Is technological progress possible without diversity?

13 Jul 2018

Anne-Marie Imafidon, CEO of Stemettes. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Anne-Marie Imafidon explained at Inspirefest 2018 why a lack of diversity in STEM hurts innovation and leads to bad design.

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Anne-Marie Imafidon’s journey into STEM began in East London, where she was raised, the day she decided to take apart a VCR player to see how it worked.

Future Human

“Thank god for my parents – my dad didn’t kill me, he understood that it was part of my inquisitive nature.”

Her inquisitive nature could only be sated by immersing herself in STEM subjects, taking her GCSEs and A-levels at a prodigiously young age, heading to university and holding a number of enviable positions with the likes of Deutsche Bank, Hewlett-Packard and Goldman Sachs.

For Imafidon, seeing some of the most ambitious innovations such as autonomous vehicles, IoT and robotics no longer being merely bandied about academic spaces and becoming realised is one of the most exciting things about STEM. It is also one of the most compelling arguments for ensuring that STEM fields become more diverse. STEM and STEAM need to be “for the many”, she stressed, as opposed to the few.

According to Imafidon, a mere 25pc of those working in STEM industries in Ireland are women. “That’s just not good enough,” she concluded, arguing that an industry that affects everyone should be peopled in a way that accurately reflects the general population. It was this desire to right this that led Imafidon to found Stemettes.

Stemettes has now reached 40,000 girls from ages five to 21 and has introduced them to STEM in environments that are free to attend, fun to be in and – most importantly in Imafidon’s eyes – have free food. “Everybody loves free food, and that’s the easiest way to pack a room”.

In Stemettes, girls are introduced to a variety of people and spaces they may not encounter otherwise, which can be helpful in challenging perceptions about who does and does not belong in STEM industries, helping these girls to better visualise themselves working in these fields.

Putting the moral imperative aside, Imafidon was quick to note a few case studies that demonstrate the importance of diversity in STEM fields. Voice recognition technology has gotten more accurate because of more diverse ranges of voice data being inputted into the database from which the AI is taught. In contrast, the initial teams of engineers that worked on seat belts modelled the technology on the build of the average man, meaning they weren’t fit for purpose for anyone who didn’t conform to those proportions and, as a result, “killed women and children”.

Inclusiveness, Imafidon argues, can help to avoid these kinds of issues coming up in the future as society reaches a critical turning point in its technical revolution.

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Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic