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Women in Science: Bringing your culture to work

The Women in Science group has recently been established as a safe space for women in leadership positions within a science/technical related role in the UK.

The group provides an opportunity for its like-minded participants to share common challenges, offer support and guidance for one another and encourages the use of open communication channels to enable responsive and accessible contact.

Externally, the group represents credible and successful role models who are keen to be the figureheads in challenging the status quo, promote professionalism, share their experience and learnings and advocate the need to have women in positions of leadership and seniority across the board.

Nadira Hussain writes:

I’m Nadira Hussain, Chief Executive Officer of Socitm; the Society for innovation, technology and modernisation, a UK professional charitable network for leaders engaged in the innovation and modernisation of public services; a force for public good.

Being a Muslim woman of Asian heritage, it is a truly uplifting and a genuine privilege to lead a national and international organisation that works with its members, partners and key stakeholders to deliver better outcomes for people and communities in places.

It completely breaks the mold of the stereotypical type of individual who would historically and ordinarily lead such an society. This fact in itself should not be applauded as seniority and leadership are not dependent on who you are, and where you come from! Unfortunately though, even now, we experience limitations on the basis of these descriptors and traits rather than be accepted on the basis of our credibility, achievement and track record

South Asian heritage

I have always been clear that my identity; my heritage, culture, religious beliefs and values are really important to me. These components make me who I am; they define me. I am precious and proud of my eastern upbringing and the application of a western outlook in practice, having been born and bred in the UK.

But, even though these forces should be complementary and advantageous, there are of course tensions on a micro and macro level which mean that both culturally and professionally, it is difficult to manage the implications and outcomes of the interplay of these dynamics.

Traditional roles

Culturally and traditionally, Asian women are the homemakers. They have a duty and obligation to look after the young, the elderly and provide the comfort and sustenance of a home. The cohesion and support offered by living in this extended way across a family network definitely has its benefits, but it can also be a distraction from personal ambitions.

Throw into this ideal the desire to want to continue with personal development post-education, and then the opportunity to seek a career with the aspirations of progression… it becomes a very difficult and challenging situation to navigate through. It can be a very stressful time for women as they embark upon motherhood and consider how they may also fulfill their professional ambition. It can be even more distressing when culturally the expectation is to only focus on the family and its betterment.

I have personally navigated these unchartered waters; desperately keen to work, to gain professional experiences, explore opportunities where I can excel, improve and strive for greater success, with the backdrop and context of being the homemaker. It’s only sheer determination and grit that enabled me to continue to march forwards in this regard; fighting opposition, entrenched views and feelings of guilt. I have endured these complications whilst my family was growing up, and even now.

External pressures and prejudice

Externally and to add to the mix, I have personally experienced prejudice and believe that career progression opportunities have been slower for me through balancing personal and professional responsibilities, and as I haven’t typically fit the traditional model for such leadership roles.

Digital, data and technology (DDaT) is a very male dominated environment. As with the majority of professions and sectors, public sector and local government in particular, struggles to attract women into senior positions. I have constantly had to work harder, strive to develop additional skills, invest in personal development, avail as many opportunities as possible to demonstrate the breadth and transferability of my skills and experiences.

I can quote examples of where I have been ‘pipped to the post’ by the better male candidate. Really? What if we genuinely concentrated on attitude rather than aptitude? A willingness to learn, grow and develop (with the core competencies and some relevant experiences) puts women in better stead to break the poor confidence and self-limiting beliefs that many can uphold.

Nadira’s recommendations

In response to my personal experiences there are several recommendations that I would make;

  1. Openness
    I made a conscious decision very early on that I would openly share my personal challenges: be explicit about the cultural demands and provide an insight into how I have managed to steer through life’s complexities as per my ‘east meets west’ experiences. I’ve been really keen to bring my culture to work, and do so openly. It is vital that raising awareness with regards to the nuances and uniqueness about ourselves is paramount to increasing understanding, appreciation and gaining support from others. Not doing so creates ambiguity, can foster mistrust and develop differences.
  2. Sponsorship
    It is key to seek sponsorship where possible; proactively identifying individuals to act as your cheer leaders and champions. I have found that it has been my brilliant sponsors (both men and women) that have helped me to secure progressive and novel opportunities, especially as a woman in tech.
  3. Allyship and advocacy
    Equally important, and probably often overlooked, is the benefit associated with creating allies that will act as keen advocates even though they are unfamiliar with the personal details, but feel passionately about the cause. They want to see successful outcomes and will offer the necessary support and commitment. Go seek them out.
  4. Resilience and focus
    I believe the recipe of building resilience, focusing on health and wellbeing and remaining steadfast to my mission has been paramount. Keep focused and determined to succeed.

No compromise

There is no compromise on my personal values and beliefs; I have to be true to myself. I need to be authentic. There is no room for pretence. It’s a fine balancing act – personal and professional lives is a complete compromise; what is absolutely key is managing the competing expectations and demands and ensuring that the people around you understand your motivation and ambition. I have openly had to communicate ‘what good looks like’ for me and will always continue to do so.