The stories we tell ourselves become the histories we live. What stories are we telling ourselves about women?
Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon founded Stemettes in 2013, a British social enterprise that recruits young women into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). She was awarded the British honor of a Most Excellent Order of the British Empire after passing A-level computing exams at age 11 and going on to devote herself to supporting women in STEM. She was voted most influential woman in tech in the U.K. in 2020 by Computer Weekly.
In her new book, She’s In Ctrl: How Women Can Take Back Tech, Imafidon explores how women have been cut from the tech story, and how the space of tech should not be considered exclusive or unchangeable. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 5, “A Woman’s Work,” about the power of science fiction to sculpt the future of technology. Other chapters of the book focus on gatekeeping within the industry and holding power players accountable.
Ultimately, imagination is about new and unreal things; technology is about making the unreal real. Taking control of technology doesn’t always mean creating the new from scratch – it can also mean adding something new to what already exists. Ideas can be planted in the imagination from all kinds of sources, but your experiences are a key component of what you imagine – your upbringing, your formative experiences and your day-to-day reality combine with your values and priorities. The existing social constructs around being a woman also feed into what goes on in your imagination. The same is true of any gender.
It’s also important to consider the effect science fiction has on the imagination. So many of the folks that are super excited to be technologists credit sci-fi, games, and films and TV shows they enjoyed during their formative years with influencing how they see the world and what they think should happen in it next.
Do you remember Knight Rider, the 1980s TV series? Michael Knight would fight crime with his car, KITT. He talked to his vehicle, it would understand what he was saying, and some- times it would talk back. It’s quite funny to think the premise was so futuristic, so novel and exciting back then, but these days we talk to inanimate objects all the time. We talk to our phones, and they answer us. We ask a robot to turn off the lights, or tell us the weather forecast. Science fiction becoming science reality is something we’ve seen time and time again.
Just as someone dreamed up Knight Rider, it’s possible to dream up all kinds of scenarios that could become a reality. You’re probably already imagining things that could make your life easier, or solve problems. You might also already be dreaming about alternate universes and what 200 years into the future might look like. What do you see? What is life like for the equivalent you in 2222? Take some time to daydream. Don’t do any research, just imagine. Maybe a drawing will help. Maybe a poem.
Is it dystopian? Is it like any of the sci-fi movies you’ve seen? Are there aliens? We make a lot of TV shows like Black Mirror and films such as The Terminator that point to a fearful future and showcase the dark side of science fiction. However, for every Terminator there should be a saviour, an enabler, a creator – we just have to imagine them. Read widely and think differently to take in the picture of humanity around you. Ask yourself: What do people need? How can I help them? What problems can we solve?
Some years ago I was excited to be a part of an “alternate” sci-fi project by the organization/responsible-technology think tank Doteveryone. They asked: How many times have we heard about the female perspective in science fiction – a woman’s experience of being an astronaut or how a woman would find living on Mars? What would it mean if babies could gestate outside a woman’s body? Or if you had to choose between bearing children and exploring deep space? What if it turns out that women’s bodies are more suited to space travel than men’s?
So many of the stories of our history are male-centred. What if we had a positive, female-centred view of the future? Why does it need to be the terrifying Handmaid’s Tale? We should explore more positive outcomes, and use them as motivation for why women should be engaging with tech, and aiming to be in the room.
We are part of the future too, yet so much of the current forecasting doesn’t include us. This is in spite of the fact that there are times when only we, as women, with the journeys we’ve had, can be the ones to suggest an idea, or dare to dream. It’s a negative that we can turn into a positive. Much bad tech is the result of a lack of perspective or experience, which limits the imagination of the person creating the tech. Often, whichever of the dreamers secured the most funding at the time becomes the person most likely to turn those dreams into something tangible. We recognize these innovators as mainly men, who can speak to only a narrow interpretation of progress.
Take, for example, Elon Musk. As well as running his own space program, he founded The Boring Company. Imagine being rich enough to realize your dreams, and deciding that boring traffic tunnels into the Earth is a good use of your money? I can think of many more worthwhile and life-enhancing projects!
Science fiction has inspired so much of Musk’s work that it makes us wonder what our world might look like if he’d read different books when he was younger. What if he’d read sci-fi about a post-cancer world? Or if he’d read more about the legions of people affected by endometriosis? Or even sci-fi based around a cohort of exclusively female astronauts?
Tech should be about serving the needs of the many, not just the few dreamers who have enough money to turn their visions into machines. I appreciate that it can sometimes feel as if there are too many choices to make, so it’s also important to choose your problem – like a billionaire philanthropist trying to decide which good cause their money should go towards. How about the eradication of a terrible disease, like the Gates Foundation aiming to get rid of polio by funding vaccinations worldwide? Or funding the development of a new vaccine, in the way that Dolly Parton did by donating $1 million towards Moderna Covid-19 vaccine research?
You might prefer to fund the school or university that you went to, or the arts, or a museum. Between 2007 and 2017, British millionaires gave nearly £5 billion to higher education (mostly Oxford and Cambridge universities), £1 billion to the arts, but just over £2 million to alleviating poverty. Similarly, in the US, barely one dollar in five donated by philanthropists goes to the poor. No wonder philanthropy doesn’t improve inequality.
Maybe you’d be inspired to make choices more along the lines of those of Julian Richer, who owns home entertainment chain Richer Sounds. He gave his employees 60 per cent of shares in the company, through a trust,2 and handed them a total of £3.5 million – £1,000 each for every year of service. Rather than keeping their wages down and then donating his wealth to help the poor, he decided to pay his employees properly and gave them some control over the company too.
If we’re talking about power and money, and the role those things play in the tech that’s built, it becomes clear that we’re not very good at choosing the right kind of problems to solve, let alone solving them very well. Lots of projects have been funded that probably shouldn’t have. It’s an issue that plays out in a big way for tech. However, rather than feel downhearted, as a woman trying to take CTRL, I’d argue that it’s an exciting prospect to consider. The types of problems that you see and want to solve, and the types of choices you want to make in how you solve those problems, can be a great tool for holding yourself accountable, as well as holding others accountable.
This article originally appeared in She’s In Ctrl: How Women Can Take Back Tech by Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon.