‘The world needs science and science needs women’

Dorothy S. Bass


Akin Jimoh hears about two initiatives that aim to get more girls and young women into science careers.

Akin Jimoh: 00:10

Welcome to Science in Africa, a Nature Careers podcast series. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. I work and live in Lagos and I’m passionate about promoting science and public-health journalism in my native Nigeria, and across Africa.

In this series, we are going to explore the practice of science in this wonderful continent, the progress, the issues, the needs, in the words of African scientists who are based here.

In this fifth episode, we meet two researchers who have taken upon themselves to do their bit to address the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers in Africa.

They both inspire young girls to get interested in science, but in very different ways.

Stanley Anigbogu 01:27

My name is Stanley Anigbogu. I am 22 years old from Nigeria. I’m a creative technologist and a storyteller. Currently the founder of ArtecHubs Nigeria, a STEM education company that provides quality education in science, technology, engineering and maths in Nigeria.

So STEM4HER is a non-profit project that empowers young girls. So we’re looking at young girls in primary to secondary schools within the age range of six to 18 years by providing them access to skills, mentorship, to break the stereotypes within what women can do, and cannot do in the science, technology, engineering field.

So STEM4HER provides young girls in suburban and urban communities with access to robotic skills, coding skills and also storytelling skills, in order to encourage and empower these young girls to become future innovators, problem-solvers and changemakers, using science and technology to solve problems around the world.

Akin Jimoh 02:25

Yeah, you know, you mentioned that you kind of wear two hats. You say you are a storyteller. And you are also into STEM, STEM4HER, especially for girls. That aspect of storytelling, what do you do? What kind of story do you tell? And how do you tell the story?

Stanley Anigbogu 02:42

So the majority of the stories that we tell, or I tell at ArtecHubs, Nigeria is basically story for science, or in general storytelling for science engagement.

So the majority of the stories that I do tell are documenting the projects of our students while they were working on their projects, and how the project finally ended up, and probably their success story. So we edit and document the stories, and we share it with the next cohorts of the programme.

So this is to show them what people have done, and to prove to them that they could actually become change-makers themselves, not because of their gender, but because of who they are and their ability.

So it’s more of a mindset shift for these young girls, to encourage them and to remove that backward thinking that they shouldn’t be in science or technology.

So I’m, for example…one of the projects that we did during the storytelling process of what we are doing in step four. So the Rocket Girl is a very good example. So this is a story about a 12-year-old girl that is passionate about space and science in general.

Rocket Girl 03:55

Hello world. My name is Blessing. I am in senior school. And I am a Nigerian.

Stanley Anigbogu 04:04

… so she makes this rocket model using waste and recycled plastic pipes and also cardboard papers to make rockets that actually launch into the sky.

Rocket Girl: 04:15

… and this is the beginning of my story. As a young girl …

Stanley Anigbogu 04:20

… so this is a very impactful story. Then what we do is we document only the stories that we are sure that will pack life into other young girls, and we then use that story to empower and encourage other young girls as well.

Akin Jimoh: 04:38

Can you remember the fundamentals for how to, you know, sail towards a rocket? I mean, what could have been her inspiration in terms of building rockets at that age?

Stanley Anigbogu 04:49

Yeah, I think in general, she grew up very, very exposed to a lot of cartoons. According to her, she was very inspired to one day become an astronaut or travel to space or probably be part of a team that builds rockets that will take Africa to space.

So that was a very inspiring story for me and her drive was just brilliant. Then we just helped her with the product, the design of how she could make this locally made rocket. And she just took the wheel from there. She’s a brilliant young girl. But I think she got inspired by a lot of cartoons. Yeah, to be honest, a lot of cartoons.

Rocket Girl 05:35

I am very interested in science and technology. I enjoy exploring the unknown, and going on trips that provide solutions to world-related challenges. I intend to go around the world and investigate new possibilities for how science may bring about positive change in rural communities.

Stanley Anigbogu 06:01

And to be honest, speaking, from my own perspective, I think movies and cartoons are very key.

Like I said, storytelling has a very amazing power that we underestimate.

I got inspired to participate in science and technology in 2018.That was when I watched Iron Man when it came out, newly. And that inspired me to be like Tony Stark one day.

But along the way, I later discovered my own passion. And my own purpose is to inspire other young people to be part of the science and technology cool space. So I think movies, in general stories do inspire a lot of change, a lot of great people and a lot of significant problem-solvers.

