Dr Maryam Muhammad has always been drawn to the world of science. When she first enrolled in a veterinary course, she was told that there was no chance for her to succeed. Out of 42 people, she was the only woman in her class. A bumpy start did not stop Dr Muhammad from pursuing her passion. After graduating and completing the Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps programme, she was offered an array of jobs, from teaching to research, before landing a leadership position.
Today, Dr Muhammad is the Director of the National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI) of Vom, in Central Nigeria, a prominent facility pioneering research, diagnosis, treatment and control of economically important diseases in the country. Her story of achievements takes on special importance as International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated across the globe today.
Empowering women to embrace STEM subjects in school
Women scientists in some parts of the world are often concentrated in the lower echelons of responsibility and decision-making with limited leadership opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers are remarkably low, sometimes as result of gender imbalance in education at all levels.
Although much has changed in her lifetime, Dr Muhammad believes that it is a mix of societal and bureaucratic challenges that still prevents the young women of Nigeria from being exposed to science. Animal health is no exception. Dr Muhammad recalls that female students would often be told that only selected specialties were suited to them.
“We need to instill confidence in women and make them understand that there is nothing they cannot do. Science is an adventure. Women need to know that there is a world of wonders waiting to be explored.Dr Maryam Muhammad
When it comes to pushing for change, everyone gets a seat at the table. Dr Muhammad is adamant that mentorship lies at the heart of diversity and inclusion. “It is important that women understand the challenges they will likely face as they embark on this journey. By investing in peer-to-peer mentorship, they can be inspired by other women’s stories, create networks of resilience and feel driven to advance their knowledge by looking at diverse role models”.
But getting girls and women more interested in science is not enough: the support needs to come from within the institutions. With most women getting married and giving birth at a young age, Nigeria scores high internationally when it comes to female school dropouts. The government, Dr Muhammad suggests, must make a deliberate effort to make women in their early reproductive years feel welcomed enough to return to finish their studies after a pregnancy, increasing the number of all-girls schools where necessary.
An inclusive workplace
Gendered expectations are among the barriers to female participation in the labour market. Women are traditionally more likely to perceive a successful career and building a family as mutually exclusive, if compared to their male counterparts.
Dr Muhammad believes that it has become urgent for male employers to educate themselves on making their workspaces less discriminatory. Favourable working conditions are indeed a key contributor to the well-being of female professionals who are eager to make positive contributions to society.
Yet in the animal health sector, where women are notably sidetracked by bias and discrimination, more needs to be done. Dr Muhammad explains that the female talent pool is often dissuaded from choosing a career in science during the recruitment process. There is a widespread perception that working with cattle or in laboratories will put women at risk of being exposed to hazardous materials and keep them away from their families. Removing gender bias in the labour market thus remains a prominent challenge. “Along with changing attitudes within the workplace, we need clear job descriptions to let us choose for ourselves our path in life.”
Data collected by the OIE showed that 56% of all lab staff were women, but only 43% of lab management were women.
A vet lab of one’s own
Nigeria seems to have an ambitious agenda for gender equality in laboratories. As the country faces a growing demand in vaccines for livestock and poultry, female health workers are set to play a crucial role in upscaling production capacity at a regional and national level. Dr Muhammad explains that special attention will be given to ensuring that female animal health workers are trained to do the job and adequately represented in this effort. In rural Nigeria, where women are actively involved in animal production, high-quality vaccines against viral diseases such as peste des petits ruminants (PPR) will also help increase household incomes and improve livelihoods. Vaccines will then act as both an essential service and the enabler of socio-economic opportunities.
Last year, Nigeria requested the implementation of a ‘Sustainable Laboratories mission’ to the OIE. Supported by Global Affairs Canada’s Weapons Threat Reduction Program, the initiative seeks to assess the sustainability of veterinary laboratories and to help them identify solutions to implement OIE International Standards. The mission struck a responsive chord among the laboratory´s staff last November. It helped identify gaps in existing resources, the kind of investments that are needed, the opportunities for innovation and the actions to advance sustainably in Nigeria’s veterinary laboratories.
Dr Muhammad believes that sustainability is a major factor contributing to gender equality in science-related environments. “Investing in sustainable labs will improve the lives of women”, she points out. This is because, by granting women in the biological threats reduction field a safe space, they will be empowered to pursue related careers and make a significant impact on their communities. At the same time, equal opportunity to education and leadership positions is key to ensuring that the challenges posed by the lack of sustainability in laboratories are better addressed. Systems that exclude a part of the workforce from contributing with their diverse experience and perspectives will hinder advancements towards sustainability.
Today, Dr. Muhammad believes that there is a whole new generation of female professionals helping each other to fight back the status quo and carrying their vision for change forward. Her story of passion and persistence is a testament to an ever-growing number of women, in Nigeria and elsewhere in the region, who are big achievers in STEM. “Women in the country are proving themselves in every field,” she says. “As we move forward into a future of innovations, no effort should be spared in opening new doors for them”.