Back Story: Abigail and Donna Otchere, ‘STEM careers allow you to make a positive impact’
Image credit: Rhonda Oblitey
TV presenter Shini Somara talks to sisters Abigail and Donna Otchere, who founded the SiSTEM network for STEM women to support and encourage one another.
Shini Somara: What has it been like being women of colour in STEM?
Donna Otchere: There are very few of us in engineering. I was one of two girls in my physics class and perhaps five people in my undergraduate degree who were from BAME backgrounds. I have always been driven by my love of maths and creativity, and engineering has always really interested me, so it was an obvious choice of career for me.
Not relating to others, however, has made things harder, but if I don’t speak up for minorities in STEM this problem continues.
I also witness so many misconceptions in engineering about who and what engineers are, and that must change too! Engineers are problem-solvers and that can be anyone.
Abigail Otchere: I see more women than men in my field of biomedical science, but there are certainly more males in senior roles. The higher I climbed in education, fewer women of colour existed. I certainly didn’t know anyone who had done a PhD before.
We grew up in South London, where very few people know what a PhD is. I was massively encouraged by a science teacher from secondary school, who really believed in me and pushed me to my greatest potential. She was a woman of colour. We also had a great head teacher who encouraged all of us, in fact the school transformed from a poor school to the best improved school in the area thanks to her. People believing in us until we could learn to believe in our own abilities in STEM has been crucial.
SS: How have you supported and encouraged each other in STEM?
DO: Abigail is my best friend and if I didn’t have her, I would not have come this far in engineering. At times, I came close to giving up. I really lacked confidence in my abilities, but she always pushed me to go further, not just for myself, but for other young women in my position too.
AO: Donna has done the same for me too. I have often called her up wanting to quit, but she has always encouraged me and reminded me that I deserve to be there. She has been my biggest cheerleader and I’m also really proud of all her achievements because it is not easy, especially as a black woman, to be in engineering. This support has been powerful, if not essential for each other, which is why we wanted to share this sisterhood with others.
SS: Would you encourage other women of colour to choose STEM?
AO: Certainly. We both have a deep passion and interest in what we do and if we can achieve in these fields, anyone else who works hard can too! I was at the bottom of the class at the beginning of my education, and I worked my way to the top. Academic achievement is not about privilege, circumstance or where you are from. I did really badly in my A Levels, but just kept working until I understood the material, and when I was finally accepted into King’s, it gave me a real confidence boost.
Many girls may think that science is ‘too hard’ for them, but I want to break this narrative. Science is hard, but with a genuine interest and motivation, STEM careers allow you to make a substantial positive impact on society. There are few things more fulfilling than that.
SS: What do women of colour need in STEM?
DO: I think it’s important to be transparent and vulnerable. Many women have had to carry the burden of a tough exterior to survive in their careers. We hope that through SiSTEM women will be able to open up about their experiences and share their burdens to lighten the load that they carry, on top of the hard work they will put into their careers. That’s what we have done for each other and that is what we aim to provide through a strong community of established and successful STEM women.
AO: Learning how to be yourself is the key to bringing unique talents, perspectives and skills to the STEM table. This can be achieved by getting the right support network and sharing experiences – this is how we build confidence in ourselves.
SS: How can women in STEM get in touch with SiSTEM?
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