Akin Jimoh: 06:47

Okay. Okay, so you document experiences, and so on and so forth.

So why did you start it? Because you made this statement recently, and I quote, “It’s hard changing the girls’ mindsets, especially for those from rural, you know, communities, you know, with limited access to, you know, equipment facilities as soon as so forth?”

Yet you established STEMforHER. For girls in rural areas. Why?

Stanley Anigbogu 07:16

The reason was, at a certain point in my change-making career, I encountered a little girl that came up to me. We were preparing for a science fair. And she said in quotes, “My mom said that I can participate in the science fair competition, because science fair is meant for boys. And I was like, ‘No, it’s probably meant for everyone’.”

And I started looking into the statistics of women in science, and also the number of students who were impacted in our programme. Only 10% were girls in our programme. And that made me think I think I’m also contributing to the problem, that there are less women in science and technology.

So we kind of shifted our focus to impact more girls. And we discovered that girls in the rural area, or rural communities, were mostly affected by that societal mindset that women should only be doctors, or probably, I don’t, nurses. But being part of science and technology, being innovators, inventors are using science to solve global problems. Women are not in that space.

So we decided to change the narrative, empower these girls, provide them with mentorship and also give them that strength and motivation that they need mentally in order for them to persevere in the science field.

So when you’re looking, in general statistics regarding the science field, in general, women just make up 30%.

And that’s a huge gap, which means that there are so many problems that women are facing, that are not being addressed, because there are fewer women in that space.

And alongside when you’re talking about a gender perspective, a man is solving a problem as a man from his own perspective and the world around him.

A woman is also solving it based on gender, how she sees the problem as a lady, a woman. So when we look in general, women are not given that space, which means that we have been solving our problem for decades or even centuries, one-sided. We’re just solving it one-sided. Which means we are not having much more ideas on the table to solve those problems.

So I think getting more women into science, probably yes, might create the shifts that we need to solve more problems.

And I often tell my female students, “You are way smarter than my male students.” It’s way funny because, yeah, because they don’t have that opportunity. So the little opportunity they get, they utilize it very well and they really are the success rate of their projects are higher than the boys. And that’s because they know that this is my chance, this is my turn to shine. And I might not get this opportunity again. And they push for it. So I think that’s my own discovery from my project. Yes.

Doreen Anene 10:25

My name is Doreen Anene. I am a final-year animal-science PhD researcher at the school of biosciences at the University of Nottingham.

In my research, I’m investigating the variation in performance variables of individual hens and their association with the quality and the safety of the egg.

Now very importantly, I am a dedicated representative for women in science from low-income communities and under-represented groups, and the founder and programme director of The STEM Belle.

Akin Jimoh: 11:00

Yes. STEM Belle. What is the STEM Belle programme about? What does it mean?

Doreen Anene 11:05

So The STEM Belle is a non-profit organization. And it was founded in 2017. And our overarching goal is to recalibrate the female representation in STEM careers, and eventually close the gender gap in STEM fields.

So we are working towards this goal by first attracting girls from low-income communities to science subjects. Then secondly, we’re retaining them in science classes in senior secondary schools. And then we’re advancing them to STEM careers through tertiary education.

So STEM, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. While Belle is the French word for the beautiful girl, the beautiful girl, yeah.

So putting this together, you have The STEM Belle, which means the beautiful girl in science and yeah, and with this you can see that we’re trying to pass the message across that women and girls can be everything. They can be elegant in stilettos, and they can be confident and steel toes at the same time.

Akin Jimoh: 12:16

Yeah, you know, you’ve done a lot, you know, in the area of work. But why do we need more girls in science? Why?

Doreen Anene: 12:26

Why not? Why do we not need more girls in science? Look, UNESCO has captured it perfectly. The world needs science and science needs women.

I don’t know if there’s so much more to add to that.

But the truth is there is very serious gender equality inequality going on in the STEM sector, right?

And this is even more pronounced at decision-making levels, board levels.

So you might notice statistics, but globally, there’s only less than, what, 30% of women who are in STEM fields. And in Africa, it’s even less.

The number of girls who choose engineering degrees are a lot less than males. Of course, males dominate the science and the tech sectors.

