Head ‘Stemette’ Anne-Marie Imafidon encourages girls to give tech a go

20 Mar 2015

Inspire 2015 speaker and head of Stemettes Anne-Marie Imafidon

Inspire 2015 speaker and ‘Head Stemette’ Anne-Marie Imafidon is blazing a trail for women in STEM and she encourages girls to get comfortable creating with technology.

When it comes to new challenges, Imafidon is all about launching in, giving it a try. It’s a mindset that has served her well: she passed two GCSEs (mathematics and ICT) when she was 10, she passed A-level computing when she was 11, thereby becoming the youngest girl ever to do so, and at the age of 20 she became one of the youngest people to be awarded a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science by the University of Oxford.

“I am the kind of person who just gives things a go,” she explains. “And what is the worst that can happen – it doesn’t work? Oh well.”

Stemettes to the fore

Now 25, Imafidon heads up Stemettes, which runs hackathons, panel events and exhibitions to encourage girls to learn to code, to become familiar with technology and to see where it might take them in their careers. Need a definition? The website provides one: ‘Stemette (n): a female who has the capacity to go into one or more of the STEM fields.’

Imafidon was prompted to set up the Stemettes after she attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in 2012 in the United States.

By now, Imafidon had been working in the industry (she has worked with Goldman Sachs and Hewlett-Packard among others) but she saw herself as a technologist rather than a woman in tech.

Attending the conference – and in particular the keynote speaker Nora Denzel – brought the lack of women in technology into sharp focus.

“I got on the plane thinking it was a US problem,” recalls Imafidon. “But when I got back (and started reading about it), I realised it was a UK problem, too.”

In a bid to tackle that problem, Imafidon launched Stemettes in February 2013, but little did she expect how great the appetite was for it, nor how quickly the initiative would grow.

“I did that first year as a punt, I didn’t imagine it would end up being a social enterprise and have five full-time people,” she says. “By the end of that first year, we had such a big following and we had companies coming to us. That was after just a year with me working part time on it and with volunteers.”

Hackathons work

So how does it work? Hackathons are a mainstay of Stemettes, and the idea is to get a room full of girls together to learn how to code, build websites and mobile apps, and come up with ‘hacks’ or solutions to challenges.

“We fill the room with girls – normally they range from age five to 22 – and there are a lot of Haribos and laptops and music and the girls are all coding,” Imafidon says.

“We normally host them in companies, so the girls end up feeling at home in that space, and they are really proud by the end of the weekend, they have built something – maybe they have learned HTML and coded a website, and they now have a link they can give to others, to let them see what they have made.”

That creative accomplishment is a key factor, Imafidon notes.

“There’s an element of ‘you have to learn this and remember that syntax’, but at the end of the day you put them down in that order and it now therefore does that – that is something you decided to do,” she says. “And a lot of the girls who come to us have never coded before, so it’s quite nice to see them change the perception of themselves. It becomes a thing for the girls – if you spend 48 hours in a room with 70 other girls coding, no one can say this is a boys’ thing.”

STEM opens doors

Another Stemettes drive is to match girls with female role models who exemplify how STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) can enable interesting and varied careers.

“It’s important to understand that if you read physics at university, you can become a physicist or a physics teacher, (but) you can also become a developer who turns into a journalist,” says Imafidon.

She stresses that the skills acquired through studying STEM are valued by potential employers.

“On today’s physics courses, students are taught coding, the hardcore C++,” she explains. “We want girls to have the confidence and self-awareness to know that having that knowledge of C++ puts you in really good stead, in addition to the fact that you studied physics.”

DCU hack and inspiring young coders

This weekend, Imafidon will be in Dublin as Stemettes runs The Girls Hack Ireland Hackathon with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at Dublin City University tomorrow.

The event will see girls aged 15 to 17 learn how to build websites, and it will feature prizes, demonstrations from companies such as Microsoft, Sugru and and a talk from Silicon Republic’s CEO, editor-at-large and co-founder Ann O’Dea.

Imafidon will be back in Dublin in June for the Inspire 2015 festival, where she will be talking about Stemettes’ plans to encourage young coders and the planned Outbox Incubator programme to provide seed funding, intensive mentorship and support for teenage girl-led start-ups. You can see Imafidon deliver a TEDx talk in Barcelona about women in STEM and girl-led start-ups on YouTube.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspire 2015 is Silicon Republic’s unique international sci-tech event running 18-19 June in Dublin, connecting professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now! Get in early and grab the ‘Two-for-one’ tickets before the end of March. You don’t want to miss this!

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication