The STEM sell - Encouraging girls into science, technology, engineering and maths
How networking can act as a springboard for STEMettes
Girls who are interested in science and technology are like superheroes. That’s the view of former child prodigy Anne-Marie Imafidon, who obtained a Master’s degree at Oxford at the superhuman age of 17.
After being one of three girls in a class of 70 studying Maths and Computer Science at university, Imafidon was inspired to set up Stemettes to help combat the lack of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The project is “all about opening up this world and giving girls the confidence to at least consider it, try it out, see what it’s like and then make an informed decision,” she says.
Stemettes have held a number of events, hackathons and mentoring schemes around the country to encourage girls into the subjects, and this summer is hosting the first national STEM entrepreneurship programme specifically for girls who are already enthusiasts. “Often these girls are the only one in their area, the only girl they know who are like that. It can be quite a lonely experience. I describe it as being like one of the X-men, the spider you were bitten by when you were younger and given you this special power, realising you’re not the only one who has it,” says Imafidon.
The Outbox Incubator, which is supported by WISE - the Women in Science and Engineering campaign, and the Salesforce Foundation, will see 45 girls aged 11-22 spend six weeks learning and living together under one roof in London, supported by industry mentors. Imafidon hopes girls from Scotland will apply and be nominated.
“The primary thing is going to be getting the X-men under one roof,” she says, to network, build confidence and share knowledge.
“Because they are the future leaders, they are people who are going to be running massive businesses in the future. They are the people maybe even going into politics and all sorts of walks of life.”
Could they be the role models of the future? “They are role models now. It’s to help them appreciate and understand that, and to remove those preconceptions of what it is to be a woman in STEM, or to work in STEM,” she says.
In 2012, Muffy Calder, former Chief Scientist in Scotland, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh found many more women train in STEM subjects than move into the STEM workforce, and recognised positive role models would challenge preconceptions about the jobs available.
“Some disciplines are perhaps, traditionally, more appealing to one gender or the other, but I honestly think whether you’re a man or a woman, if you’re curious about the world and like solving problems, science can open many doors for you,” Calder told Holyrood last year.
Being a role model is no burden to Chelsea Sievewright, Ethical Hacking and Countermeasures student at Abertay University who recently won the accolade of TARGETjobs UK Computer Science Undergraduate of the year. Sievewright was responsible for organising and leading a successful networking event for female STEM students at the university, with over 40 women attending, including academic staff and industry professionals. She also recently delivered a talk at the Scottish Parliament about her experiences of being a woman in technology. “I would love to be a role model for a girl looking to pursue a career in technology because it’s something I am really passionate about,” she tells Holyrood.
Sievewright says she had initially been put off at school by the preconceived idea of what a career in technology would look like. “I think the media consistently portrays a social stereotype which accompanies technology and it’s very difficult as a young girl to see anyone challenging this. I felt daunted starting university because I lacked confidence in my own intelligence and ability to be good at computing,” she says.
It was Sievewright’s own ambition and drive which overcame it, she says. “I wanted to be distinguished as a graduate and prove, mainly to myself, that women can be successful in computing and that I don’t have to fit the stereotypical box people wrongly associate with the tech sector.”
She became Abertay’s first student champion for Interconnect, a network for women studying science, engineering, technology and the built environment across Scotland. Networking “can absolutely make the difference,” she says.
But for those girls at school who are reluctant, there is still more to do. Sievewright believes the curriculum has a vital role to play. “With computing in particular, the curriculum was very dated when I was at school and I don’t think it portrays the incredible advances technology has made to our daily lives. I don’t think there is enough information given to girls, or boys either, about the amazing careers and experiences that come from STEM subjects in life outside school,” she says.
Imafidon agrees, and says with no physical reason to prevent women succeeding in STEM, the change needs to be cultural, and reflected in practice. “It’s a hearts and minds thing. You can legislate to a point, but you can’t legislate for how people think and feel about what their daughters do, or their daughters’ aspirations. You can’t legislate for aspiration, really,” she says.
Bringing about this change will benefit society as a whole, argues Imafidon, because STEM subjects are needed to tackle some of society’s greatest challenges. “We do have really big problems, and if we assume all the people who have the skills to solve those problems have a particular chromosome then we are restricting 50 per cent of the population who actually might be able to deal with that really well,” she says.
In an increasingly high-tech world, it is often women driving a large portion of spending, argues Imafidon. “This is the 21st century and you can’t get away from technology at the moment. It is everywhere, we rely on our smartphones, we use technology to access public services, in libraries, paying bills, whatever we’re doing we’re doing online and using technology, even down to using buses or whatever. In daily life we use it, it’s weird to think there’s a segment of our society who for societal reasons, for no real reason, aren’t a part of shaping and driving that,” she says.
“It’s strange to think people buying the product aren’t the ones making it or shaping it.”
To reverse the trend, we need more talented girls like Sievewright. What advice would the ethical hacker have for girls who are interested in STEM subjects today?
“If you enjoy science, technology, engineering or maths then never be put off learning more about these subjects just because you don’t fit the false stereotype that accompanies them. Break the stereotype, distinguish yourself and change the expectations people have of you,” says Sievewright.
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