A lot of work has been done to change the status quo. But there is still a lot more to be done in a whole lot more to be done. And the interesting thing with women and girls is that they are so creative. And they understand, you know, some of these challenges, and that if given a platform, they can proffer a very solid solution to global problems.

Take for example, the effects of climate change. So women in low-income communities really suffer the brunt of climate change. There’s a lot of droughts and so many other things that you notice as a result of climate change that’s affecting their productivity affecting their profitability.

Now, if girls from similar communities that have seen their parents go through this hardship, are supported to get to decision-making levels, do you not think that they would think critically to bring up solutions because they don’t want people like their mothers to go through that pain, that suffering any more?

Akin Jimoh: 14:25

Yeah, you know, when you say beautiful girls, you know, in science, yeah, In Africa, I mean, there’s a saying that the beautiful ones are not yet born. But these beautiful scientists, you know, are born already.

What is the core problem? Why girls? What is the core issue for starting this programme?

Doreen Anene: 14:47

So, in Africa, typically, and I think in quite a number of other continents, you know, especially in low-income communities, there are gende- bias stereotypes that have really eaten deep into the mindset of women and girls, especially from low-income communities.

And these stereotypes are limiting them from achieving their full potential as human beings. So when you engage with schoolgirls or girls, typically from these communities, you hear things like “Engineering is not a woman’s course.” You hear things like, “I don’t want to do engineering because it’d be difficult for me to get married.”

Some people even go forward to say that pilots will find it difficult to have children. You know, all kinds of stereotypes, limiting women from exploring careers in STEM, from maximizing their full potential.

All these things come from … they are handed down, really, they are handed down from generations that have gone ahead of the girls.

These are, like, beliefs that are being passed on to this generation. So now, with all of these, girls are being limited. Now, the world is changing. The world needs science, science needs women. And the truth is that in a few years in 2030, by 2030, the projection is that women and girls, science, technology and engineering will become a very relevant skill to secure jobs.

We’re seeing it already happening before our time. Tech is becoming the real thing. And girls and women are going to be heavily disadvantaged. And even worse, girls and women in low-income communities.

So our agenda is to make sure that women and girls from low-income economically disadvantaged communities are not left out in this global change that’s about to hit us.

Akin Jimoh: 16:53

Two very different approaches. I love Stanley’s ingenious projects STEM4HER That attempt to break ceilings for young girls by showing what is possible. Using storytelling, such as the short film about Rocket Girl, can inspire young girls to dream and then make their dreams reality.

STEM Belle is a more systemic approach. Doreen wants to support girls through their own journey in education. But how does she do this in practice?

What were the deep thoughts that you had. That “Look, I need to give opportunity to others, you know, who may be at a certain stage.” And having a girl child in itself from conception? You know, it matters, to look at how do I bring this child up?

Doreen Anene 17:49

I grew up in northern Nigeria. I grew up in Zaria in Kaduna state, Kaduna state. Now, when we were growing up, my mum studied education. She wasn’t a scientist, and was trying to get a job as a teacher with, you know, a non-science degree. She found it difficult.

Akin Jimoh: 18:16

Those are the people that make scientists. I know the key role they play.

Doreen Anene: 18:20

I agree. I agree, she found it difficult because there were so many competitors for that job. For for those jobs she was applying for right.

And then she thought that she didn’t want her children to go through this. And then she started indoctrinating the benefits of science and her experience to us. Now, growing up I had these stereotypes. Engineering is not for women, it’s not for these, you’re going to end up in a man’s house. There’s really no need for you to stretch yourself going through all of these.

Because I mean, the end goal is supposed to be married, right? When I got into the university, I have a sister who is an engineer as well. Another one who is a physicist.

When we come home for holidays, we sit and you know, compare what happens in our classrooms. And we realize that there are just 4 girls out of 100 boys in engineering school, 7 girls out of 70 boys in physics classes. In agriculture, the percentage was quite high. But there was still that divide.

So these stereotypes I believe, that have been as soon as a girl becomes aware of “What do you want to become?”

You know, for the first few years they are being ambitious, but as they progress, then reality starts to set in. People start to say things. Sometimes even their mothers are saying things to discourage them from exploring STEM careers.

So I think it starts early. It starts really early. And that’s where the leaky pipeline starts from the home. It really starts from the home, from what the children or the girls are hearing from their parents, from their teachers, from their principals, from people around them.

