When it comes to climbing the career ladder in education, leadership positions are still predominantly going to men. While teaching has traditionally attracted more women into the field, there’s no mistaking that women are under-represented in its key leadership roles. To be accepted as leaders, women often must walk a fine line between two opposing sets of expectations which is why gender diversity is important. With the ongoing discussion on the gender bias and women’s access to leadership and senior roles, this week You! shares some inspiring success stories of female professors, who talk about their journey in the field…
Pakistan’s gender norms do add a complex layer to communication, as it’s not as overt as outright discrimination, but there are subtle nuances that have to be dealt with.
However, when young minds have role models, they can be inspired to be better. Prof Dr Rani Faryal Faheem Tahir, from Department of Microbiology, Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) has been acknowledged at different prestigious national and international forums for her research work. As a profession, academia had always appealed Dr Rani because of the diverse range of responsibilities it has and how enables her to interact with young minds of Pakistan. “The potential in them [students] is so wonderful, and I believe it’s a great responsibility to be able to tap into it and help them unlock their abilities. I always wanted to work where my impact would not only be on a few people, but generations… and a university is that place,” she enthuses. Talking about gender barriers female teachers sometimes face, she informs, “Our students come from very diverse backgrounds, and some from the most underdeveloped areas of the country. For them, working under female supervision can often be something quite out of the norm. In those scenarios, it’s important to help overcome their in-built biases.” As an academic, research and teaching are major tasks along with administrative work, in this regard Dr Rani unravels that many roles she has to take on, “In actuality, we occupy many diverse roles in our students’ professional and personal lives. Many of them have travelled so far from their homes in search of education, and they need emotional support as much as they need technical knowledge. As a result, we take on different roles to help out our students in what they specifically need, be it career, emotional or educational support.”
Kainat Murtaza has been teaching Chinese language at Air University since 2020, where she also graduated from. She learned the language out of her own interest and to meet the needs of Chinese conversation during her visits to China along with her father as part of his business. “I wanted to improve my Chinese language skills further and wanted to motivate younger generations to learn a foreign language which is spoken by almost 35 per cent of the world population and has other great prospects too,” she tells.
As a lecturer, sometimes it is difficult to understand students’ psyche because everyone is on a different mental level. “The first challenge I faced as a lecturer was students’ behaviour. My students are almost my age fellows, so during orientation of every semester, students often get confused. They ask me irrelevant questions or sometimes so many questions at one time just to create problems and distract me from the main lecture. Sometimes it’s very difficult to control the situation because they are not kids, and I can’t scold them,” she laments. Except a handful, other students generally behave very well. “In addition to my work experience as a Chinese language instructor, I also help my father in his business. On daily basis, I come across many new challenges and difficulties,” she describes. Her job helps her improve her confidence level and communication skills. “In my personal opinion, every woman should have enough confidence that if she is stuck in any problem, she should be able to resolve it by herself. Also, every female should utilise whatever she studied by delivering her knowledge to others,” expresses Kainat.
In a country where female literacy showed abysmal progress in the early 2000s, Dr Samina Malik took the government’s initiatives as an opportunity to grow intellectually and professionally, especially when there were hardly any women in academia. Winner of Best Teacher Award, Dr Samina is a professor of education and her contribution in policy and research goes a long way to shape direction of higher education. For 25 years, she has been associated with teaching. She started off as a college lecturer to serving International Islamic University Islamabad since 2003.
Despite a draining routine, she was driven by the desire to excel and be the best role model to students. “We have to remember two things: even though people claim that a PhD or an MS is a personal achievement for an academic, we forget that it effects students who stand to gain the most when a committed and well-qualified teacher is willing to not only impart knowledge but also to acquire new knowledge,” she highlights. “Since I also teach female students, I feel that I am a part of a collective process that would enable women to step forward and not only acquire higher education, but also to make their mark in Pakistan’s rising higher education,” shares Dr Samina.
In 2006, she attained a postdoctoral fellowship from the HEC and went to Coventry University in the UK. She endeavoured to dispel the myth that female colleagues cannot support other female colleagues. “When I came back in 2007, the environment in my department had become more conducive to a woman’s academic’s professional growth. I realised that institutional support was necessary for any academic to grow and that remained my passion at that stage. That is why when I was made the Head of the Department in 2008, I could put my heart and soul into the materialisation of this vision, not only by streamlining the systemic aberrations in my department, but also by supporting female colleagues to pursue higher studies and providing them with the space to grow,” she informs. “I realised that just as Coventry University had been pivotal in changing my outlook regarding institutional support, I could perhaps contribute in a similar constructive manner as a woman academic leader.”
