Eterigho: Women’s Participation in STEM Key to 2030 Agenda for SDGs

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Dr. Elizabeth Jumoke Eterigho is the incoming president of the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, she highlighted some of her plans for the association and explained why STEM education in Nigeria must be given the necessary attention through adequate funding by the government for meaningful development in the sector

As the incoming president of the association, what are you going to do differently to develop the capacity of women for job creation?

First and foremost, the entire mission of APWEN is centred around capacity development, which translates to job creation and leadership, thereby enhancing the quality of life. APWEN, in the last three decades, has set up several initiatives and programmes to encourage engineering studies and practice among female students and create a platform through which women engineers can collaborate with other women in other professions in Nigeria and elsewhere. As the 17th president of the association, in addition to what my predecessors have done, I plan to focus on professional development and entrepreneurship. This professional development has to do with workshops, seminars and conferences on training and retraining of APWEN members: female engineers and technicians in various skills will continuously achieve professional excellence thereby, creating room for competence with colleagues across the globe, particularly in software development and application in this digital transformation era.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap in 2017 reported that female talent remains one of the most under-utilised business resources, either squandered through lack of progression or untapped from the onset. The consequence of which has led to gender inequality, lower-class value, and lack of productive opportunities borne by women, resulting in a reduction in the country’s economic growth. In another report by the same organisation in 2020, Nigeria is reported to be a little above 50 per cent in the gender gap, ranking 128 out of 153 countries. To address these issues in a meaningful way, during my tenure, APWEN is set to organise programmes determined to empower girls and women with very little resources through entrepreneurship.

At this time that the federal government is focused on the diversification of the economy, the industries are requiring specific skills from potential employees (a shift from paper qualifications to competencies). APWEN is poised to lead the charge in the provision of access to basic, non-formal/formal skills via the training of skilled female technicians to establish their own entrepreneurial ventures. By so doing, the employment landscape will become more competitive and creative thus, reducing the level of unemployed and unemployable females in Nigeria. It is expected to create a generation of self-sustained and employable female youths that will positively impact the global gender gap index ranking. The overall objective is to improve the educational status of disadvantaged girls to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As female entrepreneurs engineers, APWEN seeks to promote the development of new technologies that increasingly empower female users, particularly in the rural areas, to enhance productivity. A programme tagged Shetech2preneur has been developed and will be launched during my tenure.

You have been chairperson of APWEN and Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), Minna branch. What impact did you make in driving the engineering profession for nation-building?

I was APWEN Minna chairperson from 2016 to 2018. During this period, APWEN Minna had and executed a lot of programmes with a direct impact on the engineering profession. With our technical resources and educational expertise, one of our activities was centred on fundamental computer training for the girl child. A two-week Cisco computer training was held for girls between 10 and 13 years. This was to impact positively, educate, and enhance the girl-child in fundamentals of computer, allied discipline, and consequently in their JAMB and other e-examinations towards their career selection of engineering. We hold interschool science competitions among public schools yearly. Usually, at the beginning of every year, 15 to 20 schools will be invited to participate in written examinations in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. The best four schools automatically qualify to participate in the competition. At the end of each competition, the best school will be presented with a science equipment kit made by Nigerian engineers from Science Equipment Development Institute (SEDI) and a trophy.

There will be a series of career talks at the junior and mid-secondary schools to create awareness that engineering is a career for girls also. I succeeded in putting in place a mentoring programme that is still in operation as we speak. It was only during my tenure that APWEN Minna enjoyed the collaboration with the Niger State government in organising girl-child programmes with impact having the following indicators; increased number at the entry point in both primary and secondary schools, increased retention in schools, increase in enrollment for WAEC, NECO and NABTEB, reduction in street hawking, reduction in child and early marriages, increased number of married women going back to school, developed and produced a statistical situation report for the Ministry of Education through the special adviser to the governor on Girl-child affairs. Before being elected the chairman of the NSE Minna branch, I was elected vice-chairman (the third female to occupy the position since the branch’s inception in 1989) from 2017 to 2018 and was re-elected in 2018 for another one-year tenure. I took over the mantle of leadership from my predecessor, Prof. M.B. Ndaliman, in August 2019, as the first female chairman since the inception of the branch. Some of the activities executed that aimed at driving the engineering profession for nation-building included; organising the first engineering conference to foster collaborations amongst different fields of discipline, the first inter-professional collaboration in the state, where other professionals came together to see how to proffer solutions as a team rather than blaming each other. These programmes witnessed great attendance in the state. With the emergence of COVID-19 in March 2020 and the lockdown, the branch under my leadership was the first to start virtual (webinar) meetings, seminars, workshops and e-public lectures. The branch also had workshops/training for aspiring corporate members to prepare for professional examinations. Membership drive was also my top priority in the branch. We recorded growth numerically in terms of more corporate members, we were elected into the prestigious fellowship cadre of the NSE, and more members were appointed into the national committees of the society. NSE Minna branch was chosen as a centre for the IT virtual interview of prospective candidates for the entire country. This, of course, is a reflection of our level of involvement in ICT. We also set up a website for the branch, which is still up and running. The branch produced an e-news magazine on a monthly basis in addition to the print, electronic media and the internet that featured all her monthly activities. My tenure as chairman recorded and enjoyed some collaborations/involvement with the Niger State government and the NSE, Minna branch. These included an invitation for input into the preparation of Niger State Urban Policy, the appointment of NSE Minna branch members into boards/committee of Niger State government parastatals/agencies, invitation to participate in the low volume road manual sensitisation workshop by Rural Access and Mobility Project (RAMP). We held schools competitions/career talks twice every month in different schools, and today some of them are in 100 and 200 levels in the universities studying different engineering disciplines. As a leader who understands the relevance of engineering on the infrastructural development of any community, state and nation, I set up a committee called the Monitoring and Supervision Committee (MSC). The branch was involved in the monitoring and supervision of roads and building constructions via the committee. This was very effective as some constructions were either stopped completely or revisited.

