Owolabi: Why Female Engineering Students Should be Positioned for Global Impact Before Graduation

Mrs. Atinuke Owolabi is the 10th chairperson of the Association of Professional Women Engineers in Nigeria, Lagos Chapter, inaugurated recently. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, the fellow of the Nigeria Institute of Electrical Engineers, highlighted the efforts made by the association to empower girls and female students, to position them for global impact

Your administration has lined up the 2023-2025 strategic plans. What is the motivation behind the plans?

People usually say that when you empower women, you are feeding the nation. In APWEN, our core aim is to promote engineering careers for girls. People assume that the engineering profession is a male-dominated discipline. We also need to position our girls. I studied engineering in school, but then, in the classroom, there were very few women. And I asked if the girls see women engineers who can inspire them and they can actually emulate and know that they too can be role models. There is a girl in my church who is currently in 400 level studying Mechatronics Engineering. 

She decided to study engineering because of me. So, she sees me as her role model. The aim of the strategic plan is to continue to encourage our girls who have the capacity to take an interest in STEM subjects and see engineering as a career, not just for men alone. For instance, I have a STEM club for school pupils from basic four to six. This is our third year of running the club, where we mentor and equip the pupils with skills such that by the time they get into secondary school, they will have a mindset change towards studying engineering because we have introduced them to hands-on activities. 

Anywhere I see myself, I promote engineering as a career and I try to enlighten the girls on different aspects of engineering, such as computer, mechanical, electrical, chemical, software or robotics, which they don’t know about. Recently, we were in Ajegunle for the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, I met the Chairman of the local government and explained to him that if they really want development for the community, they have to key into STEM. As a result, he decided to partner with APWEN to organise the programme. 

After we mentored the girls, they said they never believed they will be able to further their education after their secondary school, because they believed that education is a scam. Right there, we offered them free UTME forms and we showed them the different disciplines of engineering. They read the brochure and chose the ones they felt they could thrive in. We were able to change their orientation that education is not a scam. We gave UTME forms to 40 girls and 10 boys 10. 

So hopefully, in the next 7 to 10 years, the Ajegunle community will be having 30 or more engineers. They need the exposure so as to produce professionals who will bring development into the community and be able to network with others. I have an engineering firm and I plan to bring more girls into the profession who will be relevant and people could emulate. 

Did these efforts spur APWEN to establish Artificial Intelligence for Girls in Engineering Club?

We felt that the world is gradually tilting towards technology and artificial intelligence. Should we neglect our girls? Already, the boys are positioning themselves towards technology, so where are we going to place our girls? We need to bridge the gap quickly. How do we do it? We had to set up a club where they will be introduced to different tech skills such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, Data Analysis, Internet of Things, among others, as well as communication and entrepreneurial skills because we need to catch them young and position them. In the field of technology, how many girls do we have? There are more boys in the field. 

So we needed to set up the girls to bridge the gap and equip our girls. In the club, the girls are already coming up with innovations. One of them just built a robot car and told me she got an internship with an Indian company. When I train them, I tell them that they need to position themselves by being visible on Instagram, for instance. Through this, companies are contacting those I trained. We are equipping another set and I know that in the next five years, our girls will be complementing the efforts of the boys.

APWEN recently built a technology and innovation hub at the University of Lagos and installed a solar system at the female engineering hostel of Lagos State University, Epe campus; what is the motive behind this?

Late last year, we reached out to the dean of the school in UNILAG to complain that the female students may not be able to thrive in the world of work if they are only taught theory and that we needed to position them for them to be equipped before they graduate. So, we were given the go-ahead to set up a research technology and innovation hub. We were given a 200-capacity hall to set up the hub. In the hall, we will be having a resource centre and e-library, and the desktops will be equipped with engineering software and resources. 

We also plan to partner with some foreign universities and associations, such as the Institute of Electrical Electronics and Engineering (IEEE) and Coursera, so that students can have materials that will be useful for their research work. We are trying to ensure that they do projects that will make a global impact. If we don’t start now by impacting the female engineering students before they graduate, they will begin to struggle because they will not see that engineering is lucrative. That is why we set up the technology and resource hub. 