And that’s why at The STEM Belle we are starting our intervention really early. The youngest of our beneficiaries are around GSS 1, so they’re around nine years old. And we do that because we want to attract them to science courses, to science subjects.

We want to let them know that “Maths is hard” is just a statement, if you put work into it, maths wouldn’t be hard.

Akin Jimoh: 20:36

You’ve mentioned a number of barriers, you know, things that are systemic, cultural, and so on and so forth, you know, that more or less affect, you know, having more girls in science.

Can you give us perspectives on how you’ve been able to address these systemic and cultural barriers?

You know, for example, how do you convince a parent that “Look, this girl needs to be a scientist. This girl needs to be a mechanical engineer.” You know, you get people look at, for example, to be a mechanic. Mechanics that repair our cars are usually men. When you see a female mechanic, it’s like, “Wow, what are you doing here?”

So have you been able to really address, you know, key issues that relate to cultural and systemic orientation that you more or less affect, having more girls in science and research, and so on, and so forth?

Doreen Anene: 21:34

Good. So we have been working for five years.

And one of our major strategies to address these issues is conversations, reorientation, re-education of all the stakeholders in this chain, the parents, the students, the people from the Ministry of Education, principals, community leaders. We go into schools, and this is why we work with schools, public secondary schools directly.

So we first start with the government, we go to the state’s office for education. Table our costs, table our objectives explained to them sometimes from here, I have meetings with people at the State Ministry of Education, explaining to them why we need to do this project.

They buy into the idea, and then we get the approval to go to schools. When we get to schools, we sit with principals, heads of departments for science subjects, explaining why there is a need for more girls to be in science. You could be a physics teacher, but not know that there is a need for a girl to be in science. So we finished this we’ve had PTA meetings, would I call it PTA, you know, like

Akin Jimoh: 22:50

Parents Teachers Association.

Dorren Anene: 22:53

Yes, it’s really participatory. So like I was saying that, you know, we engage the parents, we explain to them why there’s a need for girls. And we go through this process, because these girls are typically under 18, they’re still under the influence and direction of their parents.

So we need to make sure that everyone ahead of that has authority over the girls and are on the same page. And then when we go to start working with the girls, we can see change, we can see the impact already.

They go to tell their parents and then you know, it kind of consolidates. So we put in all the action, we have various strategies that we have rolled out at The STEM Belle to achieve this goal. And we always have our parents come through with feedback with comments, they attend all our events. You know, it’s really participatory, and really engaging, and we made sure it’s from bottom-top.

Akin Jimoh 23:51

You know, those days when we were growing up, you know, a typical young boy, you know, is riding a bicycle, is making, you know, a wheel that he rolls about in the compound, climbing trees and so on and so forth.

And these elements at times, you know, spur you to do a number of other things. Are there components in a way that, you know, the girl child from infancy, or from being a toddler, is not limited by the kind of toys she plays with? I mean, could that … is that an area that you explore also indirectly?

Doreen Anene 24:32

Well, if you study the leaky pipeline of women in STEM, it starts from infancy. The kinds of toys they play with the kind of colouring books they look at.

You know, it goes all the way to secondary school, you know, the ages we work with, or it goes all the way to primary school, the kind of extracurricular classes they go for.

While the boys are going for coding and stuff, the girls are going for knitting and cooking, which is absolutely fantastic. So it extends onto secondary school.

So why the guys, the boys are going into something more technical and vocational, the girls sometimes even forced to go into something “more homely”. This is in quotes, right? And then it keeps growing.

For us, particularly, the focus of our work is from secondary school, you know, JSS 1, until SS 3.

And the reason is in between GSS 1 to SS three, we have JS 3. JS 3is such a critical year in the life of anyone that is going to choose science like, you know, you are forced to choose science, art, commercial and all that.

Most times, when you pick a non-science specialization, it’s like a journey of no return. We don’t find you again, honestly, except if God decides to intervene.

And for women, for women, for women, it’s usually, you know, more difficult because right after secondary school, it’s a marriage, you know, and all sorts of things.

So our focus, I appreciate everyone that is putting in work, and other sections of the pipeline, but our focus is within the secondary school.

And yes, I agree. Toys play an important role. From a young age, children become very creative, they become problem-solvers. They become critical thinkers, they become nearly like scientists. So the more you expose them to toys, Montessori toys that will challenge their thinking, the more you allow them to fail, and work it out. I think that maybe there might be an association with them ending up as, you know, really critical and technical people.

