Engineering practice don’t require physical energy, says Ojelade
Funmilola Ojelade is the President of, Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN). In this interview with Bridget Chiedu Onochie, she gave insight into the activities of the association, how it mentors young engineers and encourages more girls to develop an interest in engineering courses.
When people talk about engineering, it appears exclusive to men. What challenges have you been encountering as women engineers?
Yes, engineering is considered a male-dominated field and indeed, oftentimes there are much more men than women, but I tell you that it is just a thing of the mind, and whatever you have in mind is what eventually materialises. If everybody thinks of the fact that it is a male-dominated profession, then, there are going to be more men and fewer women coming in, and that is what engineering is currently experiencing. However, engineering practice does not require physical strength but more of the strength of the mind. So, if you can have the strength of mind to do it, your gender will not matter. Of course, the general challenge is that because you are a woman, some people have it at the back of their mind that you can’t do the work, so they are not even willing to offer you the chance. Even when they do, they have it at the back of their mind that you can’t do it as well as a man. So, it takes a while for you to be able to prove it (your capacity) and they accept you, then they embrace you.
So, in the face of that challenge, what do you tell yourselves when the government or somebody is awarding you a contract? How do you eliminate that fear or lack of confidence in the minds of your employers?
That is one of the reasons for this kind of conference. As a matter of fact, it is the whole essence of APWEN. Our mission statement is that we are catalysts to the development of female engineers, for the development of the country. So, when we gather like this, and we have people delivering papers and making presentations, it is to encourage ourselves, like those who have been in the profession, with the things they had encountered, and to share such experiences, and advice ourselves on how best to go about this kind of thing. First is that you have to be the best you can – don’t be lazy. Don’t also hide under the excuse that you are a woman, because since we are all humans (just like somebody was saying that you should just start crying if they want to give you problems down the line), that is possible because you want to gain sentiments and all that. What we tell ourselves is, make sure that your work is perfect, and ensure you put in your best, not minding what they think, and don’t leave your assignment until tomorrow. Put in the best you can and make sure the job is done. These are what we say to ourselves at this kind of conference.
Like the bench, where many women have reached the zenith of their legal profession through an appointment in government circles, do you have similar role models in the women engineering practice to inspire the young ones?
Yes, as female engineers, we have Olutunmbi Maduka, who founded APWEN 38 years ago with five other women. She was 80years in May and still strong, up and doing. She is a member of the board of many companies, even today. We have the first female Head of Service in Nigeria, Bello Okeke – also Nigeria’s first female engineer. Those are some role models. We also have Aramide Shoyoyin, who is the de facto commissioner for works in Lagos (we actually call her Special Adviser to the Governor on Works and Infrastructure), but the work she does is that of the commissioner for works. All the major infrastructure works you see in Lagos are headed by women. We have Abiola Kosegbe in the ministry of physical planning; Abimbola Akinajo heading the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA). These are key positions that define the infrastructure and workings of a state – all headed by female engineers in Lagos State.
Do you have challenges breaking into such positions at the federal level?
In terms of appointments, I will say yes, but they are actually beginning to notice us. The National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure just appointed 10 female engineers to the board, and I am one of them. This was approved by the president himself. So, when I say that they are beginning to understand and appreciate us (at the federal level), this is kind of it. Before, every member would be men. Now we are being accepted; they are appointing us to boards, and that is what we want.
Are female engineers also considered in the award of federal contracts for road constructions and other high-caliber engineering projects?
Yes, but there are quite a few of us. There are companies headed by women engineers, like Banke Salau, who does a lot of jobs with FERMA – construction of roads and things like that. She owns an engineering firm. Christiana Adelowo is a civil engineer. She owns an engineering firm and is into private business, and as well handles this aspect of construction jobs. However, it is the business side of the contract that drives whether you will get it or not. When it comes to these contracts, it is not just engineering (capacity) that drives it, because I know quite a number of non-engineers who get these contracts and then look for engineers to execute them for them. It is business (motive) primarily than professionalism that drives the award of contracts.