Do you share the view that engineering is the most male-dominated field, especially in STEM, and how do you intend to change this perception?

Yes, the reality on the ground is that engineering is the most male-dominated field, especially in STEM. I remember while I was in the university in the early 80s, in my class, we had three females to six males, and that was the highest in all the departments, while in some classes, there was no female at all. As an engineering lecturer for over 20 years, I have never had a class of 30 per cent female and I know the same thing applies to other departments and schools. Girls’ and women’s equal access and participation in STEM is key to the 2030 agenda for SDGs and its pledge to leave no one behind in terms of equality, peace, and human progress. To change this perception, here lies the strength of APWEN, with 38 chapters across the country. My predecessors have done many programmes with very noticeable impact. In addition to these programmes, the first thing I would like to do is to intentionally create awareness with statistics of what female engineers can do to move the country forward technologically. Projects and programmes will be mapped out to ensure that this gap is minimised, if not closed. This time around, we shall adopt a different approach from the previous in making STEM teaching and learning fun. The project is tagged FunSTEM, an introduction of the fundamentals of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) by framing learning as an exciting and enjoyable experience for girls (ages 10-19) in public schools in rural communities, geared towards achieving an equal future in gender representation in STEM and economic inequality between urban and rural communities. Secondly, we will be establishing clubs in their schools to inspire them more and strengthen mentoring thereby, creating a desire to pursue engineering as a career.

How do you think the girl-child can be empowered to rise above all limitations?

Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power. Firstly, they need to know their rights; to education, health and career that guarantees better living. This can be achieved through different forms of advocacy, policies and other outreaches to educate them. They need to have the ‘I can do it mentality’, irrespective of the gender difference. Programmes showcasing female role model will be encouraged. The use of Information Technology in Robotics, Coding, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing has proved to be a way of doing things. It will not be an exaggeration to claim that succeeding generations will face the challenge of embracing and adjusting to this new learning environment if not trained. Therefore, APWEN has a project tagged TechGirl! involving the use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in Robotics, Coding, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing as a study of science in this new normal era (COVID-19) has become inevitable.

What is your view about STEM education for girls, and what legacy will you leave behind?

STEM education is the bedrock of development in any nation, so its importance in boosting the manpower of an economy cannot be overemphasised. But unfortunately, this critical sector has been relegated. It is very disheartening to say that the government and the educational sector do not give STEM education in Nigeria the necessary attention. For meaningful development to take place in the educational sector, the government need to re-address the issue of funding and its management. One of the core reasons Nigeria is lagging behind amidst her Africa’s contemporaries is poor financing and insufficient funding of STEM education. Thus, it is common to see in Nigeria that many schools lack facilities, shortage of human resources, poor supervision, monitoring, STEM teaching aids, among others. All these issues are tied to finance in one way or another. Classrooms are so poorly equipped in many Nigerian schools, especially public schools. It is also common to see children learn under tree shades as classrooms and under other poor learning environments not conducive for STEM teaching. According to United Nations, quality and effective education is essential to achieving economic development, sustainable development and eradicating poverty in society. Also, UNESCO report 2010, STEM drives social, economic and human development and underpins our knowledge, societies and infrastructures. STEM education and the application of technology empowers every student to use their creativity and develop their critical thinking skills. UNESCO reported that by 2030, 60 per cent of the job openings and opportunities in the world would be STEM-related, mostly engineering. Another critical area is STEM teachers. There are little or no planned and regular training/upgrading programs. Again, when schools are not teaching STEM, the STEM teachers will go extinct with time, for lack of sustainability plans for continuity. More STEM teachers will be trained on how to teach STEM with fun thereby, stirring their curiosity leading to creativity and innovation. APWEN intends to advocate for adequate funding for sustainable STEM education in public schools (both primary and secondary). With the current gloomy happenings, the need to consciously give more to the funding of STEM education in Nigeria has become a necessity if we intend to achieve the SDG 4 on quality education in 2030 as a nation. The project tagged ‘APWEN-Voice’ intends to champion the advocacy for adequate funding for sustainable STEM education in public primary and secondary schools in Nigeria to meet the global standard of quality education.

Do you have any plan to go into private and public educational institutions to drive innovation among female students further in engineering, and what are these plans?

Yes, APWEN has an existing committee on innovation. My plan is to revisit the committee’s terms of reference to review it for diversification. The objective of the committee was centred on ‘invent it, innovate it challenge’. This time around, its expansion will cover actualisation. APWEN has been an engineering organisation is an educational and service organisation that actively engages in technology for innovation. So, our focus is on ‘think it, challenge it, invent it and produce it’. These will be projects for the collegiates (undergraduate and postgraduate students). For this, APWEN is looking for partners with forward-thinking organisations to sponsor/collaborate for the effective implementation of these great minds.

What policy do you intend to bring on board to continue building the capacity of teachers and creating ways to promote awareness and dispel stereotypes that the profession is for male folks?

Over the years, the field of engineering has not really witnessed much change in the women to men ratio, both in the academic, workspace and professional membership space. Women are outnumbered by the men in the general labour force, and the difference is even more pronounced in the field of engineering, which is as a result of unfavourable policies, norms, and biases that denies the girl child equal right and opportunities in pursuing a career in engineering or advancing her career in the field.

The association’s ultimate goal is to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive engineering sector that attracts and retains all groups of people into the engineering disciplines. We are set to achieve this by God’s grace with the involvement of stakeholders.