Breaking stereotypes: The women leading the charge in STEM careers

Darwin, Hawking, Penrose... Think about a great achievement in science and it's not always a female name that pops into your mind. Often the achievements of women in science go by unremarked despite the incredible work they have done.

In order to champion full and equal access to science for women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly declared February 11 as International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Although there has been wider progress towards gender equality, women still only make up 14.4% of all people working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in the UK, despite being about half of the UK workforce. We spoke to some women working in STEM about why that is and how to follow in their footsteps.

We talk about Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, but never the incredible women doing these cool things.
Anne-Marie Imafidon, 29, founder of STEMettes

“When I was 11, I became the youngest female to ever pass A-level Computing, having passed my Maths GCSE just a year before. I just remember my dad took me to McDonald's and I didn’t have to wash up for a week. So I thought, ‘This is cool, maybe I should pass more exams!’ I went on to get a Master’s from Oxford University and worked for Deutsche Bank. I was often one of the only women on my course, or in my team at work, and I decided to do something about it.

I launched STEMettes in 2013 to inspire young women aged 5-21 to build apps and have fun. The best thing has been girls realising that science and technology is something women do. They might not have heard of Heddy Lamar the Austrian actress who helped invent wifi or Ada Lovelace, but when they do, it’s like this lightbulb moment that ‘I’m not weird for being into this, I’m just the latest in this long line of brilliant women'.

It’s important that we have women building technology, because technology is everywhere and we all need to use it. In 2015, STEMettes ran a six-week incubator programme for teenage girls from across Europe who all lived under one roof building start-ups. It was so cool - these girls had never met girls like them before and they were coding for each other and coaching each other on how to get investment. They were like X-Men! All of them came up with a solution that benefited society or solved an educational or medical problem – from aiding Parkinson’s sufferers to finding lost pets. This is why we need more women in STEM!"

Anne-Marie Imafidon, 29, founder of STEMettes

A STEM degree is like gold dust when it comes to getting a job.
Yolanda Ohene, 28, biophysicist

“I went to a school, where there wasn’t that much encouragement for girls like me to pursue Science. That’s why I try and go into schools as often as I can to show kids that all kinds of people go into STEM subjects. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Along with gender diversity, BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) representation in STEM is low, which is why I co-founded the Minorities in STEM Network to provide support and opportunities. Girls opting out of STEM subjects at 16 is one of the key reasons behind the gender imbalance in the industry. In school, they make you feel you need to get all the answers right, but that’s not what science is about. The interesting stuff is where the unknowns are. STEM is for anyone who’s curious to find out about the world.

There are some great STEM resources now, from podcasts like Tech-ish to She Can Stem, which runs coding classes for women. You can do so much with STEM subjects - from fashion to finance.”

If you want it, you can do it.
Alice, 23, a trainee engineer

“I was always interested in engineering. When I was 16, I went on a girls-only Nautical Engineering course – I really enjoyed it and it confirmed that engineering was for me. Sadly, not many girls consider STEM subjects (and engineering in particular) as a career choice, mostly through a lack of information and stereotyping.

I studied Mechanical Engineering and did lots of work experience while at university. I worked in a shot blasting factory where I helped to build air-conditioning units, and I worked in a toothbrush factory in China. I also did an internship at JCB in the summer before I got this job.

My current placement is in tendering (putting bids together for projects), so my job involves a lot of problem solving and communication across teams in order to create a complete solution. I find it really exciting as it's new and different from what I’ve done before.

I’d advise anyone to find out which qualifications you need to get into the job you want. The road isn't always smooth but you can get there. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you you can’t do it. If you want it enough, you can do anything.”

Find out more about Alice's experience as a tendering engineer.

If you're interested in a career in STEM but don’t know where to start then why not check out our careers guide to see what STEM careers are out there.

Another good first port of call are schemes such as the STEMettes, set up by Anne-Marie to help young women get into tech and websites such as The Wise Campaign, and Minorities in STEM, that offer a list of support networks and resources to get you started.

If you still want more, further inspiration can be found by reading about the remarkable ladies that have forged the way for us such as Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Joan Feynman and their contribution to science or start following some of your favourite STEM scientists on social media.

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