The lack of women in science isn’t just bad for equality, it’s bad for development, too. So said Canada’s famously egalitarian premier Justin Trudeau at this year’s World Economic Forum.
Science-based disciplines from IT to engineering suffer a lack of women in their ranks – only 21% of people working in those industries in the UK are female – and it’s a problem that can hold back growth and innovation.
The problem begins at an early age when girls are dissuaded from pursuing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.
Obviously this reduce opportunities for women to make a living and contribute to their communities, but when sectors such as computing are so important for development it can also inhibit progress. Inequality can be exacerbated by a digital divide. For example, San Francisco may be the centre of the digital world, but white households are twice as likely to have home internet access as African-American families.
Meet the women who are changing things.
Anne-Marie Imafidon, Stemettes.com
Who: Before becoming ‘Head Stemette’, Anne-Marie was a genuine child prodigy: the youngest girl in the UK to pass A-level computing (aged 11) and one of the youngest to gain a masters degree in Mathematics & Computer Science at Oxford, aged 20. She did time at Goldman Sachs, Hewlett-Packard and Deutsche Bank and in 2017 was awarded an MBE for services to young women and the STEM sectors.
How: Stemettes get girls involved in science, tech, engineering and maths by promising workshops that are “free, fun and [come with] food”. Anne-Marie has also co-founded Outbox Incubator, the world’s first tech incubator and start-up supporter for teenage girls.
Kimberly Bryant, Black Girls CODE
Who: While studying electrical engineering at university, Kimberly felt culturally isolated. Her successful career later encompassed both electronics and then biotechnology, but she still felt the issue remained unsolved, especially in the digital sector, where women of colour were especially underrepresented. In 2011, she launched Black Girls CODE to empower girls from this background to take on roles in computing, including as innovators and leaders.
How: Black Girls CODE operates from bases in Oakland, California and New York and has set up seven groups across the US. They’re also in Johannesburg, South Africa. BGC provide a range of activities, including workshops, after school programmes and competitive hackathons. Research estimates in the US alone 1.4 million computing job openings could be available by 2020 and Black Girls CODE aims to train 1 million girls by 2040 to help fill those roles.
Susan Murabana, Travelling Telescope
Who: While on a study break from her economics degree – to which she has since added a masters in astronomy – Susan volunteered with Cosmos Education, a group of British and American scientists that taught across Africa using readily-available materials. She was then recruited to head up the Kenya outpost of the global programme Hands-On Universe, which provides access to robotic telescopes.
How: Realising that astronomy was an ancient science practiced by all cultures, Susan founded Travelling Telescope with her husband to tour schools and other sites with a range of devices including a portable planetarium in an inflatable dome. She has also started a crowdfunding campaign to build the first observatory and planetarium in the region.
Vari Mureriwa, P-Stem
Who: The founder and operational director of P-Stem is using science to address youth unemployment and a growing skills shortage by redirecting at-risk youth into science, engineering, tech and maths.
How: P-Stem Foundation’s four-step programme raises awareness, builds interest, develops confidence and skills, and uses peer mentoring to help students stay motivated. They’ve run 12 STEM Fairs attended by 5,000 learners and run afterschool programmes in four provinces.
Mariana Costa, Laboratoria
Who: Raised in Peru, Mariana studied in New York and London before returning home where she helped set up an agency offering web development and software services. There she found a huge demand for talent, a lack of training opportunities and that in Latin America less than 10 per cent of IT developers were women.
How: With her colleagues, Mariana set up Laboratoria, a social enterprise that teaches female students to code. Clients only pay for tuition if they get a job, with 80 per cent of those completing the six-month boot camp finding employment. Since 2014, Laboratoria has expanded into Mexico and Chile, with its sights now set on Brazil.
Bathabile Soko, ChemStart
Who: Growing up in South Africa, Bathabile’s dream was to be a doctor, an ambition thwarted by her school’s lack of laboratory resources. Despite this, she managed to gain a BSc in chemistry and find work as a research scientist that has included helping entrepreneurs develop their products. Now she is helping today’s students surmount the lack of practical support in a country where 23,500 schools still lack lab facilities.
How: Bathabile used her experience and skills to develop ChemStart, a mini science kit that high schoolers can use at home or in class. Manufactured locally and in bulk, the experiment set is widely affordable to parents and donors. So far, 2,000 learners have had access to ChemStart. Bathabile continues to design experiments and kits – other subjects are in the pipeline – and performs school demonstrations.
Cathy Simpson, Up & Go
Who: A Canadian tech-industry veteran, Cathy found a shortage of women in the sector and school-age girls not even considering STEM subjects as a possibility. She felt the only way to combat such inequality was to go into schools in her native province of New Brunswick and explain to female students – and their parents – what they were missing.
How: Cathy’s social enterprise, Up & Go, tours schools with films, including the movie Hidden Figures, and panels that showcase women working in scientific fields. The organisation also provides personal development classes, training and mentorship in leadership and entrepreneurialism as well as tech subjects in a safe and supportive environment.
Wendy Sadler, Science Made Simple
Who: A lecturer in science communication and engagement at Cardiff University, Wendy is passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and communicators, and making STEM subjects accessible to more diverse audiences. Through her interests in science and arts, she has worked on a variety of projects that make science demonstrations more engaging.
How: Wendy is founding director of Science Made Simple, a social enterprise that presents educational shows to schools and public audiences using professional communicators with a variety of skills, including theatre techniques.