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Talking is a good place to start, but action is needed when it comes to giving more black people the opportunity to work in tech, says Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder and CEO of social enterprise Stemettes and this year’s Computer Weekly Most Influential Woman in UK Tech.
When asked about the theme of the 2020 Computer Weekly and Spinks diversity in tech event – promoting advocacy and supporting under-represented groups in tech – Imafidon said the current focus on Black Lives Matter (BLM) following the murder of George Floyd in the US has been “frustrating” because many people are asking to be educated or are being vocal about supporting the campaign, but without intent to act and change things for the better going forward.
“There are lots of things that you only want to talk about if it’s a safe space, and actually if you know something is going to be done, because otherwise it’s just empty words,” says Imafidon. “Talking is fine, education and understanding is obviously needed, but the number one thing needs to be action and genuine advocating.”
Black representation in tech
When it comes to diversity in the technology sector, the number of black people in tech roles is small – research from BCS recently found that those from a black, African, Caribbean or black British background make up about 2% of the UK tech industry.
Imafidon says she has been hesitant to talk about under-representation of black people in tech because of fear of being a “token black” or “rent-a-black” voice, especially when she can’t be sure if conversations would then be followed by positive and affirmative action.
“It’s been frustrating for me in this position,” she says. “The Black Lives Matter prominence we’ve seen this year has been more frustrating than not, partly because I’ve always been black, it’s not a new thing that happened this year. So for me, there’s been an element of it’s not been something that I’ve been able to explore in front of others or have serious conversations with people on before this point.
“Talking is fine, education and understanding is obviously needed, but the number one thing needs to be action and genuine advocating”
Anne-Marie Imafidon, Stemettes
“In some spaces, we’ve spoken about it so much and for so long that we’ve ended up getting to a point of paralysis, so I’m actually stepping back from a lot of these conversations at the moment because it’s people just wanting to talk.”
Despite people wanting to educate themselves and firms vowing to do better, Imafidon says there have still been companies advertising for senior or board positions without including black candidates in their first interview round, or people running all-white panels at events.
“What are we doing?” she says. “Who are you hiring? Who are you promoting? Who are you listening to? Who are you valuing? Who do you have in your supply chain?”
Imafidon also claims there is more of a pattern of “putting your money where your mouth is” in the US in response to a lack of black people in tech than she has seen in the UK, where instead she has seen grants for black-led companies suddenly appear almost as a knee-jerk response where no action was being taken before.
“Talk is great, but where’s the action? What are we committing to do?” she says.
The importance of STEM
Imafidon has been involved in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sector since she became the youngest girl to pass A-level computing at aged 11, eventually moving into tech roles at firms such as Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, before founding Stemettes in 2013 to encourage young women and non-binary people to take an interest in STEM.
Building on her work at Stemettes, the social organisation has launched a charity, Stemettes Futures, which aims to provide young people with STEM experiences and qualifications, as well as providing STEM resources for parents and teachers.
But Stemettes is not Imafidon’s only project. As well as being a board member for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) digital skills partnership, an advisory council member for the British Library and a council member for the Royal College of Art, in September 2020 she announced she was joining the commission set up by Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton to increase the representation of black people in STEM and motorsport.
Part of her role as one of eight commissioners is to guide the state-of-play report due to be released soon, and providing guidance and suggestions on how to increase black representation in motorsport and engineering.
“Here’s somewhere we can make a big impact and move the needle quite a lot on this aspect of diversity in STEM in particular,” she says.
Pointing out that roles in motorsport are “essentially engineering”, Imafidon says it could also be a good way to encourage people into STEM roles, both because racing can be used as a “hook” to reel those interested in the sport into STEM roles, and also because a role in motorsport could act as a stepping stone for a career in engineering or tech.
Anne-Marie Imafidon, Stemettes
“If motorsport is something we can use as a hook or as a beacon for people to see what that maths lesson or that physics GCSE or that A-level in computing or that degree in engineering can lead you to be part of, but also all these other things, then why not?” she says.
But if the tech sector wants to encourage more diverse talent to pursue roles, Imafidon says it “can’t do it alone” and should draw more on tech-based roles outside the sector in industries that appeal to people, such as TV or sport, to “show the power of tech through another medium”.
She adds: “It can be one of the sugars that help the medicine go down.”
But of all the work she has done, including being on boards, commissions and professorships, Imafidon says Stemettes is one of the most rewarding.
“I know it’s important and, as a woman of influence, I do need to be in those spaces, and I do need to be asking the right questions, and it’s a nice, systemic way to try to influence some kind of change,” she says. “There’s nothing more rewarding than actually impacting the lives of young women and non-binary young people directly.”
During the summer, Stemettes’ usual in-person events were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, so the social enterprise ran online events for four weeks, including certifications, projects and sessions with role models, reaching hundreds of women and non-binary young people.
Imafidon is seeing the results of this already, hearing stories from children and parents about new ambitions to study computing, renewed confidence going into secondary school, or even a note from one parent saying the sessions helped her daughter feel “like a normal girl” amidst a difficult home situation.
“It’s things like that – there’s nothing more fulfilling than that,” says Imafidon.
Often, people who have taken part in Stemettes events then go on to volunteer for the organisation in the future, acting as role models for those younger than them and taking “responsibility as women in tech when they grow older”.
Imafidon adds: “It’s very rewarding because it’s very easy to see your legacy.”
Tech role models
Many claim that young women often avoid the tech sector because of a lack of visible role models, with some young women even saying they want more encouragement from women already in the sector.
Imafidon is host of the Women Tech Charge podcast for the Evening Standard – now in its third season – in which she interviews women in the tech sector, sharing the life and career stories of notable women in tech.
While it is important to make role models more visible to break down stereotypes and help young people see others like them in the sector, it is also important to make sure role models are accessible, and Imafidon says one of the good things about the podcast is that it makes it clear there is a huge amount of diversity even within the group labelled “women in tech”.
“When we talk about technology and we talk about tech role models, we probably focus a bit too much on ‘she’s a woman, she’s a woman in tech’. [We need] to try to unpick that, and say this is a woman who started off in a traditional technical journey, or this is a woman who didn’t and was a lawyer and a mother, so she’s ended up coming to tech from being a working mum,” she says.
“It’s been really nice to talk and learn the stories behind the scenes to show that even when we say something like ‘women in tech’, often we have this big banner and we kind of sometimes assume that it’s the same kind of people in that group, when actually, as women, we’re as diverse as any other group.”
Imafidon has hope for the future of the tech sector because she can “see the next generation” of tech workers in the girls and non-binary young people she trains through Stemettes.
“They’re ready to come for those positions and they’re not going to take any rubbish,” she says.