Commitment, solidarity and a deep sense of social awareness. Chinenye Ezeakor has been chosen as one of the Young Leaders at the 2017 European Development Days for a reason. Engineer and founder of the non-profit African Sisters in S.T.E.M., she is committed to bringing women into the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) by teaching digital skills, and supporting and mentoring young girls in Nigeria.
Over 500 young female students have benefited from free training in areas relating to energy, computer programming and physics. I had the pleasure to interview and exchange views with this promising and insightful woman.
What was your motivation behind African Sisters in S.T.E.M.? Was there a key turning point that made you create this organization?
I studied engineering and in my class, out of 147 students, there were only 7 girls. Can you imagine the gender gap? I saw the role that stereotypes were playing. For instance, people I knew were asking me why I was studying engineering. They told me that I would be a much better lawyer. This is just to show you that many women do not believe that they belong in the STEM field, especially when they come to class and see that a huge majority of the students are men, and of course, it is the same in the workplace. In this situation, many women feel left out. They think: “this is not a place for me”.
Also, I realized that young girls do not have role models in STEM to look up to. People find inspiration in other people. When we are kids, for example, we think of being like Einstein, but where are the women? We are lacking female role models in the field of STEM.
I am convinced that by increasing the number of women in this field more girls will be inspired and encouraged to pursue this path. Many girls are interested in science and technologies; they are full of questions, but the problem is that they have no one to direct them to. This is why I have implemented a mentorship approach by creating a small network of female professionals in STEM. Girls can see that if these ladies have done it, they can also do it!
In my case, I studied engineering because of my uncle who was an engineer and supported me. I wanted to be like him. In my case, my role model was a man, but I am aware that for some women it is easier to look up to other women because they find it difficult to associate themselves with a man.
We are lacking female role models in STEM
Finally, I had another reason for creating this non-profit. In Nigeria, the education system is too theoretic and students cannot visualize how the subject of study works in reality. This kind of education system limits both innovation and interest in STEM. For this reason, I believe deeply in a hands-on approach in education. When I look at the curriculum in schools, I think about how to “practicalize” the content.
In the introduction of your organization African Sisters in S.T.E.M. you mention that “giving the right opportunity” women will increasingly venture into STEM related disciplines. What exactly is the “right opportunity” that is missing nowadays for girls?
“The right opportunity” encompasses several things, such as the right for quality education, the right to have a good environment to learn, the right to have your voice heard, the right to access the field of STEM, the right to be given a leadership position… In general, it refers to giving women and girls confidence, giving them that “push”.
You mentioned that many people believe that women do not belong to the STEM field. Is this misconception related to preconceived notions of female and male roles? What is it exactly for you?
For me, it is part of culture. For some, women belong in the kitchen. It also affects men. In the sense that, if they only see men in the workplace, they believe that women shouldn’t be there, and once they are there, they should not be given high level positions. This affects negatively young boys too because they end up believing that this is the way it should be. We need to change the status quo, start listening to women’s voices and giving them all the opportunities. For me, it’s a matter of gender equality, not a competition between sexes. We need to stop making our decisions based on gender, but start valuing the skills and capacities that each person has.
With your non-profit you started providing trainings, courses, workshops and so forth to girls. How was your project received in your community and region?
It was warmly received. People want to do better, they want to learn, they find it interesting. It was something new and I was bringing it for free, so people were amazed. This is my own contribution to society and I am just adding to the collective effort for women and girls and for gender equality.
The name of your NGO is African Sisters in S.T.E.M. I can see that solidarity among women is important for you. Do you believe in the so-called “women’s sisterhood”?
Yes, for me it is fundamental that women help and support each other. When I meet a girl and she tells me about her dreams and plans, I am immediately thinking about how I could help her. For young girls, it is crucial that they find women they can trust and rely on, share their concerns and identify with. This is the kind of sisterhood in which I believe in.
Have you heard about the so-called phenomenon of the “queen bee”? It refers to the fact that some women in a certain leadership position distance themselves from other women and are hostile towards them. In fact, being a woman does not mean that you will automatically help or support other women.
I have not heard about this before. It is a possibility, but I would link it more to personal features. I believe that some people are just very competitive and do not want to share anything or support anyone, regardless of the gender of the other person. This attitude is not attached to a particular gender, but I believe it is an individual characteristic.
According to the European Union, looking at the number of women scientists and engineers in the total labour force, a gender gap in favour of men still exists at the level of the EU-28 (2013). In fact, the lower number of women than men in the STEM field is a worldwide issue. Looking further than the situation in Nigeria, how do you see this issue globally?