With tech trends and different resources, you are already interacting with the international community. Companies will be looking out for you because they know you are bringing on board your skills. So if they don’t put them on the right footing, how would they be able to get there? We are also going to be training them on leadership and managerial skills. There are so many risks out there, so how would you be able to comport yourself or control yourself? That is why we need to equip our girls before they graduate; hence, mentorship is key. At the LASU Epe campus, we installed a solar system at the female hostel because they complained that they had a power issue. These are the things we should be doing and advocate for change for them.

What is your view about gender integration in the workplace and creating an enabling environment for better productivity for women?

In order for women to have better productivity in the engineering space that is already perceived to be male-dominated, how do you encourage them to come into the field? You need to challenge the women because they are very resourceful. They should, firstly, eradicate the perception that the engineering field is for the men folk. In recruiting women, organisations must create an enabling environment for them. For instance, there should be a crèche close to the workplace so they can keep their babies for them to be productive. Also, when you talk about diversity, they need to look at the roles that the women can fit in to make the company grow. So, they should challenge the women and not constrain or restrain them. 

Women are better managers, focused and committed. Women’s voices should be heard. The president should bring more women, especially professionals, on board because they have a lot to contribute, and they are guided by the ethics of the profession. For instance, professionals who are into politics value their people. I am an engineer and a politician. During the election, we went around to campaign and people believed in us. 

So when the appointment comes, the women should be considered in order to make impact and we can bring our expertise on board. We really want to develop our country because we believe in good governance. That is why I will encourage professionals to come into politics because you can contribute meaningfully and ensure that the decisions made impact your people.

What other initiative is APWEN embarking on?

We want to build capacity for our elders who have committed their time to the profession. The programme is tagged ‘Reverse Mentoring’, with the objective of attaching them to younger engineers who will train them on tech trends. They will be their mentors, and they can learn from each other to stay relevant in the field. We also have the Innovator Year award for our female engineering students. We are talking about innovation and technology. It is for those who are resourceful. Challenging the female students will make them go out there and do a lot of research. That is why we need to equip the girls because they are focused and committed. You will see that they will put their best into the activities. This is the first time we will be coming up with this kind of project. We are going to get the prototype that we are going to patent and send to the federal government. 

It starts from there, so we need to encourage them. Another initiative is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 6; water and sanitation is key. We need to advocate for clean water and sanitation for women and girls. This will be driven by our young engineers. We are giving them the responsibility. Professionals need to go out there and enlighten the market women on the need to stop throwing garbage in the drainage so as to prevent flooding. Our main goal as engineers is to proffer solutions when things are going wrong. Any country that has no engineers cannot move forward. We are appealing to the government to donate an 18-seater bus to enhance our mobility because we are contributing our quota to the development of society.

You have a non-governmental organisation that empowers widows. What has been the impact since its inception?

I love helping people. I believe that when you are in a community, your impact should be felt. You don’t need to wait until you are rich to show love. The name of the NGO is ‘Touch of Love and Lifting High’ Foundation. With a touch of love, you can put smiles on the faces of people and lift them up. If you don’t start building capacity or empowering the people, they may frustrate the lives of your children. I have children that I am sponsoring in school. For instance, I once met an old woman who came to the foundation with a little boy to beg for money for food. But I insisted that the boy must go to school. He is in JS three as we speak.

Do you have sponsors backing up your numerous projects?

The Lagos State Deputy Governor, Dr. Olufemi Hamzat, supports me financially anytime I call on him. I quite appreciate him for that. We need to show love and empower women. I also appeal to the United Nations to support the organisation that cares for the less privileged in the community. I love impacting people. For our technology and innovation hub, the worldwide alumni President of UNILAG, Dr. Ife Oyedele, is sponsoring the project. He is giving back to the faculty, and this will spur girls to study engineering. We have so many initiatives for our girls. In May, we will be having a workshop for young married mothers as part of our integration programme to let them know that they are part of us. 

What is your advice to people wanting to put down the womenfolks?

They have to see women as builders, as coming to add value or give back. Putting the profession in our hands will go a long way. This is the first time the Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE) will be producing a female engineer as the president in its over 66 years. Already, she is making a great impact out there. That is to just to tell you that women are focused, committed and dedicated. We don’t embrace distraction. We are going to continue to promote the engineering profession, complement the efforts of the men, and ensure a better perspective.

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