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Female leaders discuss global STEM barriers

Mark Parker



Seven global female STEM leaders join World Partnership and USFSP Student Government officials. Tonya Elmore (fourth from right), president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, moderated the event. Photos by Mark Parker.

While some Americans face challenges entering careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), many women in other countries must overcome decidedly different obstacles.

World Partnerships, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit, hosted seven female leaders from Armenia, the Dominican Republic, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia and Zambia for the past week. The visit included trips to local high schools and the Dali Museum, and culminated with a Tuesday night discussion at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

USFSP Student Government hosted the event, while Tonya Elmore, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, moderated the discussion titled “Hidden No More.” The panelists shared stories about their work and the global challenges for women in STEM fields.

Following the discussion, two panelists told the Catalyst what they enjoyed most about their time in St. Petersburg. Dr. Lilia Sfaxi Ep Youssef, a university professor in Tunisia, said she enjoyed watching how Pinellas County Schools educators found engaging ways to teach math and science.

“We’re teaching technology without anything,” said Sfaxi Ep Youssef. “We don’t have servers; we don’t have any materials, and we’re trying to teach in a creative way as we can. But this lack of funds can be a huge hindrance when it comes to teaching children that want to see what is happening in the world.”

Gayane Arakelyan, a tech entrepreneur who strives to bolster the female STEM workforce, said the critical difference is that Armenian educators teach theory while their American counterparts teach practical uses.

She also said it was “motivating” to see how local students and educational leaders took ownership of their research and projects. Arakelyan, who only got her start in the industry because she was the one person in a college class that could translate an American tech article, believes educators should teach that skill to Armenian children at a young age. Arakelyan looks forward to sharing that insight when she returns to her country.

“Even if the research is not the best one they initiated, they should have some kind of ownership sense over what they do,” she said. “When you have that kind of ownership over what you are doing, you will be really successful in this kind of world.”

Both panelists thoroughly enjoyed their time at the Dali Museum, something mentioned during the discussion. Arakelyan said that for the first time in her life, “I was like, oh my God, museums are not boring.”

From left, the “Hidden No More” panelists: Ana Karen Ramirez Tellez, Mexico; Elmira Midinova, the Kyrgyz Republic; Julissa Margarita Mateo Abad, the Dominican Republic; Gayane Arakelyan, Armenia; Prisca Chendela Simukonda, Zambia; Maria Jihan Sangil, the Philippines; and Dr. Lilia Sfaxl Ep Youssef, Tunisia.

The presentation highlighted the courage it took for each panelist to overcome unique challenges when entering their respective STEM careers. While some were trained teachers, they all offered industry-specific educational aspects to help bolster the female workforce in their countries.

Despite the opportunities, several panelists stated they wouldn’t leave their countries to work in places with more resources or that welcomed women STEM leaders. They prefer to serve as role models and uplift the next generation of girls facing the same barriers.

Julissa Margarita Mateo Abad now operates the largest female-focused tech boot camps and conferences in the Dominican Republic. She relayed an impactful story of attending male-centric events when she was younger, where she would sit far in the back and remain quiet.

One day, she said, as the only girl in attendance, she found the courage just to raise her hand and ask a question. That led to a conversation with a panelist who encouraged her to bring more like-minded women into the fold. Companies like Microsoft now sponsor her initiatives, and she is expanding her efforts throughout Latin America.

However, explained Mateo Abad, when she asks girls to name their tech role models, they always state the “big names,” like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

“But they don’t have people showing them real people like us,” she said. “We are here, we are doing this – and we love what we do.

“You cannot be what you cannot see. You cannot dream about something that you don’t know.”

Tonya Elmore, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

Prisca Chandela Simukonda, a chemistry teacher and author in Zambia, relayed that she was one of four girls in a class of 63 science majors at the country’s largest university. Most of her female counterparts, added Simukonda, did not graduate due to various barriers.

The challenges for girls in Zambia start at an early age, said Simukonda, as many countries with few resources focus on educating their boys. Despite several neighbors telling her dad that he should just arrange a marriage for Simukonda, a common practice where she grew up, she said he valued her education.

Once she reached secondary school, teachers refused to help her enter science programs in college, and, in her culture, women are expected not to challenge male authority. After graduating and becoming a district educator, Simukonda said the challenges continued.

“If I spoke well at a meeting, if I coordinated things well,” she explained. “People would say, ‘oh, she spoke as if she’s not a woman.’ No one talks about these things, but I think as a female in management – you feel them. We see them, and we experience them.”

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