Deeply moved by the appalling gender disparity in STEM fields, Dr. Ramla Qureshi initiated Women Engineers Pakistan (WEP): a grass-roots organization catalyzing participation and enabling retention of women in STEM fields, now transformed into a nationwide movement, buttressed by the overwhelming support of women all over the globe. When not advocating for gender equality, she is a structural and earthquake engineer, and a PhD researcher for structural safety and resilience.
This week, we interviewed Dr. Ramla Qureshi to gain an insight into her work, what it entails, and what she hopes it will bring for future Pakistanis in STEM.
Q1) What led you to choose engineering as a career?
The one word that completely captures my penchant towards engineering is “curiosity”. Growing up, my mother encouraged my curiosity by getting me books on scientific topics, and by always being receptive to my many thousands of questions. My sisters and I would often build our own toys, and often participate (and sometimes win) science competitions in our respective schools. I also had incredible role models actively involved in STEM fields; both my parents are doctors, two of my uncles are engineers. I grew up listening to their stories of healing rare diseases, of high-rise buildings and of building hydro-electric power plants.
Q2) What do you think are the causes of the wide gender gap in STEM in Pakistan?
There is no straight-forward answer to this question; and I do not wish to over-simplify the root causes of this gender gap. One basic reason is that from a young age, we take away the “tangible experience of science” from young girls. What I mean by this, is that even if a young boy is not an A-grade science student; he still will have more chances to have helped fix a car engine or other household appliances simply by virtue of the privilege his gender affords him in Pakistan. In STEM, having hands-on experience and having a chance to make and learn from mistakes is extremely important. While in Pakistan, up until grade 8th; girls outperform boys in science subjects; we don’t see the same trend getting mirrored in higher education or STEM careers – that’s because we don’t let young girls manifest the concepts they learnt in the textbook.
On the other hand, we also tend to instill a fear of math and physics in our girls. Our national science curriculum is jaded; and does not incorporate the various ways different people learn concepts.
Simultaneously, there is institutionalized negligence. We often do not see women in leadership positions in STEM fields in Pakistan. We often do not see women in the science and technology committees created by the government. This lack of representation takes away from local, identifiable role models from young girls. This lack of women leaders in STEM makes the position unattainable for many young girls.
There’s a whole different layer of cultural and traditional deficits that are not only within STEM, but in education overall – for example, parents tend to invest more in their sons’ education or vocation. Women and girls still do not hold an equal voice in their own basic human rights. Lack of financial independence also plays a significant role in opting out of career streams. I can go on and on, but the reality is that STEM in Pakistan needs a complete and total overhaul to come to par in the current world.
Q3) Is there still resistance to the idea of women in STEM?
Of course. For centuries, women in this part of the world have faced resistance in every domain; STEM is no exception. For many women entering STEM careers; there is extreme friction – from individual colleagues to the overarching institutional policies. For one, women have to prove their credibility in science every single time; something we call the “prove-it-again” syndrome. You could have a PhD in a certain field and still have a difficult time convincing your male colleagues you’re stating something correct; we call this “implicit or unconscious” bias. Just by virtue of being a woman, you are automatically labeled as inept – without getting to have a say in it.
On the other hand, it seems that STEM policy institutions are still unaware of the existence of women in the field. We still are advocating for female toilets in STEM companies in 2021! We still see female employees getting fired for taking maternity leaves. We’re still reading about women employees being termed as liabilities. There is so much work that has to be done, and it has to be done now.
Q4) What is Women Engineers Pakistan? What does it stand for?
Women Engineers Pakistan is a grassroots company that is working to get more women and girls involved in STEM. We work to motivate, train, recruit, and retain Pakistani women in STEM fields. We work with the agenda of putting ourselves out of business; i.e., we want to work so that soon there is no need for Women Engineers Pakistan.
Q5) Do you think that the science culture in Pakistan has evolved over the years?
I believe we are moving in the right direction; but we’re going quite slow. Also, we see a tech boom – which is an absolutely amazing thing; but for some reason we are ignoring hard sciences and hard engineering. What I mean by “hard sciences/engineering” is that while tech is a means to the end; the end has to be better engineered solutions – better infrastructure, better medicine, medine agriculture, better production, better life safety – and that requires better science. Not everything can be solved with an app – and we must remember that the end goal is better applied science.
Q6) How can countries like Pakistan develop a scientific mindset?
One thing that I often find myself saying is that pop culture will help bring about the scientific mindset. Growing up, my dream was to go on a science quiz on PTV. Now, I see no such things, no STEM- focused role models on TV, no science conversations, no science engagement in Pakistani pop culture. We most certainly, and very quickly need to change this narrative. Once we make science fashionable again, we’ll bring back the mindset as well. Science is a learned process; I don’t doubt we’ll succeed in it as Pakistan is an extremely young country (our median age is 22 years!), and we’re also a very intelligent, very adaptive community.
Q7) What measures should governments and institutes take to stimulate engagement in STEM, particularly for women?
First, recognize that there’s a dearth of women in STEM; then, get to work: Make databases of women leaders; then hand them back the mic. Get them to talk about their science, away from all political hullabaloo. Create better opportunities not just for women, but for all minorities. Make sure to do cause-analysis to see why there is lack of participation by women; then go to the root of the problem and solve it there. Provide teacher training; for teachers can make or break enthusiasm in STEM. Create policies that take into account the lived experience of women in STEM fields. Bring back the STEM-focused role models; bring back strong female leaders in pop culture. WEP is ready to help our government in every way possible!
Q8) Is there any message that you would give to the Pakistani youth?
For young girls; get rid of the fear you associate with failure. Give yourself the opportunity to make mistakes so you can learn to grow. Discomfort is a friend to learning.
For young boys; while most of you are respectful towards women, the onus of getting more women to participate in nation-building falls on you! Stop, think about toxic cultures; and realize that creating a peaceful, healthier society needs your active participation. Your silence as a privileged faction of society only adds to the problem. So when you see someone being discriminated against due to their gender, or religion, or language, or race, don’t be a silent bystander; even when the circumstances are “just a joke”.
We, at LOTP, are immensely grateful to Dr. Ramla Qureshi for providing us with her perspective, and acting as an inspiration to Pakistanis in STEM. Stay tuned for next week's interview!
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