Today – Monday 11th February 2019 - is the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day draws attention to the significant gender gap which persists at all levels of STEM disciplines all over the world. Even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in high education, they are still underrepresented in these fields.  

All this week, from Monday through to Sunday, Fawcett will be showcasing women who are #SmashingStereotypes through their work in our #ShakeUpSTEM guest series. 

Together we can #ShakeUpSTEM!

Our #ShakeUpSTEM advocate today is Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, co-founder of STEMettes, an award-winning social initiative dedicated to inspiring and promoting the next generation of young women in the STEM sectors.

February is upon us, and so is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

The United Nations has designated this day to take a stand for those who identify as female, in an area traditionally dominated by men. Member countries understand and recognise that only by achieving parity and diversity in all areas of life will the world be able to achieve the agreed development goals - importantly including the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), where women are woefully underrepresented. Global participation by women in STEM currently stands at less than 30%.

Away from the international development community, the private STEM sector is thankfully becoming increasingly mindful of the way gender diversity impacts the bottom line. Take for example the Tech Talent Charter, an industry collective In the UK that champions a more diverse, inclusive, fairer and commercially successful tech workforce. Its signatories - which included private companies of all sizes, and my own organisation Stemettes - have realised that teams that reflect the population better are more competitive, and that diversity makes business sense. Business sense tells us that the more diverse a team is, the better it performs and the more innovative it can be. They have voluntarily come together to be accountable and to work for change themselves, amongst themselves.

Getting girls and women into STEM and improving diversity is not just a niche industry issue, but one recognised by the powers that be as being important to the overall wellbeing of society. At a time when technology permeates every aspect of life, and the way that society functions it’s incredibly important that those building it reflect society.

On a more personal level, it must be understood that biases permeate the way our lives are lived and if left unaddressed the consequences are disastrous. Alarming examples abound. I often refer to the woeful tale of some early versions of airbags and seatbelts. All-male teams designed the safety devices using the height, weight and other such attributes for the standard male, and then duly tested them on male dummies. When deployed, these airbags killed children and small women.  While I am sure that the team had not intended to cause harm, the lack of a different perspective had very real and tragic outcomes. Newer age versions of this story include the rise of artificial intelligence making poor decisions in hiring and crime prevention.

Let’s also remember how much of our consciousness is now shaped minute-by-minute, second-by-second, by technology that has been dreamt up and disseminated by teams that do not include nearly enough female designers and engineers.  If my own experience in the not-so-distant past of being 1 of only 3 girls at university in a 70-strong computer science cohort, and of being 1 of 10 female engineers on the technology floor in my early career, is anything to go by. It concerns me to no end that now, as then, not enough girls and women are part of the conversation. Not enough are part of incremental decisions that have direct impact on the way we see ourselves and one another.

Which is why, 6 years ago almost to the day, I founded Stemettes to help inspire girls to make informed choices about a career in STEM, to dispel the unhelpful perception that science and technology are not for them, and to show the next generation their role models in the sector. After all, the old adage that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ might not be true for all of us, but it is true for many.

We’ve shared impactful experiences, but also the rich ‘herstory’ of STEM with these girls. Looking beyond Marie Curie at women like Steve Shirley, Katherine Johnson, Hedy Lamarr, Stephanie Kwolek and many more who have been incredible innovators, but whose undertold stories have allowed us to forget how important it is to have women in STEM. We have them to thank for the Concorde Flight Receiver, safe NASA missions, Wi-Fi & Bluetooth and Bulletproof vests, respectively.

As of today, about  40,000 young people have attended events, workshops and Stemette experiences for free across the UK & Ireland, and 95% of these have reported an increased interest in STEM subjects. But those who know me know that patience is not my virtue. I’ll have to wait for the Stemette youngsters to graduate and take up their deserved place as 30+% of the STEM workforce. In the meantime, I’ll be doing all I can to ensure that we’re involving all parts of society in conversations about the scope of technology. I’ll also continue to spread the message that women do STEM and must continue to be allowed to express themselves technically.

By Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE

Follow the rest our #ShakeUpSTEM guest series on the Fawcett blog


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