Dr Anne Marie Imafidon ©Sam & Simon Photography

It’s been ten years since Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE co-founded Stemettes, the charity devoted to getting more girls into STEM subjects. Anne-Marie talks to Johanna Hamilton MBCS about her year of celebration and her new book, She’s in CTRL – How women can take back tech.

Tell me about your year of celebration . . .

Stemettes turned ten so there’s been a lot of celebrations! We’ve had a festival in Newcastle, we’ve got one coming up in London. There’ll be another one in Coventry later on in the year. I’ve done roundtables, also across London, Newcastle and Coventry, where Stemettes have been working for ten years.

We’re also calling on the Department for Education to ensure that herstory is included in the national STEM curriculum. We’ve been involved in parent groups, exam boards – we’re bringing forward everyone this matters to. It was spurred by a letter a member of our youth board wrote to the DfE. Everyone is really behind this and getting on board, so that’s been the majority of the work this year.

We’ve also walked across Waterloo Bridge to bring attention to the fact that it was built by women. You probably wouldn’t have known this because all their names have been obscured. It’s actually informally called the ‘Ladies’ Bridge’.

I’m president of BSA; I’m chair of the charity UD Music Foundation, who are pioneering the next generation and equality in the music industry, for folks around Black music; and, of course, I have the book out!

So, tell me about She’s in CTRL . . .

The paperback is out on 18 May and it’s a product of what I’ve been doing for the last ten years. I’ve always been a techie and a woman in this space. I talk to so many different people, so many different audiences, people at different stages and in different geographies, and to be honest, I found it alarming how much they don’t know about tech.

Whether it’s the future of work, whether it’s diversity, history – people are saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know any of that.’ I was getting frustrated that so many of the problems that we’re trying to deal with in this space come from the fact that a lot of folks don’t have an appreciation. These conversations aren’t part of our social norms. So, I wanted to boil all that down into a book because I can enable people to engage with this, understand it, make practical changes in the Getting Started sections. If I can share what I know with others, that might have an impact not just on those folks attending events, but parents, would-be volunteers . . . That was the impetus behind the book.

I don’t always talk to techies. I’m talking to lawyers. I’m talking to government officials. I’m talking to musicians. My aim isn’t that everyone should be in tech, but that everyone should understand tech.

Is She’s in CTRL about empowerment over decisions?

It’s about being tech-aware. You don’t have to be an immigration lawyer to have an opinion on immigration. Let’s say you’re in Italy, and you don’t speak a word of Italian – you’re going to end up with the flavour of gelato ordered by the person who does speak Italian. I think it’s really important for everyone to have some sort of literacy and control/agency. Hence the title of the book. The world is getting more and more technical. It’s not slowing down. The internet is not a fad. The web is not a niche. When I wrote the book, ChatGPT was in version two – now version five is on the horizon. So, this is not going to stop, it’s only going to speed up.

It’s alarming how much folks feel like they’re being left behind. Understanding tech now, in our everyday lives, shouldn’t be anything to do with the relationship you had with maths at school any more than the music you listen to today should have anything to do with your old music teacher.

So that’s what She’s in CTRL is all about. It’s about removing that fear of the unknown. It’s about making people feel good about technology and about being comfortable in that journey. It’s about feeling comfortable enough to take that journey.

Some folks believe that they can be comfortable with being uncomfortable – ‘I’m never going to know this’ or ‘It’s not for me.’ But the thing is, you can get comfortable moving in a certain direction. You don’t have to move fast, you’re just getting started. Say you develop a health condition and your doctor mentions a treatment – wouldn’t it be great if you could use technology to explore that treatment? You can use technology to connect with others. It could be knitting or cooking or eating, but it could also be to talk about treatment and medicines.

One thing I think often goes missing in the narrative about getting people into tech, is that you don’t have to be able to code. We need everybody to have their own appreciation or understanding of tech, so that we can collectively make decisions that work for the greater good, rather than making technical decisions, assumptions or prioritizations that are incredibly narrow in scope, experience, perspective, and then demographic. If we only work with the few, it will end up harming the many.

 Is pushing people and technologies in the right direction about government legislation?

I think we definitely need to legislate – almost like rules of the road, right? So, I use this example in the book: President-elect of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu did a TEDx talk about the fact that when we first started driving cars, there were no rules. Accidents happened everywhere – chaos, harm, deaths, all the rest of it. Then someone suggested everyone drive on the same side of the road – yes, you can drive how you want, but stay on the left! Then there were traffic lights – red, stop; green, go. I think it has to be more of a hearts-and-minds story rather than legislation.

At government level, there’s a lot of policy around lifelong learning. A big skills agenda is coming up. So I think that needs to enable and empower, rather than simply implement the hard edge of legislation. That being said, in tech we definitely need the Highway Code legislation. We definitely need accountability. We definitely need norms and guardrails put up across technology – because at the moment we don’t have those guardrails and people are creating technology that’s creating problems.

There’s a silence – not even a thin piece of paper between us and the harm that’s been done by this technology. And so I think that if we have adequate legislation, that’s what’s going to make finding the right path easier.

ChatGPT – brilliant or worrying?

I think it’s an opportunity. In the book I look back at some of the jobs that were done before automation. It was once someone’s job to gather the bowling pins up and reset them when you went bowling. That was literally somebody’s job, right? And it was someone’s job to operate a lift, taking people up and down between floors all day long. So yes, there are job losses, but equally, that person has been liberated from a really boring job!

I was just on a call with the Royal College of Art – I’m on their council. Consider that as a designer, you can design something and get AI to iterate on your design. Then you can take a second set of designs and iterate again, change and tweak. It’s a great tool, and is just that – a tool. There was a time when we taught with a blackboard – whiteboards hadn’t been invented. Technology evolves and we have to lean into using new things a little bit more.

How do we use a particular tool? How do we use it safely? How do we use it to progress and improve? It’s not a battle to the death over using it or not using it. A pilot uses computer systems to land after an eight-hour shift. Do I want to be on a plane where the pilot is using their judgement alone after an eight-hour shift? The landing is always the hardest bit, so why wouldn’t you have something to assist?

People who have read She’s in CTRL have said they now understand the settings on a microwave, or how that relates to the settings on your TV, or on your phone or on your car. Once you know how something works, you can put trust in that device. They’re very small steps for folks to take, but those small steps have such a huge impact.

People have told me that the book is really accessible. It’s easy to understand what I’m explaining. I wrote it not so that everyone transitions into tech, but so that everyone understands tech to do a better job and live a better life.

People understanding devices is great, but do devices always understand the people?

We also need our technology folks to understand the rest of the world. In the book I give the example of a period-tracking app with a limit of ten days to record cycle data. That tells me you didn’t have anyone in your team who has periods. You’re working on this and you’re not listening to people who actually have periods. We need to have accountability. We need for someone to say, ‘Hang on a minute – what about the bits you’ve missed? Who is this going to make things worse for?’ Or, ‘Who is this going to make things better for?’

So, what’s next?

I am working on a sequel to She’s in CTRL, though it’s still very much at the concept stage. Every year we make small gains, achieve small changes and move forward. One thing that needs to change is how women with brilliant ideas are being funded. It’s ten steps forward, nine steps back, and VC funding for women in the EU and UK has actually dropped – so that needs to improve.

As a society there is so much that needs to be done structurally. I’d love these changes to happen without WeAreTheCity or without Stemettes. I’d love it if the powers that be would support change, but I don’t know that we’ve necessarily headed in the right direction – there’s definitely an ‘anti-woke’ push that’s not helping.

So, every day, when I wake up, I know there’s still more to be done…

Anne-Marie Imafidon Book cover

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