How Five Stem Women Shattered the Glass Ceiling
12:00 AM, March 08, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:06 AM, March 08, 2019

How Five Stem Women Shattered the Glass Ceiling

MAHMUDA NAZNIN

Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, BUET

“Teaching is best suited to women because the job is less demanding.”

Dr MahmudaNaznin, professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) at BUET, believes this is the worst misconception that people in our society have about women's professional capabilities.

Naznin joined the department as a lecturer after completing B.Sc. in Engineering in January, 1997. She became the first full-time female professor in the department in 2015.

Naznin's research area includes “Systems and Networking”. Currently, she is developing a programme that will detect a person's mental state and emotion just from his or her voice. “It may serve as a tool to detect mental health conditions and prevent suicide”, she said.

The journey, however, was rocky, recalls the professor. Naznin went to USA in 2001 for PhD and had stayed there for six years. Although her mother encouraged her to pursue her higher studies, other family members were less encouraging.

“'Who would marry you if you do your PhD and live abroad by yourself,' my relatives would say,” remembers Naznin. “But I had full funding, so I went nevertheless.”

One summer, she came back home and tied the knot. After returning to USA, she discovered that she was pregnant. “My relatives had only one solution: leave the research midway, forget getting a PhD, and go back to the country,” she said.

But Dr Naznin did not give up. With her mother on her side, she stayed back, continued her study, and gave birth to a son while being on her own.

In her department, Naznin said, only around 15 percent of the undergrad students are girls. “Girls, in general, are discouraged by their families from considering CSE as a major because what would follow is extensive research and higher studies, or a job that demands a lot of time,” she added.

However, there has been an interesting upwards trend when it comes to post-graduation enrolment of girls. “After graduation, they get married and because of barriers set by the family, they cannot go abroad for higher studies. So they get enrolled here,”Naznin observes.

“In the world of academia, promotion at work, or exposure to peers depends on the quality of the research work we do. And that requires time and persistence. Here in Dhaka, most of us need to cook, do household work and manage the family. Plus an unreasonable amount of time is wasted commuting back and forth from work,” she said, referring to the double burden that most working women face when tackling both work and home responsibilities.

On Women's Day, Dr Naznin encourages her students and female peers to not give up. “If you start something out of passion, do not leave it in midway due to external reasons,” she added.“It is our society that needs to change their mindset about the role of women.”

DR SHAMA E HAQUE

Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at North South University

“I cannot do this because I am a girl” is a statement Dr Shama E Haque, an environmental scientist and engineer, with over nine years of research and professional experience, dislikes to hear.

Dr Haque joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (DCEE) at North South University in 2016, where she currently works as an associate professor.

After passing her HSC from Holy Cross College in Dhaka, she went to the United States to earn BS degree in civil engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering from the same university's branch at Arlington.

“Through my research, I am trying to understand the impact humans have on the environment and currently, I am focusing on studying surface water quality degradation in Dhaka,” she said.

Dr Haque also serves as an editor for a journal published by Elsevier called Groundwater for Sustainable Development.

Considering the fact that a good number of her students are female, Dr Haque took the lead in arranging and hosting the very first social meeting for female engineering faculty members and female civil engineering students of NSU in November last year. However, female students are a minority in the department, Haque notes.

The event was organised to make female students aware of the current state of employment opportunities for women, address the gender gap, and expose them to accomplished female role models.

When asked what impedes women's growth in the field, Dr Haque said, “For example, in engineering consultancies, sometimes the long duration of field work can be difficult for families to accept as it takes you far away from your family.”

Dr Haque said women need to work several times harder than men to prove themselves in this field. “Mastering the quality of filtering information can help you function better because you cannot afford to be distracted by every little bump on the road,” she advises.

SENJUTI SAHA

Scientist at Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF), Dhaka Shishu (Children) Hospital, Bangladesh, Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar at Andrews Lab, Stanford University, USA

After completing finishing her school years at Dhaka's Bangladesh International Tutorial, Dr Senjuti Saha went to Canada to complete an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, followed by a doctoral degree in Molecular Genetics, both at the University of Toronto.

“Both my parents are microbiologists and our dinner table conversations were always filled with exciting stories from their laboratories. I often had to go to their labs after school and wait until they were done. Microbiology is in my blood, they joke!” said Dr Saha, who is currently working as a scientist at a research-based NGO, Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF) in Bangladesh.

She had been working as a social worker evaluating the social burden of meningitis (an infection of the brain) on children who have to live with life-long disability. Towards the end of her PhD, she decided to move back to Bangladesh and continue her work on meningitis as a microbiologist.

“Death by bacterial meningitis can occur within hours. And children who don't die, live with life-long disability. In a country like Bangladesh, a disabled child translates to a disabled family,” said Senjuti. Scientists across the world don't really understand or know what bacteria and viruses cause meningitis. And if we do not know that, how will we prevent the disease? To improve health we need cutting-edge research, and that's where I try to play my part.”

Senjuti has received two grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to understand the impact of diarrhoea and viral pneumonia of the health systems of Bangladesh. Senjuti is also a visiting scholar at Stanford University, USA.

The scientist is vocal about gender discrimination, whether in STEM or other fields. “Sexism in embedded in our society. Even in Canada, during my graduate studies, it was so clear that my male colleagues got to spend more time with their mentors and received a lot more attention. Our supervisors paid keen attention to their careers,” she said.“My female colleagues and I did not receive the same attention, whether for the next job or for publications, as if we were not worth investing in.”

