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Ayo Sokale's Inspiring Journey as a Black, Autistic Woman in STEM

We interviewed Ayo Sokale, a civil engineer whose childhood experiences in Nigeria inspired her to pursue a career in engineering. Sokale's encounter with extreme flooding at the age of eight made her aware of the power of infrastructure in transforming people's lives, and she became determined to pursue a career that could make a positive impact on society.

As a woman of colour and a person with autism, Sokale has faced multiple barriers and prejudices in her career in STEM, particularly in the traditionally male-dominated field of civil engineering. She recalls being pressured to take on administrative roles instead of technical ones in team projects during her time at university, which denied her the chance to learn and be challenged.

Currently, Sokale is a project team manager at the Environment Agency, working on several projects including the River Thames scheme. She is passionate about creating sustainable engineering solutions that can help mitigate the impact of climate change and improve people's lives.

How did your childhood experiences in Nigeria, particularly your encounter with flooding, shape your path towards a career in civil engineering?

As a child, engineering seemed so powerful and was a way of transforming people’s lives. Growing up in Nigeria, I saw how infrastructure could make things. In its simplest form, civil engineering is using the sources of nature for the good of everyone. And when I understood this, I understood that was one of the things I wanted to do with my life. I am very environmentally minded, and I believe engineering should be sustainable by design, which no doubt stems from my first-hand experience of extreme flooding. When I was eight years old my hometown in Nigeria flooded. My sister and I were taken from school to a boarding house and my mum was searching for us after wading through flood water. The flooding knocked out the local infrastructure and led to power failures and tragically loss of life. Seeing nature’s force at its fullest has undoubtedly led me on the path I am on today.

As a woman in STEM and in a traditionally male-dominated field, what challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

I have faced barriers and prejudice as a black, autistic woman in STEM. This is something I’m only just learning to vocalise as I am trying to balance the need of being positive and a role model while also sharing my authentic experience. For example, when I was at university I was often pressured to assume the administrative or writing-up roles instead of the technical aspects of a team project, which meant being denied the chance to learn and be challenged.

I have had to personally go on a journey to accept myself and see my worth and I have grown up in a system where I had to prove myself. This could be seen in my experience of moving countries during my primary school education and being automatically placed in the bottom set. I had to work to prove myself to get the top set and sit the exam papers that would offer all the future possibilities I desired. This early experience would set me on a path of always trying to prove myself by doing things that are highly valued, such as contributing to society and being overly altruistic, sometimes to the point of sacrificing my own needs and well-being. We often hear about ‘heroic’ women who would give the shirt off their back for anyone else, who have to do more than their male counterparts to earn their worth and value. So I have put a lot of effort into unlearning that narrative and to instead learn to accept myself. And sometimes I still question myself and my ability to be in the room and in the spaces I want to be in. However, I have learnt how to coach myself in these situations and share this wisdom by acting as coach to others. In addition to having my own brilliant coach who helps me navigate it all too.

What more can be done to encourage and support young women in pursuing careers in STEM fields?

If we’re going to solve the biggest challenges on the planet today, we need a diverse range of minds, especially when it comes to climate change.

To encourage more young women into STEM I think we need to show them what it looks like. So that goes for me and other great women in STEM, we need to remove masks and show what it looks like in our careers - a day in the life, the highs and lows - so that people can decide for themselves if it is something that suits them.

I also think we need to ensure teachers have a good idea of the varied careers that exist in STEM when girls are in school. I think there’s a role for STEM employers to create resources that teachers can use to inspire and encourage students to think about a career in STEM. Careers in the future will be so different and eclectic compared to what we have now, so we need to make sure we are inspiring our future workforce to dream and take on the challenges of the future.

Of course, a career in STEM won’t be for everyone, it might not suit their interests or strengths. But for anyone who is interested in the physical world around them, parents, teachers and wider society can provide opportunities to nurture their natural interests and let them follow the glimmers that excite them. Sometimes I do reflect on why I have so much value as a woman in STEM and I think it is because historically we hold a lot of value in things that men do. As it is still mostly men leading in STEM, women doing these roles then get valued as a result. It would be good to see everyone valued for their various contributions to wider society.

What advice would you give to young women who aspire to be successful in the field of engineering?

Always remember your worth and that you have earned the right to be where you are.

I have been in rooms where people have not given me the respect my position should deserve because they have made assumptions about me. They may presume I’m not as qualified, experienced or knowledgeable as my male counterparts. So my main advice is don’t let other people’s perception of you project internally and don’t let it become an internal battle. Instead always remind yourself of your worth, the work you have done and what you bring to the table. These are all the things that are in your control. And other people’s perceptions, assumptions and ignorance? We can’t control them so don’t waste your energy on them, and instead pour your energy into keeping alight the fire inside you, the fire that fuels your worth and your ability.

Can you tell us about any projects you are currently working on that you are particularly passionate about?

I am a project team manager at the Environment Agency and currently, my team is running a couple of projects, one of which is the River Thames scheme. It is really exciting as we are building a new river channel in two sections in Surrey and also making changes to weirs further down the river. Once it is complete it will protect 11,000 homes and 1,600 businesses from flooding. As a team leader, I am leading project managers and project professionals to deliver this project, while also coaching them, developing them and nurturing their talents and skills. One of the things I love about my role is being part of the leadership team which means I can influence the culture and change things for the better. So hopefully young women coming through the engineering path now won’t experience some of the negative things that I experienced in the early start of my career.

