Interview: Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE on inspiring the next generation of women in STEM careers

3rd August 2023


IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE talks to Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE about inspiring the next generation of women in STEM careers, and how the workforce is set to change over the coming decades

Maths genius, former Countdown presenter, tech entrepreneur and diversity champion, Anne-Marie Imafidon’s talents are difficult to match. She was a child prodigy, passing two GCSEs in different subjects at primary school, and the youngest female ever to pass A-level computing at the age of just 11.

Today, she spends much of her time inspiring the next generation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers as the CEO of Stemettes, which has helped tens of thousands of girls realise their potential in these subjects.

Imafidon is also a trustee at the Institute for the Future of Work and knows more than most about the trends that are set to uproot the workforce in unprecedented and potentially frightening ways.

Here, she highlights the key role that women will play in a greener economy, how technology will help deliver net zero, and what will be needed to ensure positive outcomes for all workers amid the unrelenting march of artificial intelligence (AI).

Early recognition

Imafidon was born to Nigerian parents in Barking, east London. From a very young age – she is still just 33 – it was obvious that she was different from her classmates; capable of grasping mathematical concepts far more quickly than her peers.

“When I was taught something, I would get it first time,” she explains. “I would often ask, ‘Why are we going over this again? I don’t want you to just repeat what I’ve already heard. There’s got to be more exciting things we could be studying. What if the number on top of the fraction was bigger?’”

After several frustrating discussions with teachers, the head of numeracy at her primary school in Walthamstow suggested accelerated learning. “I was bouncing off the walls – I thought I could be like my cousins, who are four years older than me!” She would go on to pass GCSEs in mathematics and ICT before leaving primary school. “I was as shocked as everybody else was when I passed on results day, so that self-confidence wasn’t precocious.”

Imafidon was just 20 years old when she received her master’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Oxford, and was well aware of her unusual background.

“I’m often the youngest, Blackest, female person in the spaces that I end up in, and when you go somewhere like Oxford, there are certain things that make you feel different,” she explains. “I was really privileged, and I was never made to feel like the only girl but one of my tutors was the senior fellow for the Oxford University bell-ringing society, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m the odd one out here because I don’t know what the bell configurations are.’ It wasn’t my youngness, Blackness or femaleness that would be the alien part of me, it was the non-bell-ringing-ness!”

Recognising talent

Imafidon credits her parents and teachers for helping her to realise her potential, and for not dismissing her high energy and enthusiasm as behavioural problems. “I was lucky I didn’t have a brother for my parents to say, ‘No, that’s for your brother to do, not for you,’ and lucky my teachers didn’t expel me for constantly telling jokes and talking to my friends because I was bored in maths lessons,” she explains. “There is a responsibility for all of us to keep our eyes open and be vigilant to not blocking those young children.”

Not that all her teachers and colleagues have always been supportive – far from it. Imafidon recalls one experience in secondary school when she was discussing her ambitions with one of the school heads and said that she would like to apply to Oxford University. “She threw her head back and laughed at me, and said ‘No chance, that’s not something we are going to suggest for you.’” On another occasion, she was working with a male colleague on databases, and suggested a solution that would render his solution useless, leaving him gobsmacked. “He was looking for the hidden camera, thinking he had been pranked, because this little Black girl from east London couldn’t know more about the database system than him, and that his solution was not going to be useful. I sometimes wonder if those experiences were a challenge for me, or a challenge for that male colleague, and for that school head, because I still went to Oxford.”

Closing the skills gap

Such formative experiences certainly drive Imafidon’s passion as CEO of Stemettes, an award-winning social enterprise working to engage, inform and connect the next generation of women and non-binary people in STEM subjects. More than 50,000 young people have attended events, workshops and Stemettes experiences for free across the UK and Ireland since it was launched in 2013, and 95% of attendees have had an increased interest in STEM subjects after just one event.

“We don’t pre-select, we don’t check grades or ask you any questions as you’re applying,” Imafidon explains. “If you are available, we’ll pay for the train ticket, pay for your food, and if a parent needs to come with you because of your age, we’ll pay for them to come too.”

Workers with expertise in STEM subjects will play a key role in the net-zero transition, with numerous career opportunities across the economy, whether that’s developing cleaner transportation alternatives, such as electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels, helping to boost renewable energy capacity, or informing policymaking on ecosystems and conservation. However, a report from EngineeringUK last year suggested that the UK could be “sleepwalking towards a net-zero skills shortage”, warning that there is no “consistent understanding of the future demand for engineering and technical skills needed at a national level to meet net-zero targets by 2050”.

Narrow entry routes

Sadly, the sustainability profession also has a diversity problem, with research released last year – co-funded by IEMA – revealing that just 4.8% of environment professionals identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic, compared with a 12.6% average across all professions.

Imafidon says: “This should be a renaissance era for the profession, because so many people care about the issues and are really worried as well, but we have missed out on so many folks, so much talent, so much passion, by having a very narrow set of entry routes. If you want more people to come inside the profession, then create more doors.”

“If you want more people to come inside the profession, then create more doors”

She adds that, as with other professions, businesses must employ equitable practices in their recruitment, promotion and retention policies. “You must value different skill sets, backgrounds, perspectives and so on, because we are missing out on that cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approach that could help us get where we need to be faster. And if you do manage to recruit them, make sure that you’re retaining them properly by paying them properly, and having policies that support and recognise their differences. The final one is promotion, recognising their value and that they can be part of the leadership in your organisation, so you go full circle and really get the benefit of that diversity.”

Thankfully, IEMA research suggests that the sustainability profession is becoming more diverse, particularly among younger people, and is likely to look very different in the coming decades.

Another trend that looks set to upend all professions is the rise of AI, and there are serious concerns that these technologies could have unequal outcomes for women. Analysis by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School this year found that 79% of women – nearly 59 million – are in occupations susceptible to disruption and automation, compared with 58% of working men.

Bring in guardrails

To avoid adverse outcomes, Imafidon says we must start with regulation. “When we replaced horses with cars, it was carnage, because we didn’t have a Highway Code. Then we said, everybody drive on the same side of the road to make it safer. We don’t have that yet for ChatGPT, but we need to bring in some of those guardrails. The Institute for the Future of Work has free resources and membership that you can join to stay on top of the issue.”

At the same time, she believes these technologies can play a key role in helping to tackle the climate and environmental crises. “What excites me about chatbots, AI, big data, blockchain and whatever else, is that these tools can be applied to the problems we are trying to solve.”

“What excites me about chatbots, AI, big data … is that these tools can be applied to the problems we are trying to solve”

Similarly, she thinks that technological solutions to the climate crisis, such as negative emissions technologies, are key to averting further environmental breakdown. “If you’ve got a set of tools, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to make most use of them, and there’s a lot of scope for improvement,” Imafidon concludes. “I have hope that future sustainability will be possible with these tools, an interdisciplinary, broader approach, with a more open mind and a more diverse set of people solving these problems.”

COMING SOON: TWO-PART PODCAST EXCLUSIVE:

Sarah Mukherjee MBE in conversation with Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE

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