When that picture appeared on the screen behind Dr Kirstin Ferguson at #CelebratingWomen event at Australia Post, I had the flashback of the day it was taken. I was 9 years old and just came back from my school, showing another picture to my father, which was taken at an award ceremony a few days earlier for being top of the class in fourth grade.
Giving a smile to my father and posing for the picture, I felt so proud of my achievements. Behind that smile was the story of how I worked so hard to achieve a milestone which meant a big deal to me.
I was listening to the speakers on how they were inspired by their mothers and grandmothers, one of them part of the suffragette movement. Coming from Pashtun ethnicity, my mother was not allowed to go to school. There was no glass ceiling for her to smash, she lived under the ceiling made of concrete. My father, on the other hand, was an exceptionally well educated and accomplished man. This is what the norm in Pashtun families was (and in some cases, still is).
Against all the patriarchal cultural codes, my parents supported my passion for education and did not force me to surrender to the predefined roles. Leaving Pakistan and coming to Australia in pursuit of higher education was not an easy decision. The journey was full of cultural and psychological barriers (very specific to being a woman).
When I saw the invitation on twitter to submit my profile for #CelebratingWomen I felt reluctant in doing so. It was after I saw some of my twitter fellows re-tweeting other women’s profiles, I started to reflect on what is it that I am afraid of? Well, the answer was not that difficult to find.
My PhD at the University of Technology Sydney was funded by a highly competitive Women in STEM award. Later I was a recipient of Google’s Anita Borg Women in Computer Science award. I remember being proud of myself just like I was when I was 9 years old. It was when I heard “someone (just one)” that “if it was only among women in IT and Engineering, considering their numbers, it wasn’t the real competition”. Sometimes it only takes one needle to burst your bubble of happiness. Women in STEM scholarships did help financially and opened the door of opportunity, but I had to do my research, write and defend my thesis, just like any other candidate. The comment was very unfair.
Within one year after graduating with a PhD in Software Engineering, I was offered a continuing position of Lectureship at the Swinburne University of Technology. This time I only celebrated my achievements with close friends but they spread the word. And yet from “another someone” I heard that “Oh the universities are currently desperate to increase the number of women faculty in IT and Engineering due to this ATHENA SWAN push”. Again, the institute would not select a woman just for the sake of gender equity numbers, the selection committee would prefer a female candidate if (and ONLY IF) she appeared to be equally qualified against a male candidate.
As a woman, if I compete with other women, it’s not a real competition, and if I am in an open competition with both men and women, my achievement is just a number to improve the statistics of gender equity for the institute. That is why it was difficult to celebrate my achievements. I know what I am capable of, but I was reluctant because I did not want to give anyone the opportunity to belittle my hard work.
I searched on Google to know more about this social media initiative and found an article in The Australian about Celebrating Women project.
It was inspiring to read about such a brilliant idea of Dr Kirsting Ferguson. But when I reached the comment section, that’s what made me think.
My 9 years old self knew better and didn’t care about anyone’s opinions. Luckily, Twitter was not around when I was young. Being top in my fourth grade may not have meant anything to the world, but it meant everything to me and my parents. All I could see was my father smiling at me behind the camera. I cannot even imagine how happy my mother would have been. That was what gave me the passion and motivation to move ahead in my pursuit of education all these years. And with that thought in mind, I submitted my profile. I didn’t care whether anyone would like it or not, I just wanted to ensure that I am going to be happy about what I have achieved.
A few days later, I saw a lot of notifications on Facebook that I am getting tagged in so many comments. When I checked, a lot of young girls who were my ex-students in Pakistan were commenting on the post. I didn’t remember all of their faces or names but felt elated and humbled.
We focus too much on the few negative comments that we forget all those who sincerely appreciate and applaud our achievements. I would like to thank Dr Kirstin for making us look at the brighter side and giving us all the opportunity to break our self-imposed barriers. As the panellists at the ceremony put it “Diversity is about being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” You don’t even have to wait for the invitation, the moment you hear the music, start dancing on your own. Dr Kirstin has already started the music of #CelebratingWomen for all the amazing women, whom I share my profile with.