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Stemettes founder: ‘An Ada Lovelace is out there today, we’re just not telling her story’

23 Aug, 2017

It’s no secret that the tech sector is facing a gender imbalance, with women accounting for around one in five people working in it. There’s a pipeline problem too: figures peg the proportion of women studying engineering and computer science at university at just 17 percent. The World Economic Forum says that the industry won’t achieve global gender parity for some time. 2133, to be exact.

The gender gap was reflected when we went out to find the 100 fastest growing tech businesses in the North for the Northern Tech 100 league table. Just one company on the table – Pink Boutique – was wholly owned by women, and those where female shareholders accounted for 20 percent or more of the shareholding stood at just 23.

Experts say that starting to redress the balance now will help businesses begin to plug the region’s digital skills gap while bringing increased innovation and creativity to the workplace, along with the introduction of different perspectives and ideas.

Planting seeds

The problem is a multifaceted one with no single solution. Stemettes, an award-winning social enterprise founded in 2013, is playing its part by encouraging girls and young women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects. You can find out more about Stemettes via the 2017 documentary Eat. Sleep. STEM. Repeat.

‘Head Stemmette’ and co-founder Anne-Marie Imafidon, who in recent months spoke about the topic at the first Leeds International Festival, was inspired to start Stemettes after speaking at a women in computing conference in 2012.

The East Londoner believes that history has shown that girls and women possess the necessary skills to thrive in tech. However, Imafidon is concerned that the relatively low number of them working in the sector today means that there’s a real danger of their stories not being told.

Imafidon shared her thoughts with us.

What encouraged you to start Stemettes?

Anne-Marie Imafidon: Being a ‘woman in tech’ was never really a thing for me until I was sent to speak about what I did at a conference. I was working on social collaboration tech for a bank at the time. I got to the conference and realised that there were 3,500 technical women there and instantly felt at home. But I had a newfound problem with part of this identity – what were people doing about the number of women in the field being in decline for the last 30 years?

Instagram, Facebook and other things are everywhere, so how does it make sense that women aren’t a part of it? Let alone a shrinking part. So I started Stemettes to combat the problem, at least for younger girls.

How is Stemettes different to other meet up groups?

There’s a lot of networking events for getting adults into the tech industry, but if you can’t drink alcohol because of the law then you need a nice safe space for you to enjoy that kind of experience. We’re incredibly informal – having fun and providing free food in a space where you can enjoy yourself is our ethos.

The knock-on secondary outcome is that you might be a little bit more interested in the STEM part afterwards. We’re also girls-only and start aged five, whereas a lot of groups for women are over 18s only, so as soon as you’re older than 22 we will direct you to someone else.

Why aren’t more women going into STEM roles?

There are two main reasons why. First, you can’t be what you can’t see, so girls can’t be like, “She succeeded at helping all those other people do something, so I’m going to follow in her footsteps.” Then they have all kinds of markers, conditioning and norms that say it’s unnatural and that they shouldn’t be doing it. There’s a huge confidence knock for them that boys don’t have. Sometimes it’s subtle and others it’s overt.

A lot of the time it’s down to bias in the industry. The way that the sector recruits, promotes and gives positions of responsibility is subjected and biased, which means women aren’t hired for positions (or promoted) when they should be. That’s something that the industry needs to work on which is why things like Northern Voices (Tech North’s speaker training programme) are important. But that’s an internal thing, rather than an external thing.

One big reason as to why women do go into STEM roles is that they want to make a difference. Some realise that they don’t have to become a doctor – they can be an engineer instead and power the hospital rather than the person looking at the blood. That’s one big thing. The other is creativity – girls are super creative. We already know this, which is why we assume that they will do all the artsy stuff that’s normal for girls to do.

Why are girl-led startups the future?

Because history repeats itself and we have a lot of problems that need to be solved. Women and girls are natural problem solvers, very creative and are actually really good at these subjects. We have women who have been powerhouses in the background – whether it’s alive ones like (British tech pioneer) Steve Shirley, or dead ones like Spanish electronic book pioneer Ángela Ruiz Robles or Kevlar creator Stephanie Kwolek. All these things have been done but we haven’t known about them.

Going back to computer science for women, Ada Lovelace did that 200 years ago. A Lovelace is out there doing it now – we’re just doing a terrible job of telling her story, knowing where she is, supporting and making her feel that it’s a normal thing to do.

And, because we don’t have as many women in the industry, we’re not telling their stories. As a result we’re going to run into even more trouble. It could be something small, like a woman programming an autonomous car’s AI to recognise that pregnant women enter vehicles with their backs as they have a big bump on the front. If a woman’s not there to programme that, then the autonomous car might forget. I know something like that is going to happen.

Why should tech companies encourage diversity in the workplace?

There’s so many reasons. The main one is selfishly for the people who work at the tech companies. It’s not good to work in a monoculture of any kind as everybody thinks the same way. As a tech company it’s about driving innovation, so everybody thinking the same limits what they can do. They’ll also be miserable because they won’t be able to enjoy having different types of people around.

Other than the basic ideals of fairness, diversity and having all the talent you can get, coding doesn’t live on the Y chromosome. Color blindness doesn’t even live on that, let alone coding or technical skills, so why would you shut out half of the people?

Just look at Google, which released its Photos image recognition software that could tell you a skyscraper or a car before black people and gorillas – that was ridiculous. Or Apple, which put out an iOS health pack that didn’t look at menstrual cycles. Companies are setting themselves up for embarrassment.

What are some major tech trends around STEM that women can tap into?

It’s funny because somebody said to me that future trends are here right now – they’re just not evenly distributed. There are loads. IoT is a big one that’s been around for a while and is super easy to get into. Anybody can easily pick up a Pi Zero and have a play. VR is another trend, simply because it was initially a gamers’ thing, but people are now using it for training and empathy-building – stuff that women might be able to get into, add their perspective and creating something new.

The final one is AI. Bots are going to nick our jobs but not in our lifetimes – I think it’ll be at least 100 years before we don’t have any jobs left. But it’s really important for us as individuals to understand what’s coming next and see what parts of our jobs can be done by bots. It’s also important to see that the people building these bots are diverse. It’s not the fault of bots if they become Nazi-like, misogynistic and awful as it’s fed that stuff; it’s the fault of the person who built it. That’s all fun and games if it’s a Twitter boy like Tay, but if you’re sat in a car with a bot like Tay then that’s your life that could be in danger.

Photo credit: David Lindsay / Leeds International Festival

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