Does APWEN embrace all engineering fields?
Yes, once you are a woman.
You are likely to find more women in such fields as computer and chemical engineering, among similar others. With the United States promoting the STEM project in secondary schools in the country, don’t you think APWEN should partner with such an agency for deeper appreciation among aspiring female engineers?
Thank you for that question. What APWEN has been doing from the beginning is to inspire girls to study engineering. As a matter of fact, our number one mission is to increase the number of women practicing engineering.
About three years ago, we started going to primary schools to inspire them into Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)careers. Few days ago, Ju we had a programme, Invent It, Build It, in Garki, Abuja. Under it, we awarded a three-year scholarship to girls in primary schools. It was sponsored by the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting, so we called it the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Scholarship for Girls in STEM.
We teach them some experiments and afterwards, make them do the experiments. We teach them things with engineering concepts, like electricity. We get them batteries, and somebody will teach them to connect it, the same thing with how the telephone works. So the girl begins to imagine, so this is how it happens. All this paper boat made by children, we make it and put it on water and tell them that this is how your boat floats, and it has to be lighter than water, so makes it this way. Put it on water. Did it sink? That means there is a vent, and people will die inside your boat. There is one we call absorption – they just use foam. With oil on the water, they use foam to soak the oil, and we tell them it is the same way oil is cleansed from the waters in the Niger Delta. In the end, we tell them to repeat the experiments, and the fastest to do so wins the scholarship.
The other aspect is that after graduation, young female engineers don’t actually show interest in practice. How are you addressing that?
Like I said earlier, our aim is to encourage girls and increase the number of females practicing, not just studying. Like you observed, many girls graduate and don’t practice because of the bias. Some will go for a job and they (employers) will say, no, we are only looking for males. I almost became an accountant after my Youth Service programme. When I wanted to do an M.Sc. programme, I was distracted by the trend that accountants make a lot of money, and if I registered for ICAN, I would pass at once because it is essentially mathematics, I knew many engineers that wrote ICAN and passed at a go.
So, I resolved to take ICAN and start practicing accounting, but a 70-year old accountant asked, why are you doing that? This is a profession; you have not yet practiced it and you want to pick up another. He told me that if I move to accountancy, and probably get employed by a bank when it is time for promotion and advancement, they would pick someone with an accounting background.
So, what we have done like we started this Invent It, Build It, where we are inspiring girls to study engineering, almost 500 girls are on scholarships now. It is the same in secondary schools, where we inspire them with STEM subjects.
Now, if all these people now study engineering, which works will they do? So, we have this programme that we started about a year and a half ago, called Town and Gown. It means that the town is the industry where the gown is practiced, and the gown represents the university, where they wear the academic gown.
What we do is to bring employers of labour as mentor-partners to partner with us. Some of them will be attending this conference and will speak. The students will be divided into groups, according to their preferred area of practice (if oil and gas, for instance, we put you in a room with people from that industry), and if consumer goods, you will be in a room with people from Guinness and the like, and they will talk to you about a carrier in their company or field.
With that mentorship, many of them are now getting interested in practicing. The first question we ask them is, are you an equal opportunity employer? Do you employ women? And they will say, oh, we do, look at all the women in our organization. Our belief in doing that is that even as they are coming out of school, they will be more focused on making the employment requirements of their preferred field of engineering practice.
They will face their education based on that because when you have a focus, it helps, unlike me who was like, anywhere I get work on graduation, I will take. If I already had the mind that this is the kind of skills that a preferred organization wants, I will be developing myself with a focus on that place.
And it is yielding fruits because now, due to diversity and inclusion, many companies that are global and forward-looking want to deliberately increase the number of women in technical jobs in places where there is male domination. So, they are actually asking for female engineers. They have been approaching us when they want to increase the number of women in engineering jobs in their companies.
