Interview: Anne-Marie Imafidon on her book “She’s In Ctrl”
Creator of award-winning social enterprise Stemettes and author of She's In Ctrl Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon sits down for an interview about her new book, opportunities for women and the tech industry
As an influential woman in tech, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon has come a long way as a keynote speaker, leader and creator of the award-winning social enterprise Stemettes, which engages, inspires and connects the next generation of women and nonbinary people into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field. With the upcoming release of her book She's In Ctrl, we sat down with her to talk about the tech scene and what it's like for women.
RD: What inspired you to write She's In Ctrl and why is it so important to you?
Anne-Marie: The biggest inspiration is that I do different things, meet different people, and speak on different stages, so I get to hear the pain points and responses people have to a lot of the topics covered in this book, which is about women taking back tech.
I can’t be everywhere all the time for others, so I wrote the book to be in people’s minds and hands. This book is a way for what I have learned to be accessible to folks, for them to be able to work through some concepts, understand what a balanced field of science and technology looks like, and have a greater appreciation for why this is relevant to them.
RD: Can you share with us some of the personal challenges you faced as a woman in the tech industry and how you overcame them?
Anne-Marie: It’s quite funny because I’m not incredibly perceptive and I actually struggle to know when I’m faced with a challenge. One time, I was working on a particular database system in a big team workshop. We were solving a problem on this database, and a guy called Felix was leading the session. I remember saying, “We could just do this, use that in the database, everything will be great,” and Felix being like, “As if it’s that easy.” So we built the complicated thing Felix was imagining, and a couple of hours later, someone who had been reading into the details said, “Oh, the thing that Anne-Marie said is in the database, we can just use that.” And I remember Felix just looking around for cameras as if he was pranked, as if this girl could know more than he does.
"With any challenges I face, I ask myself if there is anything I can learn or if I am in the wrong environment"
It’s a challenge when I’m not being heard. Is there something I can do about it? If it’s because I’m black, young, or a woman, I can’t change those things. With any challenges I face, I ask myself if there is anything I can learn or if I am in the wrong environment, working with the wrong person, where it’s not something within my control. Any challenge is always an opportunity to learn, and I’ve maintained that I’m not that different from most folks. Take a measured approach, be experimental, and eventually, you’ll find that the challenges just become new chapters.
Credit: Sam & Simon Photography
RD: What do you think are the problems with women being underrepresented in the tech industry?
Anne-Marie: I think a lot of it is informed by the history and “her-story” that we get told about who has done tech. There is this notion of “you have to be a dead, white man with a beard in order to contribute anything of value,” and that is a high and narrow bar. That gets in the way of how we make decisions in schools and subject choices. What we see in curriculums, which we are trying to change, gets in the way of recruitment processes, who you promote, how we tell stories, who are technical leaders, and how we see ourselves.
There is the great adage “You can’t beat it if you can’t see it”. But also, if you can’t see it, will you recruit it? Value it? Respect it? Work alongside it? It's not just about who occupies what spaces, it’s also about how society reacts to certain people being in certain spaces.
RD: How can we encourage more girls and young women to take an interest in technology and STEM fields? What advice do you have for them?
Anne-Marie: First, we need to lean into the creativity in STEM, which doesn’t get taught. Creativity isn’t a big part of the narrative when we talk about sciences, and we need to change that. The second point is altruism because STEM is about people solving problems, which, again, motivates a lot of people but altruism is not what we immediately tie technical fields and technology to. If you’re talking to young people about solving problems, about being altruistic, that’s something that a lot of them are keen on.
The third piece is about the diversity that is available. We’re not talking about diversity among people but among roles and opportunities. If you’re interested in skateboarding, knitting or eating, there is definitely a technology that you are interested in, you just need to know about and explore it.
My advice to young people is to find a tribe that you can explore and learn with. This is why we run Stemettes and host our events—to set up spaces for people to come and learn with their peers. Don’t do things alone; find a learning tribe.
RD: What impact do you think the lack of diversity in the tech industry has on innovation and progress?
Anne-Marie: I think it has stunted innovation and it is working against progress. We spend decades working on voice recognition technology, but it doesn’t take off until you realise that there are people who have slightly higher-pitched voices, called women, who also need to use that technology for it to be widely accessible and adopted.
Forgetting that certain groups exist genuinely gets in the way of progress. In the book, there’s an example of a big health tech company that only developed a period feature four years ago, and this feature only tracks ten days of your period, which is essentially useless. It’s not innovative because you’d have to go back in and start again.
"Forgetting that certain groups exist genuinely gets in the way of progress"
Things get more frustrating when lack of diversity causes harm. The book also has an example of a girl who was rejected from an ice-skating birthday party because the facial recognition system thought that she had been there before and had been in a fight when that was another person. If we are moving towards fancier tech trends, it becomes harmful if you have a driverless car that can’t tell the difference between a human being and a gorilla. You end up creating more problems than you’re solving, which I don’t think it’s progress.
A woman writing code at her computer. Credit: SeventyFour
RD: I understand that you were the creator of Stemettes. Can you share with us some success stories or highlights?
Anne-Marie: We have always worked with young people and we never really know the transformations we are bringing about in their lives—we’re just talking about STEM; the events are free, fun, and there’s always food. But we ended up changing lives in ways that we hadn’t even imagined. A couple of months ago, we got an email from someone who was in our 2015 incubator program saying, “Thank you, I’ve learned so much, I’ve been able to build a business, and now my family will never be homeless again.”
I had a unique educational journey and everyone has always told me that I am special because of this, but I don’t think I’m special, I just had the opportunity. We have been able to give that opportunity to hundreds of young women through Stemettes. The biggest accomplishment is when these young people end up in the industry and invite others to join them in making good decisions, or when they come back to be partners in the program. Things like that make it all worth it, and we really do celebrate those successes as a team.
RD: And the last question to wrap it all up, how do you see the future of the tech industry evolving and what opportunities do you think it holds for women?
Anne-Marie: I’m hoping that it evolves to be more responsible. There has definitely been an early age where it was just “let’s tinker and play for fun and assume what we’re doing doesn’t have any ethical, social or political consequences”. A new age where responsibility is part and parcel of what we’re building is important—to think about the implications of our creations from the beginning.
"I’m hoping for our tech industry to be able to solve problems and have a legacy that we can be proud of"
I would also like an industry that is less exclusive because the problems of women are not being taken as seriously as they should be. Menopause is one of those things that is still so taboo that we don’t get to understand the full scope of what it is. Yet imagine all these folks going through it but still turning up to work and performing. There is a lot to be learned and understood that everyone can benefit from. I’m hoping for our tech industry to be able to solve these problems and have a legacy that we can be proud of.
She's In Ctrl by Anne-Marie Imafidon is Available On Amazon
Banner credit: Sam & Simon Photography
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