Women and girls shine forth across the world and in all walks of life as contributors and builders of sustainable communities and countries. However, they face barriers and are largely underrepresented in some career paths and industries that men have dominated, historically. Glaring examples abound in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) related careers that are foundational to building sustainable economies.
According to the World Economic Forum, less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women. A fraction of female students opts for STEM-related fields in higher education. As a matter of fact, 3 per cent of students joining information and communication technology (ICT) courses across the globe are women. That improves slightly to 5 per cent for mathematics and statistics courses. And it increases to 8 per cent for engineering, manufacturing, and construction courses.
In Nigeria, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (UIS) posits that women account for less than 30 per cent of the total number of researchers in science fields.
To create awareness and address the gender disparity in Science and technology, the United Nations February 11thevery year, observes the International Day for Women and Girls in Science (IDWGIS).
In commemoration of this year’s IDWGIS, Edugist Grace Aderemi, had an interesting chat with the senior special assistant to the Governor of Lagos state on STEM, Adetola Salau, Ph.D, talking about her experiences and the opportunities available for girls in STEM.
The early beginnings
Adetola’s love and interest in science started in her pre-school days. “I’ve always been a very curious person. I loved tweaking them, pushing them, and trying to figure out, what fits into things and how things work.”
Thankfully, she had supportive parents, who not only saw the science spark in her but helped her to explore her interest without restrictions. Her dad, she mentioned never made her feel she was less because she was a girl. Rather, he supported her through every step, even when at that age, she could have been adjudged too young to know what she was doing.
“My father was very supportive. The older I get, the more appreciative I become of him. When my dad travelled oversees, he bought me a big beautiful book (how things work by Theodore Gray ), it was a book about how machines like television, and radio, worked.”
She studied the book and at a tender age started using the learnings of the book to repair machines in the house. “Anytime something wasn’t working, it was me they would call and I would tinker with it.”
Like their dad, Adetola’s mother, a meterologist, was a strong pillar of support for her. While at home, she never experienced gender disparity until she went to school. However, despite the discouragement that came from teachers and classmates, her mother never let her interest in science wane.
Finding purpose in science
Her interest started with a knack for fixing tools, but as time passed she soon began to find purpose in problems she saw along the path of growth. Problems she says have to be the main driver, for any woman and girl who wants to excel in STEM.
“Yes. I wanted to be a scientist, but my major driver, that is, what kept me grounded I saw a problem and I wanted to solve it. I like to speak to students about it all the time, and a lot of times what you should try to start from is seeing challenges around you and asking yourself,
‘How do I fix this’? And what do I need to be able to solve this problem.”
For Adetola, the problem that stirred the wheel into sciences was the oil spillage in Bonny (Niger Delta). Whenever she went to visit her maternal grandmother, she would see how polluted the water was.
The pollution which affected wildlife caused heavy environmental waste, and crippled the activities of farmers and fishermen, always made her very upset.
“I had made up my mind that I wanted to be somebody who’s going to clean up the water and this pushed me to research. I was 12 or 13 years old at the time. When I did research in the library, I found out that the people who engaged in solving problems by systems were engineers, particularly chemical engineers. So I decided to become a chemical engineer.”
Walking the path was without a doubt challenging, but with the steadfast support of her parents, Adetola pulled through.
“It was difficult, sometimes there was so much to do. But I’ll come back home, and my mom would encourage me and teach me math. She made it interesting. My parents also dedicated quite a bit of resource to ensure that I got the best training. I had so many lessons teachers. I could not say ‘oh I don’t understand this’, my parents ensured that the teachers explained till I got it. And then my mom was also, hands-on and was also available to explain things to me. So, I had no excuse than to get it right.”
From Chemical Engineering to STEM education
Following her completion of the compulsory National Youth Service Corps(NYSC), Adetola commenced work in the oil and gas sector. But after a stint in the industry, she had to turn her back on oil and gas and follow her passion in educational development, focusing on STEM education, this decision Adetola said trailed controversial responses from friends and relatives.
“Education is the foundation, the bedrock of everything. I have never heard anyone say ‘that’s my engineer’, You may hear someone say that’s my surgeon but it is not common, but what profession will you hear someone make reference to in the later years? Of course, the teacher. It could be a teacher, a primary school teacher. But every single person has a teacher. And trust me, not only their teachers, people have their favorite teachers, they also have their worst teachers. It could be the president or even the mechanic on the street, regardless of the vocation or profession, everybody has a teacher.
