Eponle Usoh Sylvie is a PhD research fellow at CIFOR-ICRAF in Cameroon. She has a bachelor’s degree in law and women’s studies; a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies, and is completing a PhD in gender and development from the University of Buea, Cameroon. She is working on a project called Land Restoration for Post-COVID Rural and Indigenous Women Empowerment and Poverty Reduction in Cameroon (LRIWEP), within which she is conducting a literature review; defining research questions and objectives; and developing a detailed approach to methodology, data collection, and analysis from a gender perspective.
Q: Why did you become a scientist? What motivates you in your work?
A: When I was 16 and I enrolled in secondary school, I was put in ‘A class’, made up of advanced students, compared to the B class which was made up of average students. Most boys in my class said that the first 10 positions [for grades] in the class should only be boys, and no girl should be among them. I took that as a challenge, and made it to the 4th or 5th position. Many girls were not interested in science, because they said it was too difficult to understand. Some of us engaged, however, and the boys mocked us, saying we will drop out as time goes on. We were just five girls in the class who were interested in science. When my school welcomed a guest speaker, who launched into her presentation with a call for girls to enroll in science, the impression she made on me was life-changing.
What inspired me was the zeal to change the narrative – that women who menstruate cannot think at the same time. What I enjoyed about learning science was not just the power of scientific discovery, but using that information to make the world a better place. That idea has become the basis for my research today. I have advocated and lobbied for women’s rights to equal opportunity in all spheres of life, and l lay a strong emphasis on research to identify constraints to women’s enrolment in science, and getting that information out to the public so that the number of women scientists will increase.
I was motivated to deconstruct scholarship, and reconstruct it from a female perspective. Science has always been androcentric – written from “his voice” – so there is a need to listen to “Her Story” and not “His Story” all the time. Now, I’m motivated by working in this environment as a junior team member, knowing that I can learn from those in senior positions in the organization – especially experts in my field. I love a challenge, and I constantly set goals for myself to achieve, both in work and in my personal life. I’m not comfortable with settling, and I’m always looking for an opportunity to do better and achieve greatness.
Q: Can you share an example of a barrier you overcame to become a scientist? What about an opportunity (situation or person) that pulled you forward in your career?
A: Barriers I overcame to become a scientist include cultural beliefs and patriarchal values; harmful and incorrect gender stereotypes; and poverty. When I completed primary school, most of our neighbours sent their girl children to learn a trade, stating that if they sent them to school they would return pregnant. My mother was a poor widow, and singlehandedly had seven children to cater for. One morning she sat me down and said she did not have money for me to continue with my education, so I must stay at home for a year to learn a trade, while she struggled to raise money and enrol me the following year. I can vividly remember it was a market day, and I stood in public and cried and rolled on the floor as if I had lost someone.
Fortunately for me, that act resulted in a huge success. The secretary of the only government school back then in my community approached me to find out what the problem was. I explained everything to her, and she came into our house and promised to help. She told my mother that I was very intelligent, and should not stay at home or learn a trade. She said she would keep me in school and cover for me until my mother could raise money for my school fees. Each time I was sent out of class for school fees, I went to her office, and she brought me back to class. When things got worse, my elder brother dropped out of school and decided to assist my mother to enable us to stay in school. I can say that he and the secretary made huge sacrifices for me to achieve my career. Also, when I was in my final year of high school, I lost my mother. My elder brother did everything possible to ensure I enrolled in university, because I wanted to become a great woman and tell my story – to motivate others not to give up in life, but to keep striving and changing narratives. Lastly, while the community where I grew up helped me to achieve my goals, I equally observe that empowerment is not something that can be done to or for anyone. Everyone is responsible for their own empowerment.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a woman in science?
Eponle: Being a woman scientist is a demanding and challenging assignment. Enrolling in science, I have shown other girls that it is possible, and they can do it. I am fortunate to exist in an era where lots of awareness raising and sensitization has been done on women’s enrollment in science. Though the gap persists, I am positive that things will get better someday. Thus, being a woman scientist to me means taking the lead to make women visible in the field and ensuring equal opportunity for all: not sitting and expecting others to fight for change, but joining forces to make it happen in the spirit of sisterhood. It means I have a role to play in the change I want to see, and a duty to make way as a world changer for the next generation by encouraging them to move beyond social expectations and stereotypes to achieve their goals. The only way to achieve this is to lead by example. The time has come: let’s take the bull by the horns: “Let’s go girl, you can do it!” I hail all the women scientists who acted as a waymakers.
Why is it important to have women leading in science? Do you have a specific example or story you can share?
Eponle: There is a great deal of research available on the role played by women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). I believe that it is very important for women to lead in science because they can serve as role models to younger generations and can better articulate on behalf of women during policy formulation. Also, I believe that if women take the lead in science, it will encourage other women not to give up, but enter technical spaces that have historically been male-dominated, to generate a more diverse picture. Women, in my point of view, should take the lead in science to change the narrative, social expectations, and stereotypical belief that science is a male domain.
I believe that the presence or absence of women role models in science influences women’s career preferences. Exposure of women STEM experts to women university students may increase positive attitudes, self-esteem, and interest in the discipline: there is a need for such role models and mentors.
This is the third in a series of Q&As with women scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). Ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), we asked them what motivates them, any barriers they overcame, what it means to them to be a woman in science, and why it’s important for women to have equitable positions and adequate representation in the sector. Read the Q&As with bioenergy scientist Mary Njenga and food and nutrition scientist Mulia Nurhasan.
For more information on Eponle Usoh Sylvie’s work, please contact her at S.Eponle@cifor-icraf.org
For more information about CIFOR-ICRAF’s work on gender equality and social inclusion (GESI), please contact Elisabeth Leigh Perkins Garner (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Anne Larson (email@example.com).
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