The word ‘stem’ might not mean much more to you than being the thing that attaches a flower to the soil, but it turns out it does actually have some significance beyond the gardening world, too.
STEM, for those who weren’t aware, stands for the industries of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths; and while these combined workforces are vital for our fast-paced, ever-developing future, there’s a worrying lack of female presence within them.
Just 21% of the UK’s STEM workforce is made up of women, and it’s pretty clear to see why. If men dominate these industries, they can feel intimidating to break into for women. Cases of sexism will naturally be higher, and many women won’t even consider exploring these types of jobs because of the rigid gender stereotyping that has taught us things like coding and rocket science are only for men.
But we’ve got news for you: they’re for women too. In fact, we need more women in the STEM industries to keep pushing forward. So we spoke to Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder of social enterprise STEMettes – which works to inspire young women and girls that they can and should explore these subjects as potential careers – to hear more about this message.
Here are her words of wisdom for women who might have all the right skills to become the next scientists, engineers, coders and mathematicians, but are lacking the confidence and self-belief to get there:
These industries NEED women
“There’s value in having a different perspective that women bring. Companies make better products if they’ve got diversity,” says Anne-Marie, pointing to the example of Apple’s Health app, which was introduced along with iOS8. While it covered all aspects of a person’s health, encouraging them to fill in details so they could monitor their overall health long-term, the developers forgot one key thing: periods.
There was nowhere for women’s menstrual cycles to be tracked within the app, despite the fact they impact your weight, your mood and more. If there had been more women involved in the development of that product, don’t you think they might have thought to include it? “It’s not rocket science; it’s just being a woman, right?” says Anne-Marie. “They want you because they don’t want to make that mistake again.”
Well they need people, full stop
“In terms of society, economically technology is the fastest growing industry. So if you want a role where you can contribute to society, that’s the space to go into because we don’t have enough people in it: male, female, or in between.,” explains Anne-Marie. “We don’t have enough people going into these technical roles and it’s actually a national crisis and has been for a couple of years, but no-one wants to alarm anybody.”
STEM jobs are actually very creative
“STEM and technical things are incredibly creative, which is why young women should be doing them,” says Anne-Marie. “As much as people want to make money, and to be rich or famous or whatever, what really tends to drive us as young women is having an outlet to be creative and to make things.
“Even though you might think that being a writer or a painter is being creative, technologists are just as creative, if not more so,” she adds. “You know you can be an engineer and you can print 3D limbs for young children; there are so many things that you can do. You can use those existing passions, qualities and perspectives that you have and apply them in a STEM way, which can be very far-reaching.”
These jobs are in our heritage
“Something not a lot of people know is that, actually, the technical space has always been for women. It’s only in the last 30 years or so that it’s turned into something that’s been predominantly male,” Anne-Marie points out. And she’s right; as is portrayed in the (brilliant, by the way) film Hidden Figures, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan was one of the first people to learn how to code a computer for NASA.
“It was actually seen as a woman’s thing to do,” says Anne-Marie. “If we go back, our history is of us doing these kind of jobs. It’s part of our history, it’s part of our heritage, and women who do embark on these kinds of careers are following in a long line of women before them who have done so.” Don’t believe her? “Tippex was invented by a women, so were bullet proof vests. Even the first E-Book was created by a woman; we have a really, really rich history in it,” says Anne-Marie.
Don’t be afraid of making the most of opportunities out there for you
Many companies in STEM fields now have quotas to fill to ensure they have more of a gender balance, which means there are often schemes to help women get jobs in these areas. And you know what? It’s okay to take advantage of these. Anne-Marie explains why: “It’s really important to understand that quotas don’t reflect on you, they reflect on the system and the people that are inviting you into that space. If they need a programme to recognise the value in you, then that doesn’t mean that you have less or more value.”
The more we hear about women doing these jobs, the more it will become normalised
“I’ve been saying for ages that we need a female technical character in EastEnders,” says Anne-Marie. “Just to normalise it a little bit,” she adds. “So you’d never see her coding, you’d pretty much just see her arguing with her mum and fighting people on the Square, but at least her identity would be that she’s a technical woman and it would be seen as a normal thing. We need to tell these stories”
There’s less of a pay gap in these fields
“The pay gap is smaller in technical roles, and it’s non-existent in your first two years,” explains Anne-Marie. Now if that’s not an incentive to get involved, I don’t know what is.
Surround yourself with people who are interested in the same things as you
It’s easy to feel like you’re outnumbered when you’re the only one with interests that go against the gender stereotypes. But Anne-Marie is keen to remind you that there are so many other women out there who are in the same position as you. “You may be the only girl from your university on your course, but there still are so many others – thousands of others – around the country that have that same interest and are going through the same thing as you,” she says. “Go to events, find this community; find your tribe.”
Find out more about all the brilliant work STEMettes does here.