Inspiring Youth: Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke

Meet Francisca Okeke, Professor of Physics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She recently received the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award for her significant contributions to the understanding of daily variations of the ion currents in the upper atmosphere which may further our understanding of climate change. She was also the Dean in the faculty of Physical Sciences at her University, from 2008 to 2010.

Professor Okeke spoke with us about her background and inspiration, the cultural challenges she overcame in achieving success and how she uses her position to encourage and inspire young women scientists in Nigeria.

Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke in her lab

What challenges did you face, in particular, with regards to the stereotypes of women and the culture in your country, Nigeria, when you decided to get involved in science?

In the past, the core sciences such as physics were regarded as male domains where women were expected not to be seen but to be heard. People used to think that when you get into these core science subjects, like physics, the characteristics that are most worthily accepted for women in our society, including passivity, emotionality, intuition and receptivity would no longer be possessed by that woman. Therefore they fought against women trying to embark on studying these core subjects.

But, my own case was a little different; my father was an old graduate of mathematics who was my mentor, so I did not face that in my family because he was supportive of everything about science. Not only did he encourage me, he was my mentor. He planted and watered the seed of my academic excellence which we are celebrating today. He laboured and inspired my love for science in general, and mathematics in particular. That love for mathematics later metamorphosed into a special love for physics.

Professor Francisca Nneka Okeke

What other challenges did you face as you progressed in your career and have you noticed any changes since you started out in this career with regards to attitude towards women in Physics?

In our University, the University of Nigeria, I know the stages and the war that went on before I became the first female head of physics. After that, I became the first female Dean in the Faculty of Physical Sciences. It wasn’t very easy but they saw some good qualities and I was voted into the Deanship.

What this means it that as women, we have to be focused and determined and courageous, because, one with courage is a majority, not quarrelsome. We will eventually get there with determination and commitment.

There have been many changes during and after my leadership as Head of Physics as well as Dean of Faculty of Physical Sciences.  When I started, there used to be only two ladies in the Physics department. But while I was the head, I was instrumental to the employment of three other female staff. While I was the Dean, my priority was employing women who are qualified in the faculty, in Mathematics, Physics, Geology, Chemistry, Statistics and Computer Science. Now we are many women in the faculty of Physical Sciences.

I always encourage women who are leaders to try to encourage fellow women rather than being too stern and frightening.

© L'Oreal Foundation
Professor Francisca Nneka OKEKE – L'Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards lauréate for Africa and the Arab States

What remains as the biggest challenge faced by women and young girls in science in Nigeria and what can be done to encourage young girls to consider further study in Science?

It’s encouragement. Where and when it is possible, we need to let the guardians and parents know the importance of women participating in science.

I will talk specifically about the village because, though there are some enlightened people there, the situation is worse. Sometimes you have girls who are very brilliant but are forced into early marriage. We can let parents be aware of advantages of their daughters becoming scientists and that they can gain more from the girls when they are scientists than when they get married as early as 16, 17 or 18. Like it happened a few years a go, we can call social gatherings with a talk by someone on ‘women in science’. We can give them examples, maybe by playing movies of successful women in science. This can work wonders.

We need to get guidance counsellors for these young women because some of them should have opted for these courses but since they don’t have the background and counselling, they say “this is a male subject so I can’t do it”.

Another angle to this is to lead as a model, by example. I have so many postgraduate female students and many of them have gotten PhDs through my guidance, counselling and encouragement. But if I don’t let them come near me, they will be scared. And once they are scared of you, they are scared of the subject. We need to tell them that this subject is not as difficult as they think. If it’s possible, get women to teach women. ‘Seeing is believing’. They will eventually see that it is practical and that this is a subject that can be dabbled into and not fearing it because ‘people say…’
Finally, as women scientist, we have to establish good relationships with younger women scientists and even among ourselves, so we can all get along with each other. Leading women scientists must develop a leadership style that will be highly prized. This L’Oreal-UNESCO Award given to me is a big challenge; it has strengthened me to continue to encourage girls and women to participate in the development of science and technology by offering these core sciences courses in schools and universities. This invariably furthers the development of a Nation.

The L’Oreal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science are yielding tremendous fruits and more women are being encouraged to read science as a course, we are proud of this.

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