In a country where traditional gender roles have often cast shadows, women emerge as go-getters, traversing complexities in pursuit of scientific excellence. The contributions of women have been instrumental, yet often overlooked. Their narrative in science is a story of perseverance, resilience, and ground-breaking achievements that have reshaped our understanding of the world. Despite historical ordeals and systemic biases, women have made indelible marks in various scientific disciplines. In Pakistan, a country with a rich history and diverse culture, women scientists have been breaking barriers, challenging societal regulations, and making significant contributions across various scientific disciplines. Reading stories of women excelling in their respective fields are a testament to the fact that brilliance knows no gender, and innovation flourishes when diversity thrives.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science serves as a global call to action to dismantle barriers, foster inclusivity, and pave the way for more women and girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The observance aims to promote gender equality in these fields, recognising the untapped potential that women bring to scientific innovation.
In Pakistan and beyond, there is a need to address systemic issues that hinder the full participation of women in STEM fields. Obstacles persist, encompassing cultural hindrances discouraging female involvement, along with rooted biases in hiring and career advancement that impede the attainment of equal opportunities. Additionally, the intersection of gender with various social identities, including ethnicity and class, compounds the challenges faced by women.
The Global Gender Gap Index Report positions Pakistan at 135 out of 156 countries for educational attainment, underscoring the disparities. Further, women encounter gender-specific impediments such as restricted mobility, limitations on interacting with male colleagues, and societal expectations prioritising marriage and motherhood over professional pursuits. As per UNESCO, the enrollment statistics for bachelor’s degrees reveal a distribution of 47 per cent women and 53 per cent men. However, when it comes to doctoral studies, women constitute a smaller proportion at 36 per cent, contrasting with men who make up 64 per cent of doctoral candidates. Furthermore, a notable gender disparity is evident in the research sector, where women account for just 34 per cent of researchers.
Initiatives that provide mentorship, educational opportunities, and a supportive environment are crucial for nurturing the talents of aspiring female scientists. The government of Pakistan, along with women actively involved in STEM fields, has taken concerted measures to narrow the considerable gender gap. Since 2018, the government has focused on enhancing wage parity and bolstering its standing in the educational attainment index.
Private initiatives such as Women in Tech and Women Engineers Pakistan have also emerged, playing a pivotal role in fostering STEM education for women. These organisations contribute to the collective effort aimed at encouraging and supporting women in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, observed on February 11th, serves as an annual reminder of the achievements by women in the various fields of STEM. The celebration of this day takes on special significance as it provides an occasion to recognise the extraordinary waves made by Pakistani women scientists who have not only excelled in their respective fields but have also broken through societal rules and gender barriers. Moreover, the celebration of women in science should extend beyond a single day. Long-term commitments to gender equality in educational institutions, research organisations, and workplaces are essential.
In honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let’s turn our spotlight to the incredible women in Pakistan who are scripting their narratives of triumph in the scientific arena. These trailblazers, with their intellect and tenacity, challenging the frontiers of knowledge. This day is a nod to their resilience, echoing through laboratories and classrooms across Pakistan.
Physics, traditionally considered a male-dominated field, has witnessed the emergence of several Pakistani women who have not only shattered stereotypes but have also significantly contributed to the scientific community. Nergis Mavalvala, a Pakistani-American physicist, gained global recognition when she conduced to the detection of gravitational waves in 2015. Her work not only expanded our understanding of the cosmos but also earned her the prestigious ‘MacArthur Foundation Award’ in 2010. In 2020, Nergis made history by becoming the first female Dean of the School of Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), breaking barriers and inspiring future generations of scientists. Mariam Sultana, Pakistan’s first female astrophysicist, achieved the remarkable feat of earning her PhD in 2012. Her involvements to the field of astrophysics have played a vital role in advancing our understanding of celestial phenomena. Beyond her academic achievements, Mariam’s journey is emblematic of breaking gender barriers in a traditionally male-dominated field, becoming an inspiration for aspiring female scientists.
Talat Shahnaz Rahman, a distinguished condensed matter physicist, has significantly impacted surface phenomena and excited media.
Her research has not only expanded theoretical frameworks within the field but has also contributed to practical applications that hold promise for technological advancements. Talat’s expertise and research acumen mark her as a key figure at the forefront of condensed matter physics, bridging the gap between theoretical insights and their potential real-world implications. Farzana Aslam, physicist and astronomer, has had a significant influence on polymer composite research, semiconductor nanoparticles, photonics, and laser sciences.