“When I first told my supervisors about the grant I received to work in Bangladesh, the first question was 'Are you going to leave your husband here?' No interest was shown in what the grant was about,” added Senjuti.

CHRF is an exception though, she said. “Our leaders, both men and women, shield the young members. At least inside the organisation, we are treated equally.”

The reaction to her work from her family and acquaintances is still patriarchal and patronising, she said. “In family gatherings, I sometimes get odd expressions from relatives when they hear that me and my husband are living in different countries. They are surprised that my husband 'allowed' me to do so. They say I am very 'lucky'.”

Senjuti met her spouse in Canada. “A year and a half into our marriage, I decided to move back to Bangladesh to follow my passion. We are scientists and hold equal sky-high ambitions, and we are both feminists. We work in different parts of the world, but we work hard every day not to let that affect our relationship.”

Women are confident enough but they need to work several times harder than their male counterparts to excel in the same position, she observes. “Commuting in public transport, being harassed and whistled at, fighting cultural biases...Despite all these, we get our work done and get it done well. Yes, we are confident enough and we will continue,” she concludes.

DR LAFIFA JAMAL

Chairperson, Department of Robotics & Mechatronics Engineering, University of Dhaka, president of Bangladesh Women in Technology, vice-president at Bangladesh Open Source Network and Treasurer at  Bangladesh Computer Society

“Dynamic” is the perfect word to describe Dr Lafifa Jamal.

After working as a faculty member at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering of Dhaka University for 12 years, Dr Lafifa Jamal is now the chairperson of a comparatively new department, Department of Robotics & Mechatronics Engineering.

Besides, she is a senior member at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She took office as the president of Bangladesh Women in Technology recently, after being involved with the organisation for four years. She is also the vice-president of Bangladesh Open Source Network and treasurer at Bangladesh Computer Society.

Bangladesh Women in Technology is a group of women working in the IT sector—be it teaching, business or jobs. Only 16 percent of the IT sector is occupied by women and the gender ratio gets much worse in the mid-to-higher level. Lafifa said, “This is because in the IT sector, one has to constantly improve themselves through skill development processes. Women, at one point, cannot give enough time to do so due to their multiple responsibilities,” observes Lafifa.

As a teacher, what she has observed in her students at university is that girls lack confidence and are afraid to grow a career in programming. “Now there are so many online materials through which one can learn. But the experience of learning through teamwork while having tea is different. I see my male students working late hours at night on campus but girls hardly do so.”

In high school programming contests, which are regularly organised by Bangladesh Open Source Network at the district level, Dr Lafifa has seen little participation of girls. The Network plans to start counselling services to encourage girls in the sector and remove their fear, she added.

Dr Lafifa has been a fan of mathematics since childhood. It has been and still is a source of joy for her. Now that she leads a department which is just over three years old, she remains occupied with myriad tasks starting from designing a curriculum to arranging funds for the department and other administrative activities. What she sometimes finds odd is that she is compared only to her female counterparts when it comes to her achievements.

On the occasion of International Women's Day, Dr Lafifasaid, “I would request girls to dream, to be persistent and know that obstacles will come. But they must not whine and lose track. One will reach a good position only if they carry out their daily duties with sincerity.”    

RITA YUSUF

Professor and Dean at the School of Life Sciences at Independent University, Bangladesh

Rita Yusuf, professor and dean at the School of Life Sciences at Independent University, Bangladesh, humbly believes that her biggest achievement is the formation of the School and its laboratories.

When she returned to Bangladesh 13 years ago from the US and joined IUB, there was no biochemistry or microbiology programme at the university. “I was entrusted by the board of trustees, vice-chancellor and pro-VC with the remarkably fulfilling and challenging responsibility of formulating the curricula for these programmes and building the new, state-of-the-art biology laboratories. The programme came into being five years ago.

“The life science laboratories at IUB are my pride and joy. The labs have garnered praise as one of the best teaching laboratories in Bangladesh, even by visiting international researchers from prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Johns Hopkins,” the professor added.

Describing the field of life sciences as “diverse” and “broad”, Rita said, “I teach, perform research, and supervise the programmes. My job requires me to work closely with faculty members and students, ensure our curricula are up to date, and foster national and international research and academic collaborations.”

The department constantly attempts to find innovative ways of challenging the students to think like a scientist, said Rita.

Rita has been privileged to have studied at some of the best institutions in America. “I was selected, through a competitive admission exam, to get into New York's Stuyvesant High School, which is one of the top math and science high schools in the United States. That is how I was inducted into the STEM fields very early on.”

She completed Bachelor's in biology from Columbia University in New York and a PhD in Environmental Carcinogenesis from New York University.

When asked if she ever faced gender discrimination, the professor replied, “On the contrary, in primary school the teachers would scold me severely and embarrass me in front of my classmates if it ever seemed that I was relying on anyone, particularly a boy, to help me with something, perhaps in woodwork class or any activity traditionally considered male-centric. They made me believe that I can do anything I set my mind to.”

However, she agreed there are barriers for women in science—that girls are discouraged from a young age from pursuing STEM degrees and compelled to fulfil society's expectationsof a girl's responsibilities to her family. “The age at which people are encouraged to be most productive in their career, women are expected to bear children and spend more time at home,” she argued. “Nevertheless, the number of female role models is increasing and institutional barriers with regards to recruitment, promotion, and retention are slowly beginning to yield.”

Rita spends long hours at work and hopes that seeing her, her 13-year-old daughter will become a woman who is successful professionally and at the same time capable of developing a loving environment at home.

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