Cover image: Woodleywonderworks
Anne-Marie Imafidon has been involved in maths and tech from an early age. She had two GCSEs - in maths and information technology - at the age of 10 and holds the world record for the youngest girl ever to pass A level computing, at the age of 11. She became Oxford’s youngest master’s degree graduate at 20, and has since had a career at Deutsche Bank. Now she’s turning her considerable talents to the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As the founder of Stemettes, Anne-Marie is on a mission to get young women interested in STEM fields – here’s her advice on why it matters and how parents can help.
How did you first get interested in STEM? Was your family an important influence?
I’ve been interested in STEM subjects since before I started school and before I even knew what they were. I’ve always liked taking things apart and seeing how they work, and been interested in solving problems – which is the underlying basis of maths, technology and basically everything you do at school.
I was definitely helped by my family, and by having a supportive school environment. Some of my teachers were especially encouraging.
Do you think young women and their families have a good understanding of the full range of careers that studying STEM subjects could lead to?
Not good enough. STEM subjects aren’t just about solving problems and understanding how things work – they can also be used to change people’s lives for the better. Tech has been a great leveller and a global tool for good. For example, small farmers around the world have been able to use mobile technology to increase their profits – which in turn helps them send their daughters to school and increases female literacy.
Sometimes boys are happier just to tinker with things and play around, but girls want to know there’s an end goal to what they’re doing. Studying STEM subjects can lead to lots of rewarding career options – and girls should definitely be more aware of them.
What should parents and carers be doing to encourage girls to try STEM subjects?
One really simple way to help is buying the right toys – ignore the blue and pink labels! Lots of creative toys (like building sets) that help instil a love of problem solving at an early age are marketed as boys’ items, but there’s no reason girls can’t enjoy them, too.
Parents can also help their daughters find role models in STEM fields. Make sure they’re exposed to real life examples – if there are engineers or scientists in your communities or social circles, give your daughter a chance to meet them and talk about what they do.
And finally, get digital. We’re living in the 21st century and for better or worse, technology isn’t going away. It might encourage girls to see their parents learning more about tech and the opportunities it provides. Read more about what’s out there so you understand it a bit better.
Even if you think your daughter will never want a career in STEM, just make sure she knows it’s an option. She might end up doing something completely different – but it’s important for young women to know what they can do, understand the opportunities that are available and make an informed decision.
What advice do you have for parents of young women who want to get into tech but don’t know where to start?
If you can’t find role models or resources in your community, get online. Social media is a great resource for learning more about this stuff – follow Stemettes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example, or check out hashtags like #thankyoustemwomen and #girlswithtoys on Twitter for examples of women in the industry sharing what they do. Jump! Magazine is another great place for kids to read more about science and tech, and there are lots of technical YouTubers with channels that young people can watch to learn more.
You can also help your daughter find out about offline opportunities, like a code club in her area. Stemettes offers free events and programmes for girls of all ages, giving them the chance to meet women role models in the industry and build their tech skills.
We hear a lot about the skills deficit in STEM fields, but statistics say 2 out of 3 STEM graduate girls don’t go for STEM roles. Why do you think that is?
Availability of role models and representation is a huge issue for girls. Not being able to see someone like you succeeding in industry makes it harder to choose a STEM career even once you’ve already decided to study that subject in school.
There’s a disconnect once you reach the end of your degree – girls don’t necessarily understand how to get paid to do what they’re passionate about. For example if you’ve done a physics degree, becoming an academic physicist isn’t your only option. That degree teaches transferrable skills that lots of employers might want, but girls who aren’t aware of the jobs they could get won’t go for them. This is an issue for boys, too, but to a lesser extent – and because only a quarter of STEM graduates are girls to begin with, it’s leading to a serious shortage of women going into STEM fields.
Some of this is down to industry bias but a lot of it is an image problem. STEM industries don’t always do a good job of marketing their careers and making them seem desirable. And young people – especially girls – need to see tech role models as real people, which is a big part of what Stemettes tries to do.