How many female electrical engineers have you ever met in life? We are here to solve that puzzle on your behalf. Meet another female Electrical Engineer, from Ghana;
Hi Jennifer. Good morning to you, and thank you for joining us today
Hi, Winnie. How are you doing? It must be an evening on your side! You can call me Jenny, by the way. It’s because every time I hear “Jennifer” I think of my dad calling me for a disciplining session, haha.
Haha, okay. I will do that, thank you
Thank you once again for inviting me. I must say when I read through your work I realised what you are tackling is something I am very familiar with and would love to be part of the solution.
Please introduce yourself to the audience
My name is Jennifer Appiah-Kubi, but as we agreed before, please call me Jenny. I am Ghanaian, and I attended Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST in Ghana) for my undergrad, where I read Electrical Engineering. I recently finished my master’s in Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech, and am currently pursuing my Ph.D. (still!) in Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech.
It seems you knew the path to take since childhood! How true is that?
Haha, I never considered engineering as a career until I was in high school. Before that, I wanted to be a lot of things, even the president of Ghana – I was looking at that as a career, my goodness! When I joined junior high school, I wanted to be an Astronaut because I loved everything related to space; the stars, the moon, the planets.
One day, a teacher passed by our class, asking people what they wanted to become in the future. I was away but everyone told him I wanted to be an astronaut. He asked to see me when I returned, which I did. My response wasn’t different from what he had heard. He laughed and told the other teachers that I was going to become a burden to society. His point was that I was going to go into this field that didn’t exist and one that no one had use for, and I wouldn’t get a job.
The problem is that he was looking at only Ghana but at 12 years old, I wasn’t looking at Ghana. As far as space is concerned, I wasn’t even looking at Africa. His comment made me mad, and I lost a little confidence about it, but it didn’t change the fact that I wanted to be an astronaut.
One day, there was a gas explosion in Kumasi where I lived. It created a stampede across a very wide region of Kumasi. I witnessed a huge ball of fire go up into the sky and explode. This was a very traumatizing experience for me; something I wasn’t ready to see at that age. At that point, I changed my mind about being an astronaut. I felt like there were more pressing needs for my country that needed my input.
About four years later, I did my national examinations to get admission into the university. I had started realising how easy Physics and Mathematics were to me and started asking God what he would want me to do for my future. Yes, I was the best student in all subjects but when it came to those two, I didn’t have to put in a lot of effort. I asked a few friends of mine that I knew were godly because for me seeking godly counsel is always important. Among the responses I received, some people mentioned the fact that the way I enjoyed Physics was related to an engineer’s passion for the subject.
I finally spoke to my father, who is also an Electrical Engineer, about my decision to pursue electrical engineering. I told him of how I found myself hurrying to answer questions on electricity and electrostatics and every physics exam I wrote. He understood but discouraged me from taking that path because he thought it was going to be tough for me to land a job as a woman. Lucky enough, he is not the kind of dad who violently opposes. He gives his opinion and calmly says what he thinks about your decision.
With my selection of programs for the university I went with medicine first, and chemical engineering second. I put electrical engineering third. Unknown to me, my father had given me the wrong forms to fill, haha, African dad! He swapped my second and third choices and filled in the correct forms. Selections were out and I had to go for a medical school interview. But during the interview, the panel realised I had electrical engineering as my second choice and my father was also in the same field.
I believe this played a role; it tends to be the case that the medical school favors the well-performing children of doctors. And I remember hearing one panelist say, “you should go to electrical engineering”. As to whether this was just a joke or not, I don’t know. But all I know is, I found myself in electrical engineering from that day onwards.
Please tell us about some of the challenges you have faced in this field of electrical engineering
When I was at university, my class had 132 people and there were only 12 girls. So naturally, there was that intimidation. So I joined this class with students from very good schools and I am thinking to myself, “how am I going to survive!” You know the average boy tends to be showy. So there were times when a young man would get up and confidently ask a question, which might not be such a great question, but the boys will go wild, cheering them on.
There were times when I felt a girl would ask a question and the general feeling is certain folks think it’s not important. By the end of our first semester, I was surprised by my performance. I didn’t even know I had done that well until my dad helped explain the results to me. It spoke to me; despite the intimidation, I still did very well. From then on, I just forgot about everybody; I didn’t care that I was a girl or that there were other people in that class. I realised everyone was different, and while some were just showy, it needn’t mean anything to or about me. My performance in that semester encouraged me to keep going.
