The allies within

There should not be any debate on why we need more women in our committees and among our faculty


Muhammad Hamid Zaman February 04, 2020
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

I live and work in a country where I am a minority — both based on the colour of my skin, and my faith. Over the years, numerous people who were born in privilege have helped me and opened doors for me to be successful. They did it not because they expected anything in return, or because they were doing me a favour — but because they believed in a more equitable world, where gender, ethnicity and sect should not matter.

The issues of sexism, bias and exclusion in academia in the US are acute, disturbing and in need of serious attention. While the US academia has a very long way to go, it is not the only place where women face barriers erected by the privileged. At a recent workshop in Lahore, with a focus on Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) — there were a series of serious issues raised that continue to affect entrance, retention and professional growth of women in science in Pakistan. The list of urgent issues that need to be addressed was long and disturbing — it included snide remarks of male colleagues and general lack of sensitivity, a hostile environment for growth, lack of mentorship and role models, lack of facilities for nursing mothers, issues associated with privacy, professional and networking meetings organised at times that were unsuitable for women who were also expected to solely bear the burden of cooking and childcare after they came back from work. But beyond these barriers there was an even bigger problem that was presented at the workshop — while there were very few women among faculty, those who were part of the academic staff were often excluded from key committees that would decide budget, hiring, promotion and vision of the institution.

All of this is deeply disturbing and completely unconscionable. In this day and age, there should not be any debate on why we need more women in our committees and among our faculty, and why we need to strive towards a truly inclusive academic environment. The only question to ask is how do we get there? Here, I want to go back to the argument of privilege and allies. I say this with a recognition of my own privilege — as a male member of the academic community, I have never faced the myriad of challenges that my female colleagues face on a daily basis. But my own experience as a minority has been positive because there were others who looked beyond privilege and focused on inclusion. The same needs to happen at our academic institutions in Pakistan. It should no longer be acceptable to have committees and panels that are composed solely of men. It should not be OK to disregard the real challenges women face in our society during faculty and staff recruitment. Not having daycare facilities on campus should be unacceptable. Not having any women in a leadership position should not even be an option.

For all of this we need to build a coalition of allies — people who care about what is right. Just as there are many men who would do anything to maintain the status quo of patriarchy, there are quite a few who are frustrated and angry at the exclusionary practices that are rife in academia. These men have to stand up and challenge the system. The university can often be a leader and set an example that is followed elsewhere in the professional institutions around the country. The university leadership has to make a firm and unwavering commitment to create an environment where the university represents the society and its demographics in all of its units and functions. It is not a liberal or conservative position — it is a reflection of our social statistics.

Gender parity should not be seen as a nice thing to do, but the right thing to do.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2020.

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