‘Self-doubt, reason girls succeed less in STEM Studies, careers’
Amanda Obidike is an accomplished Data Scientist and international development professional with 11 years experience in directing social enterprises, start-ups and complex organisations in Africa, Europe and MENA nations. She is the General Manager of the Sir Emeka Okwuosa Foundation (SEOF). Obidike, a PhD candidate at Selinus University of Science and Literature, holds a Master’s in Business Management from IBMI, Berlin and Certification in Economic Policy Making from IE Business School, Spain. She is a member of the Chatham House, the world leading policy institute; Fellow at the British Academy of Management and serves as an Advisory Council member at the WiSTEM, United Kingdom. Recently, she became a Techwomen awardee, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and winner of the Innocent Chukwuma Prize for Women Empowerment and Youth Development, an initiative co-chaired by Ford Foundation and LEAP Africa.
She currently serves on the Board of the Nigerian Global Affairs Council, STEMi Makers of Africa, Innovation Village, Kenya and as a Trustee at the MAI Foundation for Women Empowerment and Advocacy Centre. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion and drive for empowering girls in STEM.
You have an interesting career path. Could you take us through its trajectory?
I always loved the business world, probably because my parents were a business-minded couple. I studied Business Administration in the university and landed my first sales representative job at an FMCG company between 2015 and 2016. It took a short period to understand and differentiate my passion for business and value for social good. I began to explore science and technology fields in 2016 when I was under-employed and depressed. I was no longer finding fulfilment in my 9am to 5pm job. The meaningful and lucrative jobs available also required technical skills that I did not have originally after my graduation. Nigeria began to transfer major resources and employment opportunities to skilled professionals due to lack of competent and a domestic STEM workforce. Seeing this economic disparity, I began to research new labour market skills that youths like me can successfully thrive in. I got an opportunity to be trained by IBM in Business Intelligence/Analytics after eight months of leaving my job. This was the beginning of a new phase − a new phase of establishing two organisations centred on helping SMEs analyse their data to determine profitability and training, and STEM development for educators, young talents and communities.
You founded a couple of organisations. What informed them?
A need to address problems using technology; after my training at IBM, I understood that creating values means coming up with something people will pay for in real world. Whether it is environmental issues, healthcare, telemedicine, business or education, we can solve these problems confronting our existence and apply technology to make them seamless, unique and competitive. In my case, it was how to use this tool for social good. Problems I identified were our underdeveloped education system and lack of advanced digital policy frameworks that encourage women entrepreneurs, educators and young people to thrive. The journey, so far, has been fulfilling and rewarding because it has positioned me in decision-making areas and advisory channels related to youth development and STEM policy-making.
What drives your ideas for innovation and development in the STEM space?
STEM affects everything that we do as citizens. Whether it is having an understanding of the solar system and the environment, disposing waste in our homes, playing with our smartphones, or booking a ride with Uber, there is hardly anything in today’s world that does not, in some way, shape or form, involve STEM. The future economic growth of Nigeria depends on an aligned education system that supports development efforts in generating talents needed to become self-reliant and problem-solvers using science, technology, engineering, maths and innovation. I believe that if Nigeria is to remain competitive in a growing global economy, it is imperative that we raise students’ achievement in STEM subjects. Today, the most developed countries invest in science, technology and research. It is of paramount importance for any country in post-industrialised era that wants to either sustain their economic and innovative leadership in the global economy, or to catch up with those who have been leading the way in technology and innovation, to ensure that our children and the next generation are job-secured, future-ready and have equal opportunities for their future success. It is important that we invest in STEM education. STEM programmes inspire children, boost creativity and work to create the next generation of scientist, engineers, and computer programmers.
Your primary and personal goal is to impact girls through STEM. How are you achieving this?
Women make up half of the total of Nigeria’s college-educated workforce, but only 11 per cent of the science and engineering workforce are women. Research shows that girls start doubting their Math and critical thinking intelligence by age six and continue to lose confidence as classes become less gender-balanced and more intimidating. Also in 2019, the Income and Labour Dynamics in African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) Survey stated that 30.5 million young women were unemployed and living in poverty due to significant STEM-related skill gaps. Data from the OECD reveal a strong correlation between 15-year-old boys’ self-confidence in STEM subjects and their higher performance when compared to girls. Yet boys’ brains are not more effective at STEM problem-solving than girls’, and there are negligible gender differences in children’s mathematical skills. What evidence does show, however, is that girls’ self-perception, due to community pressures and biases, is the primary reason for them succeeding less in many countries in STEM studies and careers. The most immediate way we are addressing this divide is nurturing girls’ confidence in the sciences and increasing their exposure to high-quality, inclusive science instruction in schools. For example, we tackle some of these issues in a drive to increase and sustain access to mentoring through our Kuongoza Programme that combines capacity development in STEM and mentorship to support women between the ages of 15 and 35 years to access new markets, work flexibly and integrate these learned skills needed for the workplace after being mentored. We also run STEM Bootcamps and Campus Ambassador Network for girls, where we utilise their hours outside of school with hands-on deck approach in their studies.
What do you consider the high point of your career?
(Laughs) I am a dreamer. Sometimes, I want to be president; another moment, I want to be a minister. I just want to be found doing something good and leaving a lasting legacy.
What challenge do you face in the cause of your work and how are you able to surmount it?
One of the challenges is the difficulty in getting funds. I understand how this is a hard task and dealing with some specific donor funding conditions. One of the ways we have mitigated this challenge is by sharing our impact stories for proper visibility and collaboration with esteemed organisations.
A lot of young women struggle with building their career due to stereotypes. How would you advise them?
My advice for women wanting to enter this field is to be fearless. Be free to dream. Be free to collaborate. Be free to connect with budding or experienced professionals and ask questions. Understand that life has its own challenges and hurdles in the journey to self-actualisation. Be consistent, staying true to yourself and keep focused. STEM fields are wonderful options to make and thrive in. Feel free to reach out to peers you admire or professionals in STEM who could share their stories, tips and advice that can help you in the field. We need more women like you in this field.
How do you get inspiration and stay motivated?
Family is everything to me. I draw inspiration from my mum, sister and the Holy Spirit. There is always a word of encouragement and re-ignition that charges me with something always new.
What is your life mantra?
Ahamefuna (meaning My name or legacy will not disappear).