A Dubai school has plenty to celebrate this International Day of Women and Girls in Science today. Its science department comprises an all-female teaching staff.
Many people may expect greying men in lab coats tinkering around in the science department, but at GEMS International School (GIS), the science team is made up of women teachers and instructors only.
They are led by head-of-the-department Tanja Kolarov, who specialises in biology and integrated sciences.
‘I fell in love with science’
“As a small child, I used to sit on the white desks of my grandfather’s pharmaceutical lab and watch him make creams and shampoos for my sister and myself. This is where I fell in love with science. My background is in biochemistry, with a deep interest in genetics. Genetics and the ability to change genetic information fascinate me,” said Kolarov, who has been at GIS for four years.
She added that science has “always been a male-dominated profession”. Women scientists have been around, Kolarov said, but had to work really hard to get acknowledged. “Women have to empower other women. My mother always said that if you set your mind to it, you can do anything. With STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths] being an equal-opportunities field, more and more women are joining the science profession and wanting to teach science to promote it amongst girls.”
The UAE’s Minister of State for Advanced Technology is a young woman, Sarah Al Amiri. Still in her early 30s, Al Amiri is also the chairperson of the UAE Space Agency and credited with leading the country’s Mars mission, which on Tuesday achieved the rare success by inserting the Hope Probe into Martian orbit to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere in unprecedented detail.
At GIS, chemistry teacher Hiba El Majzoub has witnessed “an exponential increase” in girls’ participation in STEM in recent times. “We need to have a paradigm shift as there is a misconception around this career being a mostly male domain of work. Yet, throughout history, numerous female scientists have had valuable contributions to science and to the industry as well,” she said.
Once such scientist, her favourite, is Marie Curie, the only woman to win Nobel prizes in two sciences (chemistry and physics). El Majzoub’s favourite subject, of course, is chemistry. She said: “Chemistry is a central and pivotal experimental science that supports our deeper understanding of our biological systems as well as our physical environment. This is why chemistry is the foundation for many disciplines such as medicine, biological and environmental sciences, engineering, and materials.”
GIS science teacher Hoda Alawady said the lack of female representation in STEM occupations is “quite debatable”. She explains: “Although science is one of the fields that is dominated by males, this is currently changing dramatically. More female students are choosing to study science for many reasons. Young girls are now exposed to STEM subjects and are encouraged to study science in schools and higher education. Teachers strive to create environments that are equally appealing to females and males. With more women in the field, young girls are able to recognise the career opportunities open to them. This encourages girls to earn more college and graduate degrees and pursue a science career.”
Fellow science teacher Sangita Thakrar teaches chemistry, biology and physics up to grade 10. She said women have to work hard to fit into all-male or majority-male departments. This extra effort has led to a dividend. “Many female scientists have to blaze their own trail and become pioneers in their own field. This does, however, allow for more creativity,” said Thakrar. She is currently following the work of Tiera Guinn Fletcher, 22-year-old MIT graduate working for Nasa as a rocket structural analyst. “She is a relatable inspiration to all the young aspiring scientists, especially girls,” added Thakrar.
The GIS science team also includes physics teacher Priti Suresh. Reacting to a query on whether more and more girl students were opting for science studies and also whether more and more women were opting to teach science, Priti said: “It is encouraging to see more women as science educators in recent times. However, a lot of young girls are still reticent to pursue a career in science owing to decades of gender-biased conditioning that a profession in the sciences requires longer work-hours and tougher working conditions. On a positive note, the last few years have seen substantial encouragement from educators across curricula from primary school through high school, in addition to a host of universities offering scholarships and waivers to further the role of women in science.”