Her work has not only expanded our understanding of materials but has also paved the way for innovative applications in technology. Farzana’s dedication to advancing knowledge in these specialised fields stands as a proof to her part played in the ongoing progress of materials science and technology. Tasneem Zehra Husain, a luminary in theoretical physics, stands out as one of the few Pakistani women holding a doctorate in the field. Her pivotal role in the study of string theory solidified her status in theoretical physics, contributing significantly to the advancement of our understanding of the fundamental forces governing the universe.
In the field of biology, Pakistani women have excelled in unravelling the complexities of genetics, promoting environmental conservation, and making substantial strides in various sub-disciplines.
Aban Marker Kabraji, a distinguished biologist, occupies the prestigious role of regional director at the Asia Regional Office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Her exceptional hand in the effort towards environmental protection, sustainable development, and nature conservation has not only garnered recognition but have also earned her the esteemed Tamgha-e-Imtiaz award. Asifa Akhtar has left a mark in the field of chromosomes, distinguished by her contributions.
Her accomplishments reached new heights as she became the first international female vice president of the biology and medicine section at Germany’s esteemed Max Planck Society. Notably, Asifa’s work has been recognised on an international scale, with her receiving the prestigious ‘European Life Science Organization (ELSO)’ award.
Azra Quraishi, an eminent botanist, stands out for her pivotal role in enhancing potato yield by 5 per cent in Pakistan, thereby making a substantial impact on agricultural trade. Her dedicated efforts and innovative approaches not only improved crop productivity but also helped the economic prosperity of the agricultural sector.
Women comprise over 49 per cent of the population of Pakistan. But, the number of women enrolling in Computer Science and Information Technology is a mere 14 per cent. Computer science (CS) and Information Technology (IT) is becoming ever present in the lives of young people, including girls and young women. Despite that, in Pakistan, women remain severely underrepresented in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, with only 23 per cent of the workforce being female. Only 16 per cent of female computer science graduates are working versus 83 per cent men. This is a problem that needs its due attention, not just for the sake of fairness, but also for the economic and social benefits that diversity brings.
In a collective effort towards technological progress, Pakistani women are asserting their prowess, challenging conventions. At the forefront of this transformative era is Asma Zaheer, a standout figure in computer science who achieved a milestone by becoming the first Pakistani to receive the esteemed ‘Best of IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) Award’ in 2019. This prestigious accolade showcases her exceptional innovative spirit within computer science. Sarah Qureshi is the CEO and Founder of Aero Engine Craft Pvt. Ltd. With a distinguished background in Aerospace Engineering, she holds a PhD in the field. Beyond her role as a CEO, Sarah is recognised as a ‘Visiting Fellow’ in Aerospace at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. Her expertise extends to deep tech, where she is known for her work as a radical inventor. Notably, she is also a licensed pilot, showcasing her multifaceted involvement in the aerospace industry.
Her achievements highlight a commitment to advancing technology and innovation in the field, making her a noteworthy figure in the world of aerospace engineering. Jehan Ara, as the President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT and ITES (P@SHA), plays a crucial role in representing the software and IT services industry in Pakistan. Her leadership helped shape the course of the country’s digital field. Sadaffe Abid, the Co-founder of CIRCLE, is dedicated to promoting women’s economic participation in Pakistan through her social enterprise. Her initiatives aim to create avenues for women to thrive in the evolving digital economy. Responsible for the development of X’s ‘Moment’ feature, Sara Haider, an Engineering Manager at X, has been instrumental in many such high-profile projects.
Her role underscores the impactful presence of Pakistani women in shaping major advancements within global tech companies. Saba Gul, the Founder and CEO of Popinjay, pushes the economic empowerment of skilled artisans in Pakistan through her company that produces high-quality, handcrafted accessories.
Her work highlights the intersection of technology, craftsmanship, and economic development. Maria Umar, the Founder of Women’s Digital League, is a driving force behind providing online work opportunities for women in Pakistan through her social enterprise. Her efforts help bridge the gender gap in the digital workforce.
These women have not only broken barriers in their respective fields but have also paved the way for future generations of female scientists in Pakistan.
Their stories highlight the importance of promoting gender equality in science and providing equal opportunities for women to excel in STEM fields.
The journey of these women in science has not been without its challenges. These scientists have had to shatter societal expectations and cultural norms. The steadfast determination required to break free from stereotypes is a recurring theme in their narratives.
Cultural expectations, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields like physics and computer science, have posed hurdles for these women. Limited resources, both in terms of research funding and access to state-of-the-art facilities, have added hurdles to their scientific pursuits.
While celebrating their triumphs, it’s crucial to acknowledge the hurdles they have overcome. These women have not only contributed to knowledge but have also reshaped the narrative of what’s possible. Their stories serve as inspiration for aspiring scientists, breaking the mould and opening doors for more women and girls to join the scientific revolution.
The writer is a reporter and subeditor at You! Magazine, The News International. She can be reached at email@example.com