My Mission to Empower Women in STEM
I witnessed extreme gender disparities early in my not-so-ordinary childhood, an experience that enabled me to quickly recognize the barriers faced by women and minorities in science. I was born to teenage parents in April 1984 in Paris, France. In October of the same year, my father became a single parent, tasked with raising me while finishing high school and undergoing intensive training as a student-athlete. Shortly after, I was sent to his country of origin, Morocco, to live with his family for a couple of months while he was competing internationally.
In Morocco, my father’s family owned a pharmacy and would travel the country for months to distribute extra medical stocks and provide free emergency care. Their volunteering project grew quickly and before I turned five, their medical help expanded to Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali, countries that desperately needed access to healthcare. I spent months at a time in these countries, learning the local language and making lifetime friendships with children my age.
Through this experience, I quickly realized that women faced profound gender inequalities in these countries. Limited access to education, medical care, financial dependency, and lack of decision-making power made them dreadfully vulnerable.
There was no escaping from the utterly obvious reality that in these countries, women were considered of a lower rank in society, and for the majority of them, life was bound to a destined fate. I shared an entire childhood and countless memories with little girls who had the same dreams and hopes as I did, and there was no plausible explanation as to why an entire society would not only accept, but also promote such an unjust imbalance between men and women.
Moving back to France just before the age of eleven felt like stepping into a time machine, fast-forwarding through several decades of civil rights movements. However, while women could freely express their opinions and decide for themselves, I was not convinced this present society treated men and women equally.
At school, my science teacher did not dedicate the same amount and quality of attention as he did to boys. The physics instructor advised me to partner up with boys because they “tend to be better than girls” and the chemistry teacher would continuously repeat it was “okay to fail at the exams, girls are just not good at it.”
In high school, I chose to play soccer, but was told I would hurt myself and would be better off watching the games and supporting my male friends. The unconscious belief that women are not capable individuals was still perceptible. Unlike the blatant disparity in Africa, this gender bias presented itself in an almost invisible and discreet way. I was not forbidden to do things, physically threatened or mentally oppressed, instead, I was continuously told what I could and could not do, who to become and how to behave.
Surely enough I would have followed these silent rules, if not for my stubbornness and determination. I was driven to become a scientist to think critically, evaluate things rationally, and build unbiased opinions.
My scientific journey in a male-dominated environment reinforced my desire to help create a more inclusive environment for women of all backgrounds, minorities, and underrepresented ethnic groups. As scientific research is intrinsically dependent on human resources and ingenuity, it is absolutely essential that all genders, races and ethnicities are equally involved. I do not currently possess immediate solutions to create a fully inclusive and bias-free environment, but I believe communicating openly about these issues is a first step in creating a more diverse community.
I am committed to continually educating myself and my students on diversity-related issues. I am hopeful that one day, every science classroom and research lab will be filled equally with boys and girls of diverse ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, where everybody will feel welcome and deserving of the same opportunity.
It is our responsibility as women in STEM to foster such an environment and I consider it a privilege to do my part.