Akin Jimoh 27:03

What do you see in the future, you know, what is the future plan for STEM4HER? And even for the student also, what do they see? You know, in the future, you know, are they willing to carry this, you know, to the next level?

Or are there examples of those who have moved on to something higher, you know, from the programme?

Stanley Anigbogu 27:22

So some of the girls in our programmes when you ask them, because we always do this survey before and after the project.

So we ask them, “What do you want to achieve?” And we asked them after the programme, “what do you think you’re going to be able to achieve at this moment in your career?” Majority of the girls will always tell you that she sees herself becoming an inventor. So I think that’s the general concept.

They want to become inventors at this point. But I often tell them, you could become a doctor, but you could become a doctor that solves problems.

So in general, I see a future where the majority of these girls are going to be leading problem-solvers. entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs or even inventors coming up with innovative solutions.

And that’s the aim. That’s the aim for STEM4HER. We’re not trying to just create inventors or chief engineers or scientists or researchers, we are trying to create a league of problem solvers and change-makers in the African ecosystem.

The future I see for STEM4HER is we are going to be doing much more of storytelling, documenting the projects of these girls and sharing it out on social media to inspire other young girls across the world.

Akin Jimoh 28:39

I know that many Africans, like you, you know. What will you advise, you know, in terms of, you know, starting this programme in other African countries? You know, in a way that, you know, we can populate, you know, the continent, you know, with ideas and so on and so forth. Can you talk to Africa?

Stanley Anigbogu 28:59

Yeah, so my advice to every African change-maker out there that is trying to change the world or trying to create projects that would break barriers and provide sustainable solutions for Africa.

The best advice I would give you is, it’s a very slow journey. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.

I know this sounds cliche, but it’s true. It’s a very, very long marathon.

But the advice I would give is every single one of us would use this kind of proves it.

My grandma used to say she would say everyone is a crying baby. We’re all crying for our voices to be heard. And only those that cry the most will get heard. So I think you shouldn’t give up crying because if you didn’t hear you today doesn’t mean that they won’t hear you tomorrow. So keep on crying. Don’t stop until the world hears your name. Everyone is unique, but only those that show their uniqueness are rare. So I think my advice to every young African out there is be read as possible, cry out loud, scream out loud, let your voice be heard and create as much change as you can.

Akin Jimoh: 30:12

You encourage young girls. Young girls have parents, they have uncles, they have aunties, and so on and so forth.

How can they be like you? How do we recognize some of these inherent passions, you know, inherent ideas and dreams, you know, of the girl child, you know, in a way that we don’t stereotype, you know, our girl child into doing what we expect them to do?

You know, do you have a perspective on that that we can learn from?

Stanley Anigbogu 30:45

Definitely. So I tell my students, no matter what I teach you, or no matter how I told you about science or in science, science.

If along the way, you identify that you are not passionate about science, please do shift into your passion. I think that’s a very core phantom that the African mindset is about, you have to do this. You have to become a doctor, you have to become an engineer.

I think it’s about giving the kids a liberty to explore the world, to become who they are, to become themselves. So we do tell our students, hey, no matter how we tell you about science, no matter what we tell you about science, be yourself, identify who you are, and stay strong with that, and then you’re going to quit changing the world.

Some of our students ended up dropping out, becoming like focusing more into art. And I’m like, “Yeah, sure, if you’re doing art, make sure you do art that changes the world”. That’s it. Like I said, it’s not only focusing on science, and science is more of science for change-making, whatever you do, just make sure that you leave a footprint that changes something in the world.

And we, we kind of yeah, we kind of stick it in the back of their head. You have to change the world one way or the other.

Even if it’s cooking, cook for good, cook for change. If you’re travelling, travel for change, whatever you’re passionate about. If you want to make money, make money for change, whatever you’re passionate about, it has to at least make someone’s life better.

Akin Jimoh 32:26

Gender gap is real. And the root of the problem is surely gender bias that exists in African society, and in many others for that matter.

Why society catches up. It will take programmes like STEM4HER and STEM Belle and many more to help address the imbalance. So that’s all for this episode of Science in Africa. In nature, careers, podcasts. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. Thanks again for to thanks again to Stanley Anigbogu and Doreen Anene. And thank you for listening.


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