Updated: Mar 28
In celebration of Black History Month, LYP highlights Ibukun-Oluwa Abejirinde, an inspiring black woman leader and talented LYP program alumna. Ibukun was also the recipient of the 2019 LYP Scholarship.
Ibukun is an implementation and evaluation Scientist at Women’s College Hospital and an Assistant Professor (status) at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. Her research focuses on digital innovation in healthcare, health systems solutions, and maternal health.
In Part One of her interview below, Ibukun shares her experiences as a black woman leader working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). She also shares her advice for women who aspire to pursue STEM careers, and the core attributes she believes they uniquely bring to leadership roles.
What’s your story as a black woman leader working in STEM?
My story is a nice weave of faith, resilience and hard work.
As a young six-year-old child, when asked what I wanted to be in the future, my instinctive response was that I want to be a millionaire. I felt that if I had a ton of money, I would be able to solve all the world’s problems. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when my Mom told me it wasn’t something you study at the University. I was later inspired to be a neurosurgeon after reading Ben Carson’s book ‘Gifted Hands’. I identified with him because he’s also black from humble beginnings, and being a doctor sounded like a great way to be of service.
I eventually went to medical school and along the way chose to go into global health research. At the time, it was a choice between pursuing a residency in obstetrics and gynecology because of my interest in women’s health, or going into global health which strongly resonated with me. I have always been someone who loves to ask questions and solve problems. I gravitated towards global health because the field is dynamic and it allows me to ask and answer questions. Although it is broad, you could carve your niche in it. I also enjoy traveling and learning from other contexts.
In retrospect, my leadership skills, and the shaping and the recognition of myself as a leader, started much younger than I remember. I have a zest for life, to get things done and move things along. I also enjoy gathering people together towards a common goal.
Throughout my education and career, I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to formal and informal training in leadership. In high school, I attended a leadership school in Jos, Nigeria which prepared me to take up a leadership position as a senior student. I also had opportunities to lead internationally, such as when I was the Vice President of External Affairs for the European Medical Students Association. That role started with me leading a local chapter before getting on the international level.
Growing up in Nigeria, it was very patriarchal and women are largely seen as second-class citizens and frequently objectified. I wasn’t so aware of being black as I was of gender differences, differences in religion, and tribal differences, as these were predominant in the context.
I ran a couple of businesses in my late teens and early 20s, mostly working with men. Unsurprisingly, outsiders did not look at me as a business person due to my gender. But being female never stopped me, even when others tried to shut me up and “put me in my place”.
The recognition of being black didn’t set in until I moved abroad to Eastern Europe. It was difficult because when people judge and put you down for having a different skin color, it’s an attempt to break you mentally and emotionally.
Like other black women, I’ve had to make extra effort to take up space, pull up my own chair, and sit at the table.
However, I’m grateful for the people who encourage me and keep me focused on seeing the value I bring. I’ve also had allies along my journey, including men, and my biggest male ally is my husband. It’s so crucial to have people in your life who believe in you even more than you believe in yourself.
What is your advice for the next generation of women, particularly those who aspire to pursue STEM careers?
My advice is that it’s okay to be scared and have doubts, but to do it anyway. It’s important to have a tribe because the journey of a career and navigating life isn’t supposed to be done alone. It’s necessary to have a small powerful circle of people who lift you, cheer you on, and correct and critique you. Imposter syndrome is something that we all deal with at different stages of our careers, but don’t let it define or stop you.
One thing that has helped me in my career was to seek mentors at each phase of my life. As you navigate different stages of your career, your mentors may change or you will have additional mentors. There are people I look up to as role models. These people have gone ahead of me to chart their own paths, and being able to study how they navigated challenges is a way for me to learn from them. There’s so much we can gain by learning from the mistakes and experiences of others in order to avoid or replicate them.
My final advice is to pass the baton on. One of the quickest ways in my opinion, to bridge the gender divide and inequalities in racialized groups is to lift others as you rise. Representation is key. A responsibility that we need to be aware of as black women in STEM or leadership positions is that younger people are looking up to us and thinking, “If she can do it, I can too.”
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, do you feel that there are core attributes that women uniquely bring in terms of their leadership and strengths?
I absolutely believe that there are unique qualities and strengths that women bring to the table. Unfortunately, my field is male-dominated, but females make up the majority; at least three-quarters of health care workers are female, but only a very small fraction of that reflects leadership at the top.
Women tend to lead with empathy and this is necessary for recognizing where your workforce is coming from, what they’re dealing with, and how systems and values need to change to accommodate and bring out the best in them. Some narratives tend to confuse empathy with being emotionally weak, but I completely disagree. You can have empathy and still be a decisive leader.
Women leaders can be more vulnerable than their male counterparts. Brené Brown has written about how vulnerability is an index of courage. I believe female leadership is responsive and inspirational. Women can get things done more efficiently with probably less chaos.
I believe female leaders can bring fresh perspectives on an institutional and organizational level. This is needed to disrupt the age-old, male-centric organizational cultures and values. Naturally, we think that the models that men have built and established are the go-to default models.
I was reading the book ‘Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World’ by Jennifer Palmieri who served as communications director on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She made a great point stating that we don’t need female leaders who are simply feminine versions of men. Rather, we want women who bring their whole selves to the table.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our interview with Ibukun, where she shares her thoughts on supporting women in our communities, adapting to change and uncertainty, and overcoming challenges throughout her career.
About the Author: Tina Chow
Tina Chow is a visionary changemaker, avid traveler, and passionate writer. She empowers leadership, personal growth, and career development through her creative content. Follow her blog for more of her work.