Young leaders plan next steps towards gender equity

Had someone hacked our Zoom call and heard Cameron Keighron say: “My ideas and opinions will be instantly seen as more important than they were eight years ago,” the hacker would likely have assumed that the PhD student in electrophysiology was recalling the first-year university student’s lament.

But Keighron was not referring to the status that accrued from eight additional years of study at National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway). Rather, eight years ago, Keighron’s ideas were dismissed because the Christian name on the class register next to Keighron was female.

“The automatic privilege that you get when you walk into a classroom looking like me now is a bizarre experience,” says the bearded Irishman who was born female and is transitioning. “By looking how I look, I have assumed way more privilege than I did when I started college.”

Living as a non-binary person who is responded to as a male makