Interview

“It’s a social norm that keeps girls out of science”

25. 6. 2020 | Only about one third of students in STEM subjects are female. We spoke with Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon who founded STEMettes to help young girls and women engage with STEM subjects. She is a strong supporter of young girls and women and a role model for many aspiring to have a career in science.
Female engineer runs vehicle tests
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(© unsplash / ThisisEngineering RAEng)


Female engineer runs vehicle tests

Dr. Imafidon, in 2013 you founded STEMettes, a social enterprise that wants “to inspire the next generation of females and non-binary people into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths fields.” How does STEMettes do that?


We want girls and young women to have a better perception of what STEM actually is. Have a better awareness of the different options they have and increase their network and confidence. For that we run programs, events and opportunities where girls get to meet cool scientists, role models and people from the industry. All events comprise three essential things: 1. They are always free for the girls, 2. They are always fun for the girls, and 3. There is always free food for them. The experience is in a majority female environment STEM and the focus is on being positive so that they might consider coming back later and become a part of it all. We almost try and suspend reality for a period of time for them.



Suspend reality?


A while ago we had a case in the UK that went viral: A girl at a particular school had signed up for an, I think, engineering career talk. On the day she turned up to the talk and was told by the teacher she had been moved to a different talk, a nursing talk, because she would have been the only girl in the engineering talk. We often hear these kind of stories. This is reality for many girls. It makes it really difficult for them to simply know they can do science, too. They can’t develop the confidence to go into STEM fields if they get discouraged from it like that.



Is this an isolated problem at some particular schools or is that a rather structural thing?


We had letters from concerned parents in the past who were going to open days at universities. They wanted to meet certain academics in certain departments together with their daughters. But they were made to feel like they weren’t supposed to be at the open day. Sometimes just that a girl isn’t welcome doing computer science at university, sometimes beyond the course and not being welcome at university at all. So, it is a rather structural thing, not an isolated one.



We live in the 21st century and yet there still seems to be a gender gap and inequality. Where does that come from?


It’s part of a social norm. Or… better, we call it a social norm. At talks I give I sometimes ask people to name female scientists. Or I show pictures of famous and very successful female scientists and ask the audience to name them. Often people find it tough to name a female scientist, a female engineer or a female technologist, yet everyone knows scientists like Albert Einstein. Even in fictional settings we rarely see female technical characters. That adds to the perception that science, and STEM in particular, is not something women or girls do. Additionally that turns into what parents say to their daughters, into toys, into peers, into what other children say to the girls, what teachers say and also into media that we consume. All the messages they are sending us are that girls don’t do this. Women don’t do science. Girls don’t do engineering. So, even if you are someone who’s good at it and would be interested in a career in the field then you can’t possibly do it because it’s not something that girls do.



What role do media play in that?


Take shows like Big Bang Theory where you have a certain type of person who is a certain type of scientist. We never see other types of scientists there. Now imagine you are a young woman who has never met a scientist before. She has neither a mother who is a scientist nor an aunt or anyone real in her life who does science and can tell her some real stuff about the work of a scientist. If you’re not like Sheldon then, not someone who is very peculiar and likes things a certain way, you are much less likely to think that science is something you could do. You are lacking role models and confidence and thus, you might not even try science.



A lot of the priming also takes place at school. Where do teachers come in when it comes to the career choices young girls and women make?


Teachers and peers play a fairly big role. They are the ones that are in the lessons. They are the ones that present the subjects. And they are the ones that the girls spend a lot of time with during the day and that are often seen as advisors for young people. There are always teachers that look out for opportunities for their students and take them to lots of events. But they are limited in what they can do. If the Head Teacher for example won’t let them go to events or won’t allow girls whatever it takes to participate in certain programs, the teachers are limited in what they can do about it. At STEMettes we often have events in areas where some schools bring girls and some don’t participate at all. The teachers from the participating schools often ask why the other school isn’t there. Well, we didn’t stop them from applying, they just didn’t want to and then there is nothing we can do. But to be fair, teachers have a lot of things on their plates–paperwork, writing reports, dealing with students’ other problems …–and they are not the only ones influencing young girls’ and women’s decisions. So, yeah they do play a very big role. But they are not the sole influencers. Parents play a role as well.