I think that people often picture a civil engineer being on site, things like being there when the concrete is being poured. But actually, it’s so much broader than that and I wish more people knew more about all the different types of roles that exist.

And on the media side, I am co-hosting a brand-new science-based game show on CBeebies called ‘Get Set Galactic’ which airs this month (May). It’s brilliant fun and brings real joy to learning about science in a fun, playful and adventure-filled way.

Looking back on your childhood, what lessons did you learn that have helped you in your career and personal life today?

Growing up I was always quite different. I understand now that this is because I am autistic, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult. I faced a lot of bullying because of it, but it has also helped me develop a lot of resilience. Of course, I would never choose to be bullied but I didn’t ever want those experiences to make me bitter, cruel or cold. Instead, it made me strong and empathetic towards others.

I grew up in a religious family and heard a story in the Bible about talents being given to the disciples. I remember wondering if you didn’t know how much talent you were given and you just assumed it was a lot, if you acted like it was a lot, if you worked like it was a lot, what could be possible? And really that’s how I live my life, with the sheer belief I have in myself and my potential.

As someone who has been successful in both engineering and media, what advice would you give to young women who have multiple interests and passions?

The world is full of people who like different things and the phrase ‘Jack of all trades, Master of none’ is often hammered home. But actually, the full saying is ‘Jack of all trades, Master of none, but better than Master of one’.

And I think that’s something that is really important to know. Most people want to experience so much of what life has to offer and I believe we should allow ourselves to have these experiences. I think it's something to really lean into instead of having a very narrow idea of self. And there’s a real benefit, I find I can leverage the learning from one area to benefit another, which is enabling me to become a really well-rounded person. Ultimately, it's a beautiful way of living life and it’s the way I choose to live my life.

In your opinion, how important are role models in the STEM industry, particularly for young women who are considering pursuing careers in this field?

Civil engineering is exceptionally varied both in terms of specialist areas (such as bridges, motorways or waterways) as well as the type of role (like designer, project manager or commercial manager). So there is something for everyone. For example, if you are conscientious and self-motivated, you might be a great designer. If you’re open and good with people, you could make a great team leader. But to make in-roads, as young women we have to persist.

Society doesn’t change unless we get in that room and we are the representation. And unfortunately, some people will remind you that you shouldn’t be in that room.

We talk about imposter syndrome but I don't think that’s the full picture. Sadly there is a real systemic thing going on, there is racism, there is misogyny, there is ableism. There are all these factors. And to make things better we have to acknowledge those things exist, challenge them when we experience or witness them, and help each other to climb the ladder together.

Who were your role models growing up?

Growing up my role models were my parents, particularly my mum as I saw her contributing to the community and doing charitable work every day. She led at church and also worked for the national examiner's commission. I also saw her do a career pivot and complete a Masters to become a social worker. To me, that was inspiring and seeing her balance her career with raising a family taught me a lot. But I am also very inspired by my dad, he is a doctor and works really hard and he’s very altruistic. They have been my role models to make a positive impact in the world.

Also my aunt Auntie Ay, we look very similar, she is an older cousin (I call her an aunt because that’s my culture). She inspires me in a lot of ways because she looked like me when I was growing up, and that’s why representation matters as I could see myself in her.

During my teenage years, a big part of my life and development as a young person was doing beauty pageants. I remember watching Miss World and seeing Aishwarya Rai an architecture student, who was someone who had a great mind but also the ability to use their beauty for a great purpose. That really resonated with me and I had to go really full circle as a grown-up to understand that you could wear pretty dresses and be beautiful but you can also be smart too.

What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

I am highly motivated by a sense of purpose. It has driven me from my very earliest years when I would write down my hopes and dreams in journals. I often look at those diaries today and see the ambition and belief of my younger self. I have to do it for her. If I reflect on where I was five years ago, it was entirely different to where I am now. I had just got my Masters, I hadn’t done TV yet, in fact, I was someone with all the big dreams but not a single visible representation of what I would go on to achieve. But I believed I would achieve it and I then did work, did the networking, the studying and all the multifaceted things that were required to achieve my goals. One of the mistakes I made was to share these big dreams with people who couldn’t handle them, who said I wouldn’t be able to achieve the things that I have done. But underneath it all it’s that sense of purpose that keeps me going.

About the contributor:

BBC Presenter, Civil Engineer and a leading keynote speaker in her field – Ayo Sokale works at the cutting edge of the scientific, environmental and media landscape. Ayo is a Chartered Civil Engineer and Project Team Manager for the Environment Agency in Eastern England and is a popular Keynote Speaker on the environment and sustainability. A generation of young people have grown up following Ayo on BBC Reel, BBC Bitesize and Cbeebies, where she’s covered the first principles on an array of scientific subjects from the Physics to Design. She also works as a TV expert on STEM including documentaries on Channel 5, Smithsonian and the Discovery channel.

Follow Ayo on Instagram


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