• Katy Pallister

Maths and Computing Awardee 2020: Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE

“I want to see the face of the person whose problem I'm solving”

Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE is the co-founder and CEO of Stemettes, an “award-winning social initiative dedicated to inspiring and promoting the next generation of young women in the STEM sectors.” Alongside Stemettes, Imafidon is a podcast host (Women Tech Charge), keynote speaker, and trustee of the Institute for the Future of Work. The combination of her impactful work with Stemettes and her influential engagement within the tech space and beyond, led to Imafidon’s nomination for the Suffrage Science 2020 communication award in ‘Maths and Computing’.

A child prodigy, Imafidon passed her Computing A-Level at the age of 11, and went on to become one of the youngest ever recipients of a Master’s Degree in Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Oxford. “For me I was always more into the physics, technology and maths side, rather than the kind of biology and chemistry thing,” Imafidon said. “With that side there was always too much to remember, whereas with physics, computer science and maths, you don't have to remember as much, you just follow the logic, follow the process, follow the algorithm, and follow the structure.”

Following her early success, Imafidon went on to work in the banking technology sector for several years, uniting her passions for analysis and altruism. “I want to solve problems – that has always been my thing - and for me as a technologist, more specifically, I want to see the face of the person whose problem I'm solving. That was actually why I ended up working in banking tech rather than at Microsoft, for example, where for me I can't think of anything worse than working on Word for an imaginary customer.”

“Other people took up yoga in 2013, but I was like, I'm going to start this Stemettes thing”

In the autumn of 2012, several years into her career, Imafidon attended a conference which left a lasting impression on her. “That year at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing there were three and a half thousand technical women in one conference. I had always studied technology, and at the time I was working in a tech department, but had never been in a majority female environment. I thought this is crazy. Who knew right? Who knew I was a woman in tech, who knew I was a black woman in tech, and how great this is. It was like London Fashion Week, and I thought if more people knew this existed, no-one would want to do fashion, we'd all want to do this instead.”

The spirit of this conference inspired Imafidon to found Stemettes, a social enterprise offering a program of events, clubs, mentoring schemes and more to young people in STEM. “Other people took up yoga in 2013, but I was like, I'm going to start this Stemettes thing, let's see how I can recreate this environment for people as formative experiences. And then it kind of just escalated. We launched in February and in late November/early December, I was at Number 10 Downing Street sharing what we'd learnt. I called it a monster for the first year because it kind of just blew up… I was like maybe I should have chosen yoga.”

“They had me up on stage afterwards and I said I'm running for Prime Minister”

Eight years on, an estimated 50,000 young people (between the ages of 5 and 25) have now been a part of the Stemettes experience, during which their perception, awareness, network, confidence and knowledge in STEM have been supported. “Initially it was a punt, an experiment, and now it has become an organisation, a movement, and a trusted advisor for the young women. We have finally reached this concept of the Stemettes loop, where we have girls that were mentored that are now mentors, and girls who were on programs are now sponsoring the lunches on that program. The need [for Stemettes] has matured and hopefully will evolve to the point that we don't need to be doing this anymore.”

Whilst Stemettes inspires the next generation, Imafidon feels driven by the lives of those that have been before her. “When I watched Hidden Figures, at the UK launch, I saw Katherine Johnson and I remember being like what have I achieved in life. There's lots of people that have been before us that have done so much with so little, and now given that we have so much - what have we done? They had me up on stage afterwards and I said I'm running for Prime Minister. Obviously, that was the high of watching the film, but anytime I hear these stories of women, that herstory that is obscured or that is purposely etched out, I think how do we go and reclaim that and understand more about what it is to be a technical woman.”

“Don't be scared to make mistakes, be scared to not make progress”

In all her endeavours, Imafidon is a champion for diversity and inclusion, and is a celebrated speaker on the topics. Casting her mind to academia, Imafidon highlighted how the historic system has failed black women in particular. “There are 25 black female professors in the UK. Twenty-five out of thousands, and you've got to think how is that something that's happened. Either black women don't want to be professors, which is a problem to be solved, or they do and they're not making it, which is another problem to be solved. One way or another there's work to be done. Moving the needle on that will move so many other things with it. But who is prioritising that, who is doing the work, and who is ready to admit that we've been incompetent so far in the way the system has been built and that we need to now evolve it so that it’s fit for purpose.”

“There needs to be some repercussions for the kind of old guard who have benefited from and abused the system the way it is,” Imafidon said. “I think the other thing that we need to really change is the idea that success only looks one way. At the moment it is just one lone person at the top and we all know that is not really how it works, or what it is. We actually need to recognise and document the different forms of success and then tell those stories in a way that we don't at the moment.”

To accompany these high-level changes, Imafidon believes that we (individuals and institutions) need to embrace mistakes, and tune in to our personal spheres of influence. “I think, with making mistakes, it is really important for us to have a growth mindset and accept that just doing one action isn't going to make things anti-racist overnight. This is something we need to build into habits and continuously get better at. You actually have to try, otherwise you end up with 25 black female professors because you're too scared. Don't be scared to make mistakes, be scared to not make progress.”

“All of us have agency and all of us have a sphere of influence. So always be conscious of what that sphere is and how you're influencing them. Everyone has it from entry level to the senior levels and you want to be able to practice using that sphere of influence so that when you are senior it is not a new thing for you to be using that sphere.”

The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.

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