Q&A: ‘Let’s first ask what women scientists want’

Rana Dajani
Copyright: Image courtesy of Rana Dajani

Speed read

  • MENA women scientists fare better than stereotypes about region suggest
  • Measures to improve retention overlook the range of scientists’ real desires
  • Men and women need measures of success other than money, seniority

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Contrary to stereotypes, women scientists often fare better in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) than they do in other parts of the world, says Rana Dajani, a biologist from Hashemite University in Jordan. Statistics from the OECD, from UNESCO and elsewhere show high percentages of women in scientific fields.
The picture of gender inequality is complex and has deep historical roots globally, she says.
Dajani, who recounts how she came to carve a niche in world-class science in an article published this week in Nature Middle East, has won multiple international honours, both for her contributions to genome-wide association analyses of disease and for her broader influence as an Arab woman in science and education advocate. A book she wrote about gender equality and notions of success, which charts her personal journey, was published earlier this summer.

SciDev.Net spoke to her about misconceptions around gender inequality, and how measures to boost the numbers of women in science are missing a key piece of the puzzle.   
You believe that gender inequality in science isn't a problem specific to MENA or the developing world, though it's often assumed to be. Can you explain that?
In general people look at [regional] statistics in isolation from the world statistics. They see that you have less women in academia [in MENA] for example; and they say this is because they're oppressed, it's because of religion, it's because of culture and so on. However, if we compare the statistics in MENA to the statistics for women in science in the whole world, or specifically for ‘developed countries’, we find that our numbers are not worse — if not even better.
In the Arab Jordanian context — I teach in the faculty of science, pharmacy, and allied health sciences — all of them [are] over 70 per cent female. And in biology it's 90 per cent.

“The way we look at success is only one version — how much you earn, how senior you are. And this is a very masculine way of looking at the world.”

Rana Dajani

This [inequality] is a more fundamental problem, much deeper historically, and didn't happen in the MENA region in isolation of other [countries].
So that’s what the figures say. What about attitudes between colleagues for example?
In Arab countries the attitudes, the complaints [from women] are similar to [what] you hear in the US and Britain and Europe. It's in terms of competition, not equal opportunity, men's clubs.
On top of that, many female scientists have said that although they feel there [are] sometimes not equal opportunities in the Arab world, they did not feel oppressed by their colleagues until they went to the West. There's some kind of respect for women in the Arab countries — and I'm speaking [about attitudes] in the workplace. It's very subtle things… there's more respect for a female as she is, and I think even more of her role in society. So for example, even at MIT — I was there a month ago — [women] were complaining that if they wanted to breastfeed there was no place to go [at the workplace]. In Jordan, if a woman is pregnant and she needs time off, all her male colleagues will respect that.
Let's talk about the more general obstacles that any woman might face. Do you think that lack of retention is one of them?
Yes and no… Many reports [show] that even after you introduce [measures such as maternity leave or flexible hours], that doesn't necessarily translate into increased retention in the workplace. So there's something else going on.
I think that we're asking the wrong question. Rather than asking ‘how can we retain even more women?’, let's first ask what women want. Not every woman necessarily wants to be a senior leader or a full professor. So although [it’s] very important to make sure there's equity, there's good opportunities, I'm arguing that traditionally, there has been only one definition of success. To me, the way we, as a society, look at success is only one version, [a] kind of capitalistic version—which is how much you earn, how senior you are. And this is a very masculine [way] of looking at the world.
There could be other definitions of success that women may see. But even men themselves — who said they're all the same? It's more about helping humans identify their passions, giving them the right training, the freedom to pursue what they want. This may not translate [to] more women in science. It's about having the right people, in the right place, with equal opportunity.
I don't want to be misunderstood [as saying] companies don't have to do anything about equal opportunity. It's [about] working on both sides.

How should we go about promoting this different definition of success?
One, you have to educate — for people to really know what they want, you have to expose them to everything. You have to make sure they have the skills to pursue [it]; to have the courage, the identity and the confidence to say 'this is what I want regardless [of society]'.

Second, [you have] to work on society’s respect [of] others for whatever they choose. How do we actually do this in practice? Two ways: one is having more role models of different versions of what success looks like — the only role model we see is a successful business person who earns a lot of money. There's no role model that puts value on, say, social [contribution]. And two, mentoring — I help empower [young people] to think on their own.
What advice would you give a young woman scientist who looks to you as a role model?
I would tell her to find out where her passion lies, and to trust herself and have confidence in herself to pursue that passion regardless of the society around her. And that nothing's impossible; you will achieve what you want if you really want it in the long run; to be patient.
I wanted to be a scientist and didn't get the chance until I was 30 to go towards my PhD. The dream was there, cooking slowly, until the right time. Just find your passion, and follow it, and things will work out.
And my advice to scientists, to the whole community, is to trust women. Society doesn't trust women enough — they always assume that they know better what is good for a woman. The more we trust women, the better we'll be.
This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.