Asia: Shaking Up Tradition
Shazia Anjum is an inspiring example for young women in Pakistan. She was only three years old, living in Bahawarpur, when her father died. Her mother—who had little education and who worked as a clothes maker—struggled to bring up two young girls and was sad that she had no son to bring success to the family. But Shazia’s grandmother would not accept the situation, insisting that Shazia’s mom break with tradition—and risk her family’s opposition—by going to school and then working as a school teacher to allow her to bring up her two girls with dignity. Shazia then followed the wave of change and became the first girl in her family to live away from home, in a hostel, in order to attend high school. “My family is very religious—they never allowed girls to study much. So I had to prove myself better than a son. After me, it changed. Now I’m an example to them all and my mother is proud of me.”
Now an assistant professor at the International Centre for Chemical Sciences in Karachi, Shazia has a higher qualification, a Ph.D., than any of the boys in her family, and more publications than any other assistant professor at her research center.
"There has been great social change in the past 10 to 15 years. Girls are coming forward and are doing very well, getting into university on merit." Currently Shazia is doing two years further training in Canada, and plans to help her home country of Pakistan to become self-sufficient in the manufacture of affordable medicines.
Asia, with its kaleidoscope of different cultures, is seeing significant changes in the prospects for women scientists.
Shazia’s story reveals how attitudes have changed in Pakistan, as they have in other Asian societies. “I hope there will be a day when we will be known as scientists who also happen to be women, rather than women scientists,” laughs Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, the only female director of a national research laboratory under the science ministry in India—the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) in Gurgaon, near Delhi. But it may take many more years before her hopes become a reality across Asia.
"Generally speaking, the obstacles faced by women scientists are not due to unequal opportunities or skills. Rather, they stem from insufficient role models, and the lack of support for women who strive for a career and a family," according to Nancy Ip,Director of the Biotechnology Centre of Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology.
She has been a national celebrity since becoming the first Chinese scientist in the life sciences to receive a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award in 2004. “This was a major achievement in science for China and it received a lot of media coverage—I was on television and in the newspapers.” She often gives talks to encourage female students to pursue a career in science and her lab has become a magnet for young Chinese women aspiring to be scientists.
"They see that so long as they are persistent they can pursue their dream," Nancy enthuses.
Nancy’s children, a son and a daughter, were born only one year apart. “I was dedicated to my work but I also strived to spend time with my children whenever possible. Although I often missed seeing them perform at school, they cherished my effort to spend time with them. I’m sure all women scientists go through this. I believe that we can excel both in our scientific careers and in our roles as mothers.”
read more from science careers