Sometime in December, Guinness asked if we have mechanical and electrical engineers. I collected CVs from all the young engineers. Sometime in June, one lady contacted me that Guinness employed her. Another said that Guinness asked her if she would like to work with them, and she was wondering that she didn’t submit an application to them. They told her that APWEN gave them CVs and her own stood out. So, they employed mechanical and electrical engineers.
Another company asked us to give them female engineers and we gave them like 80; they took 10 at the first instance, and after the three-month internship, they dropped four. Those remaining six are already in their employ now. Another company from the UK contacted me on LinkedIn, saying they knew I head APWEN, and that they have a programme whereby they take engineers for internships to build them for multinationals, especially oil companies. They said they wanted about 50 persons with second class upper, at least half of whom should be women, so we gave them 180 CVs. We know that at the end of the day, at least 25 of them would be employed. So, we are opening up places for them to work when they graduate, so that they don’t just go somewhere else.
What is the upcoming conference all about?
The conference is the largest gathering of female engineers in Nigeria, and it is a time for us to network, unwind and improve our capacity with good trainings and paper presentations to enable us update ourselves with the current engineering technology.
We also have sessions for young engineers and female engineering students – they are part of those we consider as young engineers – so that they can, from that time, begin to associate with the professional world, so that when they graduate they can practice the profession that they had gone to school to read.
Invitees to this conference
We have invited some governors, including the Kebbi State Governor, who has indicated interest to attend and sent us his profile to put in the programme.
He is passionate about women STEM education and has attended some of our online programmes in the past.
We have captains of industries, including the managing director of Siemens Energy, managing director of Nigerian Security Printing and Minting, President of the Council for Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN), and of course President of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) will be the chairman of the occasion.
Dignitaries from the NNPC, including the GMD. He will be awarded for the corporation’s sponsorship of 81 scholarships in 2018 and 2019 from primary to university level in our STEM programme. Some were in primary 5/6 then, they are in JSS2/3 now, and the NNPC is still paying their school fees.
Any other issue of interest
I will like to say that people should have an open mind and allow each person to express his/herself. We should not just look at a person and say, oh, she is a woman, she will not be able to do it. Let equal opportunity be offered to everyone and allow people to say they can’t do it.
We on our part will keep on encouraging our women to take up jobs that are deemed as challenging because you don’t need physical strength and power to do it but your mind. We are also appealing to the government to be open and allow everyone to express themselves because half of the population is female. So, when, because of bias you don’t allow half of your population to do a particular profession, that means you are leaving half of your talent on the table. It is like you are walking on one leg.
Like the UK body that contacted us, Field Ready, one of the things they said was that when they employ you as a female engineer after the six-month internship, don’t try to be a man because you are different, and it is that difference that they need. You contribute your own, I contribute to mine, and that makes the whole thing.
For example, if an engineer makes a fan, the question will be, is it blowing? And the answer will be yes, but for the woman, they may want it less noisy; the positioning is not good, why not keep it at the corner so that it looks beautiful and matches the environment? Both aspects are needed so that the solution the engineering profession is providing can be complete, whole and usable by man.
So, we are not trying to be like the man, we want to be ourselves and contribute that which is unique to the woman. Let the man contribute that which is unique to the man, and when the two come together, we are going to have a whole product that is useful and enjoyable to society.
Where do you hope to see APWEN in the next five years?
We are working seriously towards becoming a multinational organization, like we are now the association of professional women engineers in Nigeria, we will like to have chapters all over Africa, and worldwide and still maintain that name. It is not too far away, because one thing Corona has done for us is that it has helped us to see that we are so close to one another. Just last Saturday, even though I had a programme, I was scheduled to attend the inauguration of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Glasgow Chapter.
Because of my programme, I could not attend, but I was able to tell them that we were going to inaugurate an APWEN branch in Glasgow, and in London (UK), another in the United States, so that we can have women in the diaspora also contribute. As a matter of fact, they are enthused about it because many of them are looking for opportunities to give something back to their motherland; they can do that through APWEN. And that is where we are going.