Back Story: Zainab Adigun, ‘Being underrepresented means I can spearhead change’
Image credit: Pell Frischman
TV presenter Shini Somara talks to Zainab Adigun, senior structural engineer at Pell Frischmann and part of the executive board of the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers.
Shini Somara: What is the overall mission of the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK)?
Zainab Adigun: AFBE-UK provides support and promotes higher achievements in Education and Engineering, particularly among students and professionals who are from ethnic minority backgrounds. It is estimated that by 2050, the proportion of UK citizens from ethnic minority communities will reach 20-30 per cent, yet only 9 per cent of UK engineers are from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. 29.9 per cent of engineering graduates are from BME backgrounds, so at AFBE-UK we look to retain and increase the interest of under-represented groups into STEM and improve diversity and inclusion within the industry. We achieve this through a range of educational and mentoring programmes.
We are growing year on year and MEH [Making Engineering Hot, an engineering outreach programme which engages school children from the ages of 6 to 18 with role models from the industry, and of which Adigun is the lead] has reached over 6,000 young people, some of whom now work as engineers within the industry. This network works to advance the achievements of ethnic minorities in education and engineering, and we have many success stories.
SS: What has it been like juggling your career and motherhood?
ZA: I must be honest, it has been really intense. Although I am full of determination to get through all challenges, I certainly would have struggled to manage without the incredible support of my family. They have just made everything that little bit easier.
When I first found out I was pregnant, I thought my career was going to come to a standstill. However, the reality is that since having my kids and returning from my six months maternity leave, I feel like my career has skyrocketed. I am performing at my highest level because my boys give me an extra purpose. Now, I don’t just work for myself, but I work for their wellbeing too, which makes me more confident.
Also, the timing of the pandemic really helped because I was able to work more flexibly. I didn’t want to take a long maternity leave, because I didn’t want my company to think that motherhood was taking a higher priority over my job. At the same time, I did not have any ‘mum guilt’ because I could spend time with my boys, but I also could hand them over to my partner to focus on my job.
I was passionate about engineering before children and I am just as determined to develop in my career after children. My organisation recognises this and has been quite flexible and understanding of my situation, which motivates me more.
SS: How have you dealt with being under-represented in engineering?
ZA: I was probably the only black female in most of my studies and professional life, from A Level through to degree and industry, but this has never bothered me. In fact, it quite excites me. Being under-represented means that I can spearhead change. But with that comes responsibility, and it’s very important to me to earn and preserve my credibility as a good engineer. The next thing on my list is to earn my chartership.
I could easily be discouraged by the fact that I don’t see many people like me among my colleagues. It often means that I cannot relate to them, but this is more reason for me to bring my perspectives to the table. I refuse to let ‘difference’ get to me – instead I channel my efforts towards getting good grades and receiving good feedback. It’s a great thing to stand out.
SS: Who are your role models?
ZA: Aside from my grandfather, who was an architect, I was inspired by Yewande Akinole, who gave a talk at our university. I was utterly impressed and inspired by her. She was so young, in a great career and it motivated me to be like her professionally. Before that, I was purely focused on my university work, but not much more beyond that.
I am also greatly inspired by Dr Nike Folayan, who has had the biggest impact on where I am today. I was 19 when I first met her, and now I’ve met her twice. I also find you, Shini, extremely inspiring for your work in encouraging people of ethnic minorities into STEM. I don’t think either of you know the impact you have made on my life and the lives of other girls. You are like our heroes, and your work to encourage other women has been so impactful.
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