“Educating a girl is not a feminist thing to do.”
–Unoma Okorafor, Sloan Scholar PhD
Given that the under-representation of women and minorities in STEM is such a significant issue—not to mention the primary impetus for the Sloan Minority PhD Program—the above statement from Unoma Okorafor, Sloan Scholar from Texas A&M University, might be jolting.
But in my conversation with Dr. Okorafor, she described how the framing of conversations about the education of girls and women too often overlooks the broader impact that policies and programs aiming to rectify these gender disparities can have. “We are not doing the girls a favor,” she says. According to Okorafor, working toward gender equality requires that all genders be involved in finding solutions: “Sometimes we start to talk about gender equality and the room empties out and you find only women in the room. And I struggle with that because I think this is an issue that is important enough for all of us to sit down and figure out what the advantages are for getting more girls into STEM.”
It is this holistic approach to education that Okorafor undertakes in her work with the nonprofit she founded, Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation, when she was a Sloan Scholar graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at Texas A&M University. In addition to organizing and sponsoring STEM camps for girls in 10 African countries and providing coding workshops, outreach and training programs, and college scholarships, Okorafor talks about how she has found it necessary to educate not only the girls but also the surrounding community on why foundations like hers are needed. The lack of understanding of the barriers girls face because of their gender is the greatest challenge she has faced in her work. In fact, Okorafor recalls a response she received from “a well-known African gentleman” after a talk she gave on the WAAW Foundation, who said: “’I mean, your work is interesting, but I don’t know why you need to be doing it. Who is stopping the girls from [getting a STEM education]?’” He then listed a couple of women who served in government as examples of what women could accomplish on their own.
Okorafor proceeded to list for him myriad and socially engrained barriers that disproportionately affect women and girls’ opportunities to advance: domestic violence, poverty, sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, unequal divisions of labor in the household, and the inability to own property in some African countries. Combating these kinds of critics—who essentially propose women and girls simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps while ignoring structural inequality that shapes opportunity and access—is essential to Okorafor’s work.
Okorafor is personally aware of external barriers to success, despite support from male family members throughout her childhood. She spoke of the strong male role models she had growing up in Nigeria in her father and brother, both of whom cultivated her abilities and interests in science. With their support she completed her secondary education at an all-girls school she describes as “an environment where you could be competitive without thinking about what gender you were,” which allowed her to “discover [herself] at those young ages without the complications of trying to figure out whether it fit into the stereotypes of what a girl should be.”
Buoyed by this supportive environment and healthy confidence, Okorafor then enrolled in a co-ed college in Nigeria, where she continued to sit at the front of the classroom and participate extensively in her courses. When she earned the highest grade in her class, she was warned by a male friend of hers the following semester: “The boys don’t really like that you are this smart aleck who talks a lot, and they are planning to rape you.” Threatened with sexual violence simply for being intelligent and having the confidence to demonstrate it in class, Okorafor facetiously points to that moment as “the first time [she] realized that [she] was female.” She retreated inward, sat at the back of the class, and no longer volunteered to answer questions: “I just felt really insecure. I just wanted to run into my shell and say nothing.”
Despite the figurative and literal feelings of insecurity that threat inspired, Okorafor credits it as the impetus for the work she does now: “…when I went on to graduate school, I always remembered that experience. And suddenly, I realized that I was angry. I was furious.…And so I channeled my anger into my passion.” She points to the underlying assumption of the threat—the belief that girls should be seen but not heard—and her desire to change this through her work: “I think our communities need to empower more girls to speak up, and to own their space, even if it’s in the STEM fields where it’s male dominated, because we do have something to contribute.”
To return to the provocative statement that started this piece, Okorafor adds that educating a girl is not feminist in the ways that feminism has been popularly misunderstood. It is about equality and the ways that such equality benefits all: “When we don’t have half of the population lending their voices and lending their minds and their intellect to solving some of the huge problems that we are facing on the globe and in our economies, I think we’re missing out in general—as humanity. And it is important for men, for women, and people everywhere, that women have an equal seat at the table. And that’s…why we also are not just talking to girls, we are talking to men as well, because it’s not just a fight for women.”
Dr. Okorafor’s fight for gender equality also attacks the issue beyond the point of educational access. As the founder and CEO of Herbal Papaya, she leads a company where women hold all positions of leadership (10 percent of the company’s proceeds also go to the WAAW Foundation). It is important to her that women showcase their leadership skills not only to prove that they have the capabilities but also to serve as role models for other women. And, as she indicated in the previous quote, Okorafor believes it is just as important that diversity, and specifically women’s perspectives and intellect, be seen as resources—something to be sought out and cultivated—rather than symbolic additions to the workplace.
Unoma Okorafor is a Sloan Scholar from Texas A&M University, where she completed her doctorate in electrical and computer engineering in 2008. She also has a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Rice University. As a graduate student, Dr. Okorafor founded the Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation, which sponsors STEM camps for young girls in 10 African countries and provides coding workshops, outreach, training programs, and scholarships. The WAAW Foundation won the GEM-TECH award in November 2016. Selected in part by UN Women, the award recognizes outstanding contributions in advancing gender equality and inclusivity in the digital world. For her work with the WAAW Foundation, Dr. Okorafor was selected as the recipient of the 2013 Change Agent ABIE Award, named by the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of women in computer science and engineering. She is also the CEO of Herbal Papaya, a company with the mission to “provide premium quality organic papaya products to support healthy living and impact our world.” All products are organic and from GMO-free papayas, which are grown using sustainable farming practices. She has worked at Texas Instruments, Intel, HP, and IBM and has been awarded National Science Foundation and American Association for University Women fellowships to support her research.
This article was first published on SLOAN Scholars MENTORING NETWORK