Engr. Nnoli Akpedeye FNSE, FNICE, PMP, FMP, ACIArb, MIoD has over 36 years of experience in engineering design, construction, project management, facility management and industrial engineering.
She operates two diverse organisations – Contego Servo Limited and Perfectus Laundi Limited, a major player in high-tech, specialized dry-cleaning and laundry services. As a COREN registered engineer and a Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (FNSE), she is a past President of the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN) and a passionate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) ambassador.
A founding member of the Women in Energy Network (WIEN). Nnoli is also the chief operating officer of Compos Mentis Legal Practitioners and the Chairman, Board of Trustees of Compos Mentis Foundation. In addition, she serves as Director on the boards of a marine logistics company, an agriculture investment and two real estate companies.
What are the challenges female engineers face while working with their male counterparts?
In Nigeria, one requires an engineering degree from a university to qualify to practice and be referred to as an Engineer. At university, there is no difference between what is taught to the female and male students, so we all receive the same education to become engineers. This then begs the question, why should there be a distinction between female and male engineers since as far as academic qualification goes, there is no difference?
The tensions or challenges principally arise from perceptions, stereotypes, gender discrimination, cultural issues; and in some cases, lopsided organisational policies and practices.
Unfortunately, even in today’s world, some people (male and female) still believe that engineering is not a good career choice for females because they perceive the profession as being too rough and strenuous for women. This erroneous view derives from their perception that engineers mostly work in harsh, remote environments without the comforts they believe women need. Such people are still actively discouraging their female children and wards from becoming engineers.
In our culture, ‘the man is the head of the household’, so when a female engineer becomes a leader/manager, some male subordinates have a hard time deferring to her authority. This category could either try to circumvent the female leader’s instructions, display passive resistance or actively work against her.
The lack, inadequacy or poor implementation of policies/contract provisions is also a challenge. For instance, where remote site accommodation does not provide for separation of men and women, it becomes a hindrance for female engineers to get very crucial practical experience. In some cases, such provisions are absent from policies/contracts or where they exist, are not being enforced/implemented. This poses a significant disadvantage for the professional development and growth of female engineers.
Also, I am of the view that personnel policies should clearly state the duration of maternity leave and women should receive full pay during such leave. Leaders must be mandated to reduce female staff’s annual workload/targets to cater for the approved absence due to maternity leave so that they are on a level playing field with their colleagues during appraisal. Many female engineers have been victims of “low performance” in the year of their maternity leave as their workloads far exceeded the time at work.
You have been able to build a brand for yourself, tell us how you did it?
I learnt at an early age that I can be the best at anything I put my mind to. As an adolescent, my uncle gave me the nickname ‘the best of them all’ and this has been my mantra and driving force. More importantly, I am a Christian and I put God first in all my plans. I strive to be authentic and compassionate yet I have an uncompromising determination to achieve my goals. I am inquisitive and I ask questions to gain knowledge and clarity.
To be the best, I am constantly re-inventing myself. I am an advocate of the sayings that ‘learning never ends’ and ‘when you stop learning, you start dying.’
Being the best means putting your best foot forward all the time.
How did you plan to become an engineer in the face of cultural challenges in Africa?
My father was an electrical/electronics engineer and he was my idol/role model. At first, I just wanted to be like my Dad. However, after doing some research, I decided I wanted to be a civil engineer as that was in the late 1970s when Nigeria was undergoing significant infrastructure development and I was eager to be part of my country’s burgeoning development success story. Without any inhibitions, my parents actively encouraged me to study engineering and I was quite oblivious to any gender discrimination in the profession at that time.
At university, I realised that I was part of the extremely low percentage of female engineering students but this was a motivating factor for me and not a deterrent.
Can you speak to the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day: DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality? For girl-child, it seems we have not overcome the bias.
I will say that we are winning the war, one battle at a time. In the early 1970s, the percentage of females in engineering undergraduate programs globally was about one per cent but this has grown to almost 15 per cent in 2021/2022. Progress is obviously being made albeit not as rapidly as would be expected.
Education, advocacy, the use of role models, mentorship, support and encouragement are the key tools we employ to get and keep more females in the engineering profession.
Role models, coaches and mentors serve as motivation and a great sounding board for females who are considering engineering as a profession and I encourage as many women engineers as possible to create the time and space to coach, mentor and act as role models for budding female engineers. I challenge every practising female engineer to ensure that they encourage at least one girl into the profession for every year of their engineering experience. If you are a female engineer that has been practising for 15 years, then you should be able to boast of at least 15 girls that you have encouraged into engineering!
Male engineers are also a veritable source of coaching and mentoring and their support in the drive for more females in engineering continues to be game changing.
What are your plans for young engineers?
In the last two years, I served as advisor to APWEN’s young female engineers committee and programme director for the young engineers’ programme at APWEN national conferences. This involved encouraging young engineers to attend the conference to aid communication and networking among themselves and senior colleagues. We also engaged them in technical programmes, speed mentoring, career counselling sessions and social events. The 2021 programme was so value-adding and exciting that we were over-subscribed in 2022; and 2023 will be even better with a planned career fair including other novel activities. The objective is to keep young engineers motivated to remain in the profession, provide opportunities for them to practise engineering and deliver learning programmes for their upskilling and reskilling.
Working with like-minded people and NGOs, I am currently focusing on entrepreneurship training and sponsorships for young engineers that are inventors and innovators, in the light of the prevailing job scarcity. Many of our young engineers are highly intelligent with amazing problem-solving skills; and they have developed numerous innovative products/services which are yearning for our support and encouragement to get to market and create the much-needed wealth for our dear nation