BSA chair Gisela Abbam talks making history, improving outcomes for Black children and the importance of representation within STEM

Gisela Abbam is passionate about making a difference in people’s lives.

Over the years, she’s been able to do just that through various roles, from becoming the first Black chair of the British Science Association (BSA) and a global Goodwill Ambassador to the founder and managing director of her own management consultancy group and so much more.

Her ability to set goals and achieve them is clearly demonstrated – but one of the goals she is working hard to achieve right now is improving diversity within the science industry and encouraging better representation within it for the next generation.

“How young Black children see themselves and their potential is impacted by the media, their teachers and families,” she says. “We need to be mindful of this.”

A recent study commissioned by the BSA found that that Black or Black British Caribbean children feel the most optimistic about their abilities to change the world upon entering school (70%), but this drops to just a quarter feeling very optimistic (25%) as they get older – the largest drop in optimism of all ethnicities. 

This concerning statistic shows that outcomes for Black children in the UK often change as they get older, and can be due to a wide range of factors from the school curriculum, lack of representation in different sectors and so much more.

“Black children really want to make a difference, but as they progress through their school career, they feel less and less able to do so,” she says.

“It’s heartbreaking and we need to do more to support them – at home, in school, as an industry and also in the media.”

ORIGINS

Gisela’s own passion for science began while she was working in local government in policy and strategy, and was involved in a tragic accident that changed her life.

“My interest in health and science began when I was involved in a car accident and was bedridden for over a year and then was later diagnosed with endometriosis and had to have one of my kidneys removed,” she says.

“Due to my late diagnosis and spending so much time in and out of hospital, I decided to become a health advocate and I’ve never looked back.”

Gisela joined the National Institute for Health and Care (NICE) – an independent organisation set up by the Department of Health for the UK government – in 2002, where she focused on early diagnosis of diseases, and frequently interacted with ministers and prime ministers.

Through her health challenges, Gisela found her calling to help others and work to create actionable change which has seen her reach new heights.

She’s collaborated with the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN and the World Bank to improve health outcomes, to publishing more than 45 white papers on various public policy issues.

And now she is continuing to pay it forward in her role as chair of the BSA in a bid to increase diversity and inclusion within science.

BSA

Gisela became chair of the charity in 2019 and was the first Black person in the role – a massive achievement which she describes as “surreal”.

“It was initially surreal, especially after taking over from Lord David Willetts,” she recalls.

“I was also excited and passionate about making a difference to the lives of people as science has transformed my life positively.”

In her role as chair, she has oversight for the governance and leadership of the organisation, along with her colleagues on the BSA’s Council. 

“I work closely with the executive team to ensure the BSA remains a relevant and efficient organisation, and that it is successful in achieving its goals.” 

As a Black woman in STEM, her presence is key in a field that continues to lack in diversity.

In 2020, women accounted for just 24% of the core STEM workforce and according to BBSTEM, just 6.2% of UK domicile students enrolled onto STEM-related subjects at UK universities are Black.

“We know that Black people continue to be vastly under-represented across the sciences. That just gets worse if you focus on Black women or Black people with disabilities,” she admits.

“The industry needs to be better in promoting the amazing women of colour already making a huge difference in the world.”

Gisela says that while STEM is a vast field with careers that suit most skills set, most people of colour are put off from pursuing these careers well before they leave school.  

“More awareness needs to be created about the range of STEM roles and also the diversity of thought that Black people could bring to the table,” she states.

CHALLENGES

As a Black woman in this field, she understands more than anyone the importance of seeing yourself reflected within it – especially for the next generation who will have even more global issues to tackle.

“There are a host of challenges facing them, from tackling the climate crisis to recovering from a global pandemic,” she says.

“We need young people to not only feel comfortable using science in their everyday lives but also to take control of their futures and make an impact. We want to better understand what challenges they – and their parents – face in doing this.” 

The Black British Business Award winner says the BSA has been on a journey over the past three years to improve not only the diversity and inclusivity of the science sector but also their own organisation. 

“We still have a way to go, but I am so encouraged by the progress that has been made already,” she shares.

“We are challenging our peers and stakeholders in the sector to join us on this journey – through supportive networks, analysis of existing and new data, and championing the best practice work from other organisations.

“The BSA’s current strategy puts diversity and inclusivity of science at its heart, and so each of our programmes aims to tackle these issues in some way,” she says.

“For example, during the annual British Science Week, community grants were offered to fund and support local grassroots organisations to run science activities with their communities.

“Also, the BSA will soon be launching its new three-year strategy which will see us continuing the important work on equality and diversity in science.”

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