Anne-Marie Imafidon: The importance of diversity for innovation in tech

  • CEO, author, scientist and entrepreneur are just some of the titles that Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon holds. “Woman” is another, which can have its ups and downs when it comes to having a place in the STEM industries.

    Anne-Marie describes her journey into IT as “unique”, with her beginnings as a child prodigy allowing her to sit her GCSEs while still at primary school and graduating from Oxford University with a Masters in Computer Science at just 20 years old. She holds many honorary doctorates from several prestigious universities and also has earned an MBE in 2017 for services to young women and STEM sectors.

    Anne-Marie is CEO of her non-profit company, Stemettes, which has just celebrated its 10th birthday. Speaking about Stemettes, Anne-Marie said: “We're a nonprofit that works to inform, engage and connect young women and young non-binary people with the STEM and STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths), by showing them the diversity of people that we have in the field at free, fun-filled food-filled events.”

    “We've reached about 60,000 young people across the UK and Ireland, over the last 10 years. And our vision is for a more balanced, and proportionately representative, science and tech field.”

    Gender inequality in the tech industry is something that fuelled Anne-Marie to start Stemettes, as well as it leading her to many other chapters of her career so far. She has recognized that many women dismiss the possibility of a career in tech as they feel excluded or that they are not part of that circle.

    Anne-Marie addressed this by saying: “For many women, they've witnessed and experienced a lot of gatekeeping going on around the industry with the idea being if you don't fit a particular mold, then you shouldn't be here and you have nothing to contribute. There's a lot of them who have come up against all kinds of different experiences whether it's from peers, teachers, managers or their IT departments, that have made them feel like it's not a space that they should be in.”

    “So often, it’s in the way the policies are set, the way promotions are done, the way the recruitment is done and the way job descriptions are written. So there's a lot of things pointing to the “you shouldn't be here” narrative and so that ends up playing out in the lives of a lot of women.”

    As a result of this narrative being so prominent in the lives of many women, it has caused a major gender imbalance within STEM sectors, with the tech industry having just 1 in 10 of their workers being women in the UK. This is why female representation and encouragement is essential in order to bridge the gender gap and to create a more diverse and efficient tech industry. Not only is it about equalit, but it’s also about creating the best advancements and output of the industry, which Anne-Marie explained.

    “Technology is not going anywhere”, she began. “When we think about the outputs, the outcomes and the influence of the industry on the end users, there's so much power in technology over our society in the way that we live at the moment. If we are not having that female perspective, not valuing those female experiences and not having women as part of the assumptions that we’re making as technologists, it means that often we're creating more problems than we're solving and creating harm.”

    “If we're not thinking about the wider set of society and we're only considering people that might look like us or might have the same set of experiences as us, we restrict how much you can do by not having different types of people as part of your process and in your teams.”

    As a child prodigy, Anne-Marie has found many situations where she has found people trying to gatekeep her but she said: “I have enough experience to know that that's a them thing, not a me thing. Often if I do come up against barriers, or do come against people who don't quite understand my value and I struggle actually to be able to tell between whether it's my age, my ethnicity or my gender. So for me, it's always an interesting one to kind of be able to reflect and say, I know the value that I'm bringing to any of these table and to any of these tech rooms.”

    She continued: “However, I know that it's a privilege that I'm invited into spaces where I'm celebrated rather than just being tolerated, I am heard, I am listened to and I am respected. Not every woman gets that opportunity.”

    The stereotypes and ideas around the STEM sectors starts further back, with many children forming their own views of themselves and others from as young as just five years old. Anne-Marie’s company carried out a survey that found that 1 in 3 young students don’t remember being taught about female scientists in the last two years at school.

    Anne-Marie commented: “There’s such a big opportunity there to inform an entire generation. Most adults don’t even realise that every time they use Wi-Fi, connect to Bluetooth or use a GPS system, they’re using a woman’s innovation. You can have young people knowing and giving them that knowledge right from the beginning. That's part of the worldview of their understanding, and therefore their understanding of themselves.”

    Not only is encouraging and educating important at a young age but also it is still possible and essential at later stages of life. Anne-Marie highlighted the importance of this, with the idea of people from different backgrounds who have different perspectives collaborating in order to achieve the highest potential of innovation. However, technical literacy can create a barrier of people from other backgrounds from understanding certain aspects of the industry.

    Anne-Marie’s book, “She’s in Ctrl”, covers and tackles this issue, with advice and actions on how to overcome this hurdle.

    She said: “At the moment, if people feel like tech isn't for them and they don't understand it, then you're less likely to ask the questions. You're just going to let the computer scientists who supposedly know everything, do things unchallenged. That's where we get problems, like the algorithms that decided the school grades, for example, with the kids during lockdown. When nobody asked the questions, we left it to the algorithm and the statistics and there was chaos, right? That’s because this is more complicated than just statistics.”

    Creating a safe and inspiring place to grow and learn is the key to pursuing the tech industry, Anne-Marie advised. Taking small steps to get to where you want to go beside people who can teach and encourage you is important, as well as taking the opportunities that are out there to progress.

    Anne-Marie expanded on this: “It can be tough, right? There can be things that don't work sometimes and parts you don't understand. However, knowing that you're in a group where there'll be things you understand that others don’t and vice versa,  means that you can create a communal experience. When you go with others, you go further.

    It’s about finding the right kind of space where you can learn, you can connect with others, you can commiserate and you can celebrate, but also your learning and your growth is being enriched by the growth of others who are slightly different.”

    Anne-Marie hosted a session at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast on Monday 20th February, where she covered this and more. Previous to the session, she stated what she hopes to achieve with any of these audiences that she hosts: “I hope to inspire a couple of folks to begin that technical journey and to pick up their technical literacy as well as encouraging others to go on that same journey.

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