Dr Samina is proud that her department has a strong force of women academics with PhDs to their credit. “I was made the Director Female Campus in 2015 and in 2017, I became Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. This was perhaps the most challenging assignment that I had till date. It further enabled me to broaden my horizon as I dealt with all sorts of problems stemming from the fact that I was a female dean at the helm of one of the largest faculties in the university,” she describes. “I faced confrontations but I learnt to stick to my guns and to take a firm stance in favour of strengthening the integrity of the system. I have had to take unpleasant decisions, compelling people to forfeit privileges that are unearned, and to prioritise the university’s growth which has brought me my fair share of naysayers. But I feel that in order to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I simply sought and gained everyone’s approval. And I am satisfied that I have done my job in a manner that has satisfied my conscience,” Dr Samina asserts.
She keeps on learning
Madeeha Arsalan is a playwright and she took the decision to leave teaching English for her child. Even though her husband, a government servant, offered to look after the child but she decided to do it herself. “My parents had a taste for studies and literature and my teachers encouraged me to join teaching.
I loved my job and the students got attached to me because my method was different from others,” she shares. “I learnt a lot while teaching but I had to take a decision to take care of my child. However, I’m glad that I had good colleagues and an overall great experience.”
Associate Professor of Biochemistry, Dr Mariam Anees is a highly qualified woman. After completing her MSc and MPhil, she was awarded PhD scholarship in Medical University of Vienna, Austria. She did a PhD in Molecular Biology (Cancer Therapeutics) and received the prestigious ‘Austrian Life Science Award’ for identifying a novel prognostic marker for prostate cancer.
When she came back to Pakistan, she had a breakthrough as Director of Student Affairs at QAU. This post was usually reserved for men as one wrong move could earn you ire of students and it’s tricky to keep different groups from clashing with each other. But Dr Anees proved to her peers that she can deal with all kinds of unexpected scenarios.
“When I came back to Pakistan, I received job offers from NUST, COMSATS and Quaid-i-Azam University but I preferred to join QAU as it was my alma mater,” she narrates. “I’ve been Director Students Affairs for a year and a half so a lot of students visit my office every day for various issues. I try to help and guide them to the best of my capacity. I also have to attend numerous meetings and organise co-curricular activities for students. At my university, colleagues and students are very supportive and respectful, so the environment is generally comfortable for either gender.”
While she has an administrative position at work, she is also a mother to a vibrant eight-year-old and tries to keep a balance between the two. “Managing time has been a real challenge. Administrative tasks often make me stay at office until late evening and the nature of my job keeps me on the phone or busy in marking papers, even when I’m at home. My daughter waits for me and wants to spend a lot of time with me, so I feel a terrible guilt about not giving her enough. Sometimes, I bring her to office during her school holidays and on the weekends, we engage in different activities. I try to make up for the lost time. Being a woman, managing office and home equally well is by far the most difficult task for me,” she elucidates.
Dr Sara Rizvi Jafree, an Associate Professor, Forman Christian College and Editor of the Forman Journal of Social Sciences, recalls that when she graduated with a BSc Honours from the London School of Economics, UK, she didn’t have a direction professionally, but she did have someone to guide her through. “It was only after my children started school that my father-in-law encouraged me to pursue further studies, as I loved to read and write. He was a General Surgeon and a retired Professor/Principal of Nishtar Medical College. He taught me how to drive, helped me attain certificates, drove me to university for my MPhil admission, and took me for my interview to Forman Christian College – a Chartered University (FCCU). Sometimes, marriage and joint families can provide some of the best support systems a person can ask for,” enthuses Sara.
While talking about her subject, Sociology she believes that it’s the best degree a woman, or any student, can graduate in. It offers an umbrella of opportunities of learning and understanding gender aspects of a society. Employers prefer sociology graduates because they have studied inclusivity and are able to work with empathy and excellent communication skills beyond gender divide. “Women, with their innate care ethics, show great commitment for social policy mobilisation and protection of the marginalised. This is another reason why women prefer to study sociology, as it prepares them with skills to recommend wide social policies, based on region-specific empirical evidence and objectivity, something that Pakistan is in great need of,” she describes.
Sara feels that she been lucky to study and work in organisations that are safe and inclusive. “I have always received respect from my male students. I believe the main reason for this is the heterogeneous group that comprises FCCU. We have male and female students from all the provinces and regions of Pakistan, studying together and learning to support each other’s differences and diversity,” she explains. “We have Faculties, Departments, and integral staff offices led by women. In addition, we have women students in leadership roles across university societies. This representation of women in leadership positions by the administration is also responsible for promoting a respectful and inclusive environment within the classrooms and on campus, generally. If not already, other organisations and institutes will follow suit and I see a bright future in Pakistan for all, with each contributing to development and stability. Keep praying and working hard; and remember Quaid’s words that ‘No nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men’,” concludes Sara.