Cultivating young female innovators in the energy sector by Mervin Azeta

07-04-2021
Mervin Azeta

March, Women’s History Month, is over. But we must be celebrating women and all their contributions and achievements whenever possible.

At TechnologyCatalogue.com, we believe in the valuable contribution of women to innovation and technology not just in the energy sector but to all industries and fields. As such, we find it important to grow the number and proportion of women, who are actively pursuing studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

For this week’s Faces of the Energy Sector insights blog, we invited Mervin Azeta --- an energy professional, a chemical engineer, a youth leader and a staunch advocate for greater numbers of females pursuing STEM studies and careers. Mervin is a founding member of African Network of Women in Infrastructure, Future Energy Leader and Board Member at the World Energy Council, and Goodwill Ambassador of Justina Mutale Foundation. She has held various leadership positions at Schlumberger, executing low- and high-profile oil and gas well completion projects in Nigeria, Congo and USA.

Read her insightful answers to questions on cultivating young female generations to become innovators.

 

Describe your journey to becoming an inspiring young woman engineer in the energy sector. What are the biggest factors that encouraged you to choose a STEM academic program and pursue a career in STEM? 

I was a very curious kid and would ask questions about a whole lot of things, including why one had to do a certain thing, how else to get to a place, when to extract information, and what the implications of an action were. So, when I experienced a devastating loss at the age of 8 – my aunt passed during childbirth because of a power outage – it was only natural to figure out what had happened, why it did, and how we could prevent a reoccurrence. That incident really got me asking probing questions, to realize that we were confronted with a huge energy challenge – one that wasn’t unique to Nigeria – and, thinking strategically about which careers I could pursue as a young woman. It was a pivotal moment!

As I grew older and took on a Chemical Engineering undergraduate program at the University of Benin, I discovered another fundamental global problem: gender imbalance in STEM professions. It got troubling to see that we were losing out on talents, who could help address critical issues such as those in the energy industry. I decided to lead conversations on what is keeping women away from studying STEM, and subsequently, realizing their potential to make a difference in STEM-related industries. Cultural norms and stereotypes did show up as one of the main reasons why women were dropping out of STEM classes; there were other contributing factors like systemic and structural barriers, including university staff exploiting female students and asking for sexual favours. 

Being a problem-solver by nature, I sought opportunities to tackle these challenges, and drive innovative, meaningful & sustainable programs that scaled impact on all fronts. I do have to say, though, that I was privileged to have the right support from my parents, counsellors and mentors every step of the way. And, despite having mostly male mentors, I have had - and still do have - access to phenomenal female mentors, who inspired and encouraged me throughout my studies and early stage of my career. I believe having more female role models – and exposing them to the younger generations – would go a long way to break these negative cultural & gender stereotypes, whilst increasing and sustaining interest as well as engagement in STEM disciplines and careers. Representation truly matters!

Mervin Azeta

What challenges did you face or is facing as a woman pursuing a STEM career? Is there any that you think is specific to the energy sector? 

Like most, if not all, women in STEM today, I have had to deal with institutional barriers, inappropriate comments and implicit biases. And, as I mentioned previously, there are gender stereotypes, societal barriers and cultural norms that continue to impact women and limit their advancement in STEM professions. I have seen friends miss out on rewarding opportunities because they were married – or getting married. Some have been forced to leave when flexible working options were not available to them. I recall being told to be mindful of how I speak to male colleagues in the team because of the general perception in Nigeria (or Africa) that women should be subordinate and submissive to men; and, I was cautioned for giving instructions to a certain junior male colleague – by virtue of his upbringing and outlook to life, he clearly didn’t appreciate women doing that. Lastly, there were times I couldn’t go out to the field because the facilities to accommodate a woman were neither there, nor conducive enough for me to thrive. While we do not demand special treatment, it is imperative that facilities in the workplaces are designed to be responsive to the needs of both men and women. Suffice to say, it is not as bad as it used to be; however, there is still ample room for improvement, and these experiences are not peculiar to the energy sector.

 

How do you think we can encourage young female generations to pursue STEM studies and careers and become innovators?

We ought to have the right conversations with girls and young women, letting them know that those things we hear - these gendered rules - are not true. It is important that we bust myths and stereotypes, mitigate the risk of unconscious bias, and help them recognize the possibilities of STEM in addition to their practical application; after all, the things we use on a day-to-day basis - in our homes, schools, offices and around the world - are made from something, designed and developed by certain people. We need them to know these people could be them, in the near future – the scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians fighting the climate crisis and largely making the world a better, healthier and peaceful place.

Beyond having these conversations, we also need to offer coaching & mentorship opportunities. Access to female role models across the different phases of their development could help level the playing field for them, and would certainly be critical to their success as innovators. I have had an incredibly gratifying experience mentoring girls (and boys), sharing my stories (successes, failures and lessons learned) as well as case studies of other women in STEM, with similar backgrounds and trajectories; and, I have found that it motivates them to be and do more, to go farther and break boundaries.

In addition, we could champion STEM activities or knowledge-sharing opportunities, including internships, externships and apprenticeships and provide as many unconventional opportunities to develop new skills or experience new cultures. And, ultimately, we need policies that mainstream gender-inclusive arrangements and provisions in workplaces, and the industries in general.

 

What do you think are the biggest opportunities for young female innovators in the energy sector?

We are at a time in history, where we need real changes in the way we live, interact and thrive as humans or societies. And, tackling urgent challenges like the climate crisis and energy poverty, as we recover from the pandemic, are at the heart of efforts to pave the way forward. 

The transition to a low-carbon, resilient & sustainable energy future, in particular, presents a plethora of opportunities. There is need to develop better storage technologies that provide flexibility to the overall energy system, helping to manage the intermittency of renewable energies like solar and wind. We need cleaner fuels for harder-to-abate sectors like manufacturing and long-haul transport – as you are probably aware, transport is responsible for two-thirds of global oil demand today, and if we are looking to reduce our dependence on oil, we would need alternatives. There is also a demand for other solutions like direct air capture technology to reduce carbon emissions, robust policies that accelerate the development of sustainable infrastructure, and systems that power inclusive & prosperous economies. It’s a great time to be a female innovator, if you ask me! We should encourage more women to get courageous, collaborative and creative, so together we can come up with these solutions.

We are absolutely capable of coming up with brilliant, game-changing ideas! And, we have got the resources to incubate these ideas and scale them into full-fledged businesses, technologies or ventures!

Mervin Azeta

What do you think is the role of young female innovators in this global journey towards energy transition? 

Innovation is a key enabler for nations to reduce the risk, and capture the opportunities, of the energy transition. And, we need as many talents as possible – male or female – to manage this journey to a cleaner, resilient and sustainable energy future for all. To avoid labouring the points made previously, these young female innovators can take cues from the female leaders, who have demonstrated commitment, care, character and competence through challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic. It is easy to see that they can bring about the change we desire to see in our world!

 

Related blog: Women in the Energy Sector: Insights from Anouk Creusen

 

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