Photo: Stemmettes

WORK SMARTER

“I’ve been the only young black woman in a meeting and I’m trying to change that”

Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder of Stemettes, talks to June Eric-Udorie about her drive to make sure more young BAME people know science is for them, too

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By June Eric-Udorie on

Anne-Marie Imafidon has always been a powerhouse. When she was just 10 years old, Imafidon passed her maths and ICT GCSE's before going on to pass her A-level computer science the following year at 11. In 2010, Imafidon became the youngest person to graduate with a master’s in mathematics and computer science from Oxford University from Oxford University at just 20 years old. Then, two years later, she was invited to speak at a tech conference in the United States when she was working for Deutsche Bank. At the keynote of the conference, Imafidon learned that women in the industry were what she calls a “shrinking minority”, with the numbers falling over the past 30 years. And when she returned home to the UK, the Institute of Physics released a report saying that girls were not studying physics. In an interview with the Evening Standard, she shared that this was her lightbulb moment. She thought, “So girls aren’t doing computer science, they’re not doing physics. I thought someone should be doing something to reverse this trend.”

And so Stemettes – an award-winning social enterprise working across the UK, Ireland and beyond to support young women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers – was born. The organisation, which Imafidon co-founded, hosts panel events, hackathons, exhibitions and mentoring schemes, and exists to show girls and young women that “Girls do STEM, too”, working towards a future where women in the UK in STEM industries can be proportionally represented in the field. This month, Stemettes is partnering with NHS Digital, NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care to hold events across cities in the UK, all focused on introducing women to careers in STEM, and specifically opportunities in the NHS, including apprenticeships, A-level choices, university degrees and work experience.

For Imafidon, this partnership is crucial: “A lot of the time, there’s this assumption that if you work for the NHS, [then] you’re a doctor. Well, actually, there are so many different roles – especially in [areas] like digital transformation – which is helping the NHS to be way more efficient. It’s kind of like a sweep of different things that are open to POC, and to women and girls. It’s for them to come along to come and meet some of the people behind the NHS, and to come and hear from them in terms of careers. [Most of us] know what the NHS does, and most of us have been service users. But [it’s for young people] to come and see what it is like to be apart of the behind the scenes and delivering that service, beyond the the doctor, surgeon or the clinician that you’ve met.”

Although Stemettes traditionally works with girls and young women across racial, class, sexuality lines and more, it’s the first time that the organisation is focusing on targeting black and minority ethnic (BAME) young people. Imafidon seems cautiously excited. She tells me: “For us, it’s the first time we’re actually doing stuff around BAME communities. Girls are our niche – and, of course, we’re inclusive with girls, femmes, everything. But this is the first time that maybe black boys are able to come along and feel like they’re part of what is being planned and going on.”

The frustrating thing about being in STEM is every now and then bumping into someone who thinks you don’t deserve to be there

Stemettes has always been focused on breaking barriers, increasing girls’ and young women’s awareness of STEM careers, and building their confidence. During the summer holidays in 2015, Stemettes held a six-week long project called Outbox, a tech incubator for girls and young women. The organisation had 115 girls from across Europe, hosting 45 girls at a time under one roof in south London. There was also £30,000 worth of funding available to the girls for ideas and projects they wanted to work on – and they built projects on everything, from treating Parkinson’s disease to dealing with sexual harassment.

According to Imafidon, the experience was transformational. “What we usually focus on is girls’ awareness, network and confidence [in relation to STEM]. But there was something about their wellbeing and self-esteem that we didn’t know until after the programme. After the event, we realised that lots of the girls had been in really dark places. But coming along to this STEM programme, and being around girls like themselves, completely lifted them out out of some really low places.”

While getting women into STEM fields is no mean feat, it’s critical to recognise that it’s even harder to come across black women like Imafidon within the industry. For her, this is worrying. “I think the frustrating thing about being in STEM is every now and then [you bump] into someone who doesn’t think you deserve to be there, or, being frustrated that sometimes, you know, you do look up and you realise you’re the only young black woman from east London who loves Nando’s in this meeting. And so you’re thinking: why don’t other people feel comfortable to be in this space? Or, why haven’t they been empowered on their journeys to come and be here?" These questions are very much in line with what Stemettes is trying to change, and what motivates Imafidon to keep doing the work.

So, what’s the future for Stemettes? Imafidon wants the organisation to be redundant. “I know that’s wishful thinking, but I’d like for us to be no longer needed. What we’re aiming for is being able to reach two million girls and young women with the message, ‘Girls do STEM, too.’ We’re working to make sure that it’s something that all girls can hear at least once, to help counter the negative experiences that they’re having that makes them feel like it’s something they can’t do, something they can’t access or something that is not for them to be involved in.”

@juneericudorie

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Photo: Stemmettes
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