Even if the situation in STEM is not equal between women and men in the developed countries, I see that in developed countries more women are getting there. However, in the developing countries, we are still somehow far. For me, it is a matter of education. We need to improve our education system. Today we were talking about internet connectivity. In Nigeria we are still struggling to have internet access in rural areas. With internet, even the women that cannot go to school can have access to information and build their knowledge, they can “fight against the system” in a way. Going online means that women and girls will find more role models and be inspired. They will also see that there is a different (and maybe more gender equal) place outside their communities, which will make them think about new possibilities.
With internet, even the women that cannot go to school can have access to information and build their knowledge, they can “fight against the system” in a way.
Also, I would like to see more women speaking out in STEM and in general. They need to share their stories, be confident and demand more. Often, women are being told that they cannot do something, and many just accept that, do not dare to fight back and challenge that reality. Women need to challenge themselves more. I am very happy to see this global push for gender equality. I hope that women take it personally and fight for themselves, their daughters, sisters, female friends…
What should we be doing to reach parity or to increase the number of women in STEM at all levels? What should civil society do? Governments? Private sector? Women? And men?
Women should support each other and men should recognize the role that women play in all fields. Men should stop seeing women as a “challenge”, but rather as a partner. Women and men need to come together and join efforts. Governments also need to recognize the role of women in shaping policies and in governance structures. They need to take seriously girls’ education and listen to women’s and girls’ voices. Regarding the general public, there is a sense that women are now trying to kick men out, but we need to see it more as a call for unity. Gender equality is a call for unity. It is only together that we will be able to achieve our goals. Private organisations need to support their women employees, give them projects, give them leadership positions, give them promotions, criticize them they make mistakes but also praise them when they are successful.
Gender equality is a call for unity.
During the European Development Days, we have talked about the link between digitalization and development. The issue of the potential loss of jobs due to the new technological revolution has been raised in these debates. According to the World Economic Forum, over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies will be lost by 2020. It is estimated that the employment gender gap will widen, meaning that women will lose five jobs for every job gained compared to the three jobs men will lose for every job gained. What are your views on this issue, and what could we do to avoid the potential negative impact that this could have on women?
I believe that technology is creating more jobs than the amount of jobs that are being lost. This is a reality that not everyone is ready to accept. Jobs need to be created to develop those new technologies, to fix them, to install them, etc. We are living in a digitalized age, and it will not stop. This is why women cannot afford to be left out on this shift. By 2022 technology related positions will account for the majority of jobs. The education of women in technology is key to enable them to join this new workforce. This field will be continually in need of people and, if we leave women behind, we will miss some of the most creative and innovative minds, which means we may not be able to achieve all our goals.
We are living in a digitalized age, and it will not stop. This is why women cannot afford to be left out on this shift.
What do you think the role of the European Union is regarding the digitalisation and development link, and with regards to women and girls, if any?
The EU is based on consensus and is interested in helping developing countries. However, I believe that the EU needs to be held accountable for its actions. It needs to be more collaborative, it needs to work with governments, private and civil society and bring more resources together. In this collaborative effort, it is essential that the EU assures the inclusion and participation of women. For example, when working on internet connectivity and access projects, the EU needs to ask and analyse if women are having access or are being excluded in that process. They should measure their greater impact, including the impact on the life of women and girls.
You are one of the European Development Young Leaders and it is very likely that new opportunities will emerge for you after this big event. What are your future plans? Where you see yourself in the future?
In the future, I see myself running my own tech company, being able to champion technology and being a role model for other girls. I would like to support more girls in accomplishing their dreams, supporting them in different ways. I see myself as a social entrepreneur, championing change for women and girls and in education.
Acknowledgements: Chinenye Ezeakor, Corinne Stancescu, Radu Chiriac, Chiara Piazza and Ilkka Penttinen.
 European Commission, Research and Innovation. She Figures 2015. Page 42.[:or]Commitment, solidarity and a deep sense of social awareness. Chinenye Ezeakor has been chosen as one of the Young Leaders at the 2017 European Development Days for a reason. Engineer and founder of the non-profit African Sisters in S.T.E.M., she is committed to bringing women into the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) by teaching digital skills, and supporting and mentoring young girls in Nigeria. Over 500 young female students have benefited from free training in areas relating to energy, computer programming and physics. I had the pleasure to interview and exchange views with this promising and insightful woman.