“And there’s something powerful about how teachers have the ability to change one’s life. And I’ve seen the impact time after time, and I can tell that their work is important. I am not saying that the work that engineers do is not important. That’s why I want to build engineers and scientists. But on the other hand, I also want to help boost and train more teachers who will also raise female and male students.”
While she worked as an engineer, she didn’t enjoy as much fulfillment and happiness as she desired. In 2015, she resigned from her engineering job to establish Carisma4U Educational Foundation, a social innovation enterprise that focuses on the transformation of the educational system especially STEM education in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
Adetola started organising boot camps in her community and in no time attracted lots of students. “I used to run camps, boot camps, in my area, children would come all the way from Iyana-Ipaja to attend the boot camp. To train the student, I had to drain my bank account. Today, my UBA savings account has never recovered. My account at Access Bank was used up as well.”
Together with her mum and son, Adetola organised training for students in chemistry, mathematics, and physics.
“There was a year we were talking about acids and bases. Do you know that for many of the students, (many of whom were already in secondary school) that was the first time they were learning about acids and bases? My mother and I were shocked! It’s very clear that according to the science curriculum, by the age at least 9 or 10, students ought to have known what acids and bases are. The children we were working with were between the ages of 12 and 13 yet they had no idea what acids and bases were. That made us realise how important the boot camps we were conducting were to the children. We had to run a two-week training on that with the children. I will never forget that we were able to do that.
“Also in mathematics, we ensured that didn’t just come outside going over formulas. No, we organised real-life scenarios and practical sessions for the children.”
Today through the Charisma4U foundation, Adetola has impacted thousands of lives.
Managing as SSA and PhD Student
In 2020, Adetola was appointed the senior special assistant to the Lagos State Governor on STEM education. She had just commenced her doctorate degree programme at the University of Buffalo, New York, United States and had to keep up with her best to deliver in the multiple roles, which was not easy. But she was determined to leave no loose ends.
“I had lots of work in my hands and I knew that it was not going to be easy. Yes, I had government work. You know people can choose to be nonchalant in public service. But I was determined to do my work with my whole heart. I was ready to invest everything that I had. Fortunately, the honourable commissioner who I work with is very committed. For us, it was all or nothing. Truly, juggling Ph.D and work did cost me quite a bit too financially, emotionally, and physically, but I am gratified when I see the impact our team has made.
“There were days when I would only sleep for one and a half hours to keep up with tasks and research, I had to exercise regularly because that was the only way I could get the energy I needed.
“At times, wherever I went, I would take my thesis documents to work on them, even to the governor’s office. I got to a point where I said, ‘You know what? I’m fed up. I’m so tired of this programme’. My supervisor was very difficult. And I didn’t really understand what she wanted me to do. Truly, it wasn’t easy.”
Despite the hurdle, she pulled through!
“I promised God when I was talking one morning that if I finished this course, I will sing to Him in Yoruba. My Yoruba isn’t the best, however, I wouldn’t care how I sound because it’s just you. When I was done I fulfilled my promise. Today, when I arrive at the office, people will be dancing calling me ‘doctor’ cos they know what it took to get the title.”
Today, Dr. Salau stands strong, better equipped to help students and educators build capacities and take on opportunities in STEM.
How do you find balance?
“I’m still finding my balance. The truth is, you only have two hands. And if you ever watch, when you joggle balls in the air, you will notice that some balls are still in the air, and to catch them you have to let go of the ones in your hands, your prayer is that none of the balls fall off. It’s tough. But you have to do your best around every area of responsibility.”
Adetola said that it is nearly impossible to find balance as oftentimes, one may be required to prioritise one responsibility over the other, however, the wisdom is in setting the priorities right.
“The challenge of finding balance is something I experienced more than ever last year. Because with all my engagements, I also had to be there for my child. Some days, I will see myself in my son’s school. Even if I didn’t want to be there, I was there. I know that for all the things we may want to prioritise, our child is permanent. I was involved in his school programmes and ensured he was a part of my programmes.”
On the need to invest in women and girls, she says
“Like half of the human body, women are 50 per cent of the population. Their input is critical to building our society. How are we going to deprive our body of what it needs? When you give it what it needs, it will be more beneficial for society. We must realise how critical it is to make sure that women have these skills. Because then they can raise children that will appreciate sciences. Also, then we can create a society that is very strong. Left and right, we have to balance each other.”