Empowerment Through Conversation
Chinaza Ogbonna is a Research Engineer at Georgia Institute of Technology and the driving force behind The Steministas community she’s founded. Through The Steministas platform, she gives diverse women in STEM fields a channel to motivate and celebrate their accomplishments in traditionally male-centric environments.
Even as a child growing up in Nigeria, where traditional gender roles are the norm, Chinaza loved math and science. She always had the goal of becoming an engineer despite the many objections that she faced.
“My parents always supported me, but a lot of people asked me, ‘Why do you want to be an engineer? You’re a girl!’”
It took sheer tenacity and an indignant attitude toward adversity to make this dream a reality. Chinaza got accepted to Georgia Institute of Technology for her undergrad then subsequently her master’s degree, where her tuition was covered while she worked as a Research Assistant.
Around the World
Despite the new environment, she still faced gender discrimination while studying in the United States. She recalls one specific instance where the class had a project to design and build a robot. Her male teammates insisted that they get to build the robot while giving her design and coding responsibilities. Chinaza found it difficult to voice her concerns because everyone seemed to have predetermined project roles within her group.
“Sometimes I think about what I should have done. I was upset by it, but I also didn’t necessarily make a huge fuss about it. Should I have held my ground there?”
After receiving her master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology hired Chinaza to work full-time as a Research Engineer where she was the only female engineer for years until they recently hired two women engineers part-time. In a work environment where her gender was a barrier, she found a great champion and mentor in her boss.
“It was an interesting position to be in, being the only woman engineer on staff. It’s been great to have someone there championing me on to say, ‘You are competent. You have a master’s degree. You have a right to be here. You have opinions that I want to hear’. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone on the sidelines saying ‘speak up more’.”
The Steministas Origin
Given her experience working as a woman in STEM fields, Chinaza decided to establish a network of women to lean on. The idea for The Steministas started as a way to showcase and to empower Chinaza’s immediate circle of friends.
“It started out from my community because I had a lot of friends who are doing incredible things. I wanted to showcase their accomplishments. I also have a bunch of friends who are struggling, so I wanted a chance to share their experiences as well. I had two groups of close friends who were having completely different outlooks [on their experiences in the STEM fields]. I wanted to connect them.”
Empowerment through open conversation is the underlying force behind this group. Through her monthly podcast as well as events centered around networking and celebration, Chinaza hopes to show diverse women from all walks of life that STEM careers are possible.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Even though Chinaza has her master’s degree in mechanical engineering, hosts her own platform to empower women in STEM fields, and is a full-time Research Engineer, she still struggles with imposter syndrome. Her advice?
“Find something or someone to motivate you in your place of work, or some type of anchor. Some people are not fortunate enough to have that kind of support system in their workplace. To that, I say when I’m really upset, or when I’m mad about things in my life, I sit down and think about all of the little things I’m grateful for. Or just write down the things that you’ve done in that day. Sometimes I get really hard on myself. As a woman, we’re really hard on ourselves. Whatever you did that day, just write down what you did and be proud of yourself for it.”
Chinaza hopes to one day run her own lab as a Research Consultant. This will allow her to return to the research aspect of engineering where she can develop new protocols and procedures.
She wants to continue to grow The Steministas into a larger global community while establishing a scholarship for women who are looking to pursue an education in STEM.
“Mostly, I want The Steministas to be a space where you can connect with incredible women. A place where you can grow and be empowered.”