One day, there was an award ceremony in my school and we were all invited to the auditorium. There was a final year chemical engineering girl who was called for a prize for being the best department student. A bunch of boys seated in front of me just laughed. One of them said, “no matter how brainy she is, she is still going to end up as somebody’s wife”. Winnie, this statement broke my heart!! It made me wonder a lot if being a wife was degrading, or that one couldn’t be an intelligent wife, or that one needn’t accomplish much because she was going to be a wife.
Another time I heard one of the guys say, “we don’t like the girls in engineering because they are doing men’s jobs and still calling themselves women”. To them, there were no prim-and-proper girls in engineering. At the time, it was said as a joke, but even as a joke, it was inappropriate. It would kill a girl’s spirit to hear that, especially if, like me, you also aspire to marriage and raising a family. By doing as well as I did, I was expected to fit certain stereotypes, such as not being able to cook, not being a submissive wife, etc. In an African setting, these are deemed as particularly unpleasant characteristics of a woman.
And while I wasn’t measuring my worth by marriage, it did hurt, sometimes, that just there were expectations for me to be those things simply because I did well in class. I wanted to be seen as a unique individual and not have my womanhood questioned in any way because of my performance. I guess this was the main challenge I faced being in engineering, in general, and not necessarily in electrical engineering. And by the way, this all happened in Ghana. Out here, I would say, I haven’t faced any exceptional challenges.
How have you been able to keep your head high during these intimidating situations?
Remember I told you I was inspired by my performance. At the end of my degree, I was the best graduating female student in my entire college. So that belief played a big role in helping me move forward. However, I believe the main source of help has been God. I’m thankful God put certain people in my life, like my family (particularly my dad), my fiancé, and some lecturers and friends; they were the affirming voice that cheered me on.
I will quickly add, also, that while doing well made some people ascribe stereotypical traits to me, it earned me the respect of many more, both guys and girls alike. This was a contributing force, and to these people, I say thank you. I also strongly believe God kept me from pride and complacency so that I never once thought I was one of the best students in the college until graduation! Perhaps if I’d known I was doing that well, I would have become complacent and not attained all that I did.
You are a very smart woman; tell us about moments where you have been recognised for achievements or awards
As I’ve been in school for many years, my awards have been school-related. In recent times, I received the Prasad Fellowship and the Pratt Fellowship at Virginia Tech. I also got both awards for excellent student and best student twice in a row, at KNUST, Ghana. The best student is one who is first in their class or faculty, and the excellent student award is given to one who gets above a certain average point in their studies. In addition, I was the second-best graduating student for the engineering college at KNUST and the best graduating student for the Electrical Engineering faculty.
I guess my greatest moment in life so far has been seeing the smile on my parents’ faces with each accomplishment. Both of my parents never had a degree. My father, in particular, was just a random person from the village with a vision and purpose. Them seeing me do what they had no opportunity to do and doing it well makes them very proud.
If it has nothing to do with school and work, what takes most of your time?
I enjoy sewing and acrylic painting; below are some of my pictures. My other fun thing is listening to music. I also enjoy reading novels, especially African novels.
Do you have a favourite quote?
There’s a scripture from the book of proverbs 22:29; “do you see a man who excels at his work? He will stand before kings. He will not stand before unknown men”. Another one related to this is in Ecclesiastes and it says, “whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might”. I am encouraged by these verses to do everything to the best of my ability. One never knows what will take them where!
Imagine an African young girl who is passionate about STEM but can’t find their ground in the field. How would you encourage them?
Ultimately, God is the writer of all our stories but He has also given us the wisdom to live life. I’ll encourage such a girl to be sure what it is they want. And once you are passionate about something, focus on it. Let people fit you into negative stereotypes, it’s ok. But be sure in your heart that you are doing what is right and stick to that thing. I say this because if I had let those things I heard some people say get to me, I would have tried to change who I was. And so if a girl wants to make a change in the lives of people and set an example for others, I’ll encourage that they filter what they brood over and think about.
When people see you become all that God made you to be, they will admire you. For now, it’s okay to not be everyone’s favorite. My other piece of advice is for this girl not to think too highly of herself than she ought to when she’s made it. Celebrate each success, however small, but don’t rub it in people’s faces. I understand that it’s not easy to be stand out, especially as a girl in a male-domineering field, but that doesn’t make other people weak! So be respectful, humble, and treat everybody right.
Thank you very much, Jenny, for taking the time to speak with me. You are the first electrical engineer we are hosting. Thank you for sparing time for us.
Thanks, Winnie, for the good work you’re doing. I’m hopeful many young people are inspired by the stories you are sharing. And thank you for having me.