In celebration of Black History Month, U of T Engineering invited students and alumni who identify as Black (including African, African-Canadian, African-Caribbean ancestry) and women to reflect on their experiences in STEM, the barriers they’ve faced in their career journeys, their inspirations, and the advice that they have for young Black women students.
The perspectives of Stephanie Obeta (ChemE Year 3) and Kelly-Marie Melville (ChemE 1T2 + PEY) exemplify the diversity of their lived experiences — and illustrate the ongoing need for Black inclusion and systemic change in STEM fields.
“My biggest inspiration is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author and feminist. I look up to her a lot because she comes from the same ethnic background as I do, and has broken so many barriers within Nigeria and around the world. I can trace back my beginnings with feminist ideology to watching Chimamanda’s interviews/talks and reading her novels. She has inspired me to continue to persevere in a society which may not always be accessible to individuals like me, while creating a path for the future generation to follow.”
“There are many people who inspire me. I believe that I draw most of my inspiration from women, particularly Black women. From notable influencers like Maya Angelou, Shonda Rhimes, and Kamala Harris to friends, family, and colleagues, their stories, abilities, and contributions always motivate me to be the best version of myself. I always feel like nothing is too big or out of reach when I see Black women win.”
ON BARRIERS FACED:
“Within academia, I find that I often have to work twice as hard to receive half the recognition as my non-Black peers. Sometimes I feel like I am under immense pressure to always over-perform, because in spaces where I am in the minority, my actions indirectly represent my community and the way that others view me. In academia, I often get the impression that stereotypes relating to my identity as a Black woman affect the way that others view me, so I often feel like I have to ‘prove myself’ as competent and capable, whereas my non-Black peers do not face the same level of scrutiny.”
“One thing I have learned throughout my career is the importance of owning and championing my voice. You should never let yourself be silenced or allow someone else to take ownership of your ideas. In my experience, most of the time this can happen in a subtle way. It may be someone repeating my idea in a meeting after I proposed it. Sometimes it happens through comments like ‘You should tone it down’ or ‘Let’s give someone else a chance.’ Whether in writing or in speech, my voice is not just the way in which I communicate my ideas and thoughts, but it’s part of my identity. Being silenced by others or by myself is not an option in today’s world.”
ON THE NEXT GENERATION OF BLACK WOMEN IN STEM:
“My message to young Black female students is to always remember that you belong in academia and in academic spaces. Your accomplishments matter, and your hard work will pay off. It may be difficult sometimes, and you may feel like you aren’t in the right place, but you matter and will make a wonderful addition in whichever space or community you choose to apply yourself to. You are strong, smart, and capable, and you can accomplish absolutely anything that you set your mind to.”
“Today, more companies and organizations are realizing that diversifying leadership is critical to driving greater growth and innovation. It is now a business imperative. This is an opportunity for more Black women to strive in leadership roles within STEM. There is so much room for Black women to not only enter but to dominate and become leaders. Leaders in STEM can shape the world as we know it, into the world as they see it. As Black women in STEM, with our unique experiences and rich heritage, we do not just have the opportunity to change the world; we have everything needed to improve it.”