If parents are part of the problem, they could and should also be part of the solution. But how could programs support parents, especially those from fields that have nothing to do with science or low income areas, to in turn support and encourage their girls?


The issues there are practicalities of being able to run and maintain a mentoring program for parents. Often the parents’ evenings are the only time teachers ever see a parent and have a chance to speak to them. Even then a lot of parents won’t be able to make it to such evenings. If one wants to really make a change, one would have to meet parents where they regularly go and help them where they need support. #techmums for example offers free programs and initiatives for mothers to “become more familiar, confident, and excited about the use of technology in their personal, professional, and parenting lives”. But as the problem is more of a societal one, you might as well run something to help society change. The problem is as diverse as society is diverse.



Do you have another example of such an initiative?


Digital skills partnerships. It brings together the public, private and charity sectors and offers free digital skills programs. Banks often do the same. People have to bank somewhere. Including parents with low income. Offer free courses there like many banks do and offer them at times when parents that have to work a lot actually have time. In short: You have to target people at the places where they will be and at the places where they normally turn up. Then provide resources to them there.



Some say, the increased and sometimes pressured exposure to science for especially young girls resembles indoctrination. What would you say about that?


We always have indoctrination. They are young minds, so they are soaking things up. What I think is worse is that we have an indoctrination that girls can’t do science. It’s much worse than saying “You can do science! You can be a scientist!” No? (laughs)


If you take your children to science events and expose them to science, they will be able to make an informed decision when it comes to deciding for a career path. We call it science capital . Almost like cultural capital but with science. If you never have been exposed to science how could you make a good decision? You might be the next Marie Curie, the next Rosalind Franklin. You might be one of the greats. But if you’re not exposed to science, then you won’t have the opportunity to be the great. That’s not indoctrination. That’s teaching children about the world they live in, giving them options and the best chance to feel fulfilled in whatever and wherever they like to try. It’s the same as exposing them to arts or books or life of eating good food. Would you call it indoctrination to eat green and healthy food that does your body good? Is that health indoctrination? Nobody would say that. So why is science indoctrination even a thing that somebody could ask about?



Final question: Most programs aim at getting more women into leadership positions. There are debates about female quota in science. But one of the arguments used by opponents is, that if women don’t reach top positions maybe they are not meant for that and we should just let the market regulate itself. Do you disagree?


When we talk about science and innovation, the products created and build there are for other people to use and benefit from. That’s the whole point of doing it. The whole point of the medical field, of technological advances, etc. If we only had men or a specific type of person creating and inventing, we’d have a bias on what we create, investigate, innovate or discover. We’d be almost wasting time building and creating things because they’d only work for this specific type of person. For example, we all use voice recognition technology in our phones, in our Alexa, everywhere. But what actually nearly nobody knows is we had this technology for years, much earlier than we started seeing it on the market. They have not taken off earlier because the types of voices that were used to train them belonged only to one certain type of people. Imagine you were that dude in that leadership team of the companies of all that dudes who developed the voice recognition software and you had to wait three decades to see it being used. Just because you forgot that there are other people in the world that have voices sounding slightly different from yours. How frustrating that must have been! And why wouldn’t you want your product to do well and be used by everyone? We need different types of people in leadership positions so that we create better things for everyone. We need to use everyone’s perspective.


Another point: It’s weird to say that to be one of the best scientists you have to have an X and a Y chromosome. Like science relies on the Y chromosome. There is nothing to back that up. There is no evidence for that. You don’t do science with, you know, the bits that make you a man.
If you want the best, then you need to look everywhere, in all different types of places. For that you need different types of opinions, different types of leaders, different thoughts and perspectives. You need difference. That you only get with different people on your team, including women. We don’t want 100% female teams. That would be the same problem. We want something closer to 50/50. Then we will get the best innovations and best results.



Thank you, Dr. Imafidon, for the interview.

  (© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)
Questions were asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de

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