From tech fear to tech leader: a step-by-step guide

We know from countless reports and surveys that women are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The reasons for this are manifold, and most attempts to rectify it concentrate on education in schools, particularly of younger children. Computer scientist and entrepreneur Anne-Marie Imafidon has likewise focused her outreach and leadership efforts on girls and non-binary young people through her organization Stemettes. Since 2012 more than 50,000 of them have attended technology workshops, hackathons and other free events run by Imafidon and her team.

The success of Stemettes gave Imafidon a platform to speak more widely about diversity in STEM, particularly on how to get more women into positions of power in the technology sector. It is this that she focuses on in her new book She’s in CTRL: How Women Can Take Back Tech. In it, Imafidon first addresses why STEM workplaces need to be more representative of wider society than they currently are.

The examples are numerous. Most crash-test dummies are based on an average male body, leading to unforeseen types of injury among women in car accidents. Facial-recognition technology used in large warehouses doesn’t work well with darker skin, causing Black employees to be penalized unfairly. Several health apps, meanwhile, make assumptions about menstruation that cause them to be unusable for people who have menstrual cycles that are irregular or longer than the average range (for example, sufferers of polycystic ovary syndrome), or who are menopausal.

Some of this will be familiar from other excellent titles such as Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez or Inferior by Angela Saini. Imafidon’s book is different in that she explicitly argues that if a woman or person of colour had been on the tech team behind these products, such problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place. The companies would have saved themselves money and reputational damage, and the world would have become a better place for everyone.

Getting comfortable with tech

Imafidon assumes two things about her reader: that they are female (which is fairly likely, given the subtitle), and that they are non-technical, perhaps even fearful of tech. While I doubt many readers of Physics World are scared by technology, don’t skip past this book just yet – it contains information and insights that even the most tech-savvy among us could benefit from. As Imafidon says, “It’s important to make sure that tech is not built by the few and feared by the many.”

Though I’m a decade older than Imafidon, I recognize her descriptions of having computers both at school and at home in the 1990s, when that wasn’t universal or even common. And I can see that gave me (as it did her) a familiarity and comfort with certain types of technology that isn’t ubiquitous for people in their 30s and older.

Unlike Imafidon, however, I did not pass A-level computing aged 11, and I don’t have a long roster of honorary doctorates on my CV. She is an impressive woman who has done exactly what she is encouraging her readers to do. Yet even this admirable role model experienced micro- and macro-aggressions in response to her early interest in technology, for flying against what is expected of a woman – especially a Black woman like her.

As with the early home computers, I can relate to Imafidon’s memory of schools discouraging girls from STEM. It’s in the way teaching materials are written (using male pronouns, or traditionally male interests in example text); the pupils who are called on in class, encouraged to do extra projects or simply get more of their teachers’ time; the careers and higher-education advice that is given to pupils. And the women who do make it past all that discouragement to get a STEM qualification are less likely to be hired in technical roles – or promoted to a management position in a STEM-based company – than equally qualified men.

A lifetime of discouraging comments or being ignored in technical conversations means many women have low confidence in their technical abilities, or their right to be in a technical space. This is who Imafidon is addressing. Even women working in and enthusiastic about STEM can be deterred from trying new technical solutions, or widening their technical knowledge. And Imafidon’s advice is useful for us too.

Imafidon explains how women who aren’t currently in a technical role can start engaging with technology, as well as how women already in STEM can make sure they’re holding the door open behind them for other under-represented people. She does this via practical exercises at the end of each chapter, turning her book from a series of interesting essays into a useful guide. She introduces the first of these “getting started” sections with an acknowledgement that some suggestions will be easier to follow than others. Every exercise has diversity and inclusion baked into it. They are all zero or low-cost.

However, I found some of Imafidon’s assumptions about her readership frustrating. In fact, the book almost lost me during its early chapters, as they lean hard into persuading the reader to care about, and want to engage with, technology. I’m not sure who would look at the title of this work and start reading without already being on board with the concept. Imafidon also repeats a little too often the idea that anyone can – and should – be an entrepreneur. While I agree that entrepreneurship is currently too male and white, it’s not the only option in the technology sector, and not every reader will have the opportunity, or the desire, to take that route.

Yet I’m glad I persevered. I enjoyed learning about the many female and non-binary tech leaders that Imafidon profiles, such as Tobi Oredein, who found herself excluded from her chosen specialism of lifestyle journalism. In response, she launched her own lifestyle website for Black British women, Black Ballad, but then ran into the problem that quality journalism relies on good data, and there just wasn’t data available on the subjects she wanted to cover. So she applied for grants to collect the data and made those data available online to other journalists and academics. Data collection and management is now as large a part of her role as journalism.

Physics World contributing columnist Jess Wade also gets a mention for her project creating a Wikipedia entry every day for a woman or other under-represented person in STEM. Of Wikipedia’s many thousands of profiles of people, around 80% are of men. Sadly, it took a woman to challenge this. It is likely related that 90% of Wikipedia’s voluntary editors are men. Editing Wikipedia requires free time – which, on average, women have less of than men – and a little technical knowhow.

In She’s in CTRL, the examples of women in STEM from history (or “herstory” as Imafidon styles it) are familiar but told from a slightly different angle. For example, Florence Nightingale is widely lauded for her nursing but she also made innovations in statistics and data visualization. Indeed, Nightingale was elected as the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society in 1859.

One last warning concerns the pun in the title. Imafidon repeats it frequently throughout the book, which is perhaps not unexpected given that her podcast for the Evening Standard has the equally puntastic title Women Tech Charge. Still, if you’re comfortable with a little wordplay and a hefty dose of self-improvement, there is bound to be some useful advice for you in She’s in CTRL.

  • 2022 Penguin Random House 368pp £16.99hb

The post From tech fear to tech leader: a step-by-step guide appeared first on Physics World.

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