and maths."
“There's a perception problem with STEM,” she says. “It's not 'the social norm' for girls and women to participate in it; so, we want to challenge that view and change things so that it's completely normal to be a female in, say, tech or engineering. Our aim is to create opportunities for girls and young women to learn about the options they have in STEM and let them see the sector up close. We need to say to young women that even if society, your parents, TV shows or movies say you're somehow 'strange' for getting involved in science and technology, here's a safe space for you — and one that will help you realise your true potential.”
Troublingly, even young girls conform to the stereotype that science is 'only for boys'. “There was a report out earlier in the year which noted that children as young as six believe boys are 'smarter' than girls,” says Imafidon. “And, unfortunately, there's a myth that you have to be a genius to get involved with STEM. But if you look at GCSE, A-Level and university scores, girls outperform boys in STEM subjects — when they choose to do them. So, we have to increase their desire to pursue those options.”
"Children as young as six believe boys are 'smarter' than girls.”
Taking girls out of a classroom setting and placing them in an informal STEM environment is a good way of showing young women the reality of the STEM industries, says Imafidon. “They get to see it and breathe it. Our focus isn't on STEM learning and knowledge acquisition, however; it's on changing perceptions, increasing awareness, expanding their network and boosting their confidence, which has a positive knock-on impact on their general confidence as a human being.” It's also about getting their attention with cool technology, such as the Internet of Things, driverless cars and dancing robots to show them that science can be fun.
Meeting women in the industry
Plus, girls get to meet women in STEM careers, says Imafidon. “Luckily, there's no shortage of women in the industry who want to meet and talk to their 10-year-old selves. So, girls could be meeting CEOs of big tech companies, women who are working on DNA sequencing projects, or someone just starting their career at Rolls Royce. When they talk to them they find that they're very similar: they like the same things and they're from the same backgrounds. It's not just the Dame Wendy Halls or the Martha Lane Foxes who are the superstars of the industry. It's important that girls have access to a diverse range of women across the STEM industry and academia.”
"There's no shortage of women in the industry who want to meet and talk to their 10-year-old selves."
To ensure that women can be proportionally represented in the STEM field, various things need to change, says Imafidon. “First, we need balanced recruitment panels, and companies need to ensure they are interviewing at least one woman for every role. Then, when women are in the workplace, companies need to keep them there — so they have to be listened to. It's not just granting women flexible working, either; it's giving them positions of responsibility and credit for the ideas and views they bring to the table. Finally, bad behaviour — such as cyber bullying — needs to be punished. Granted all of this isn't easy, because it's not about changing policy. It's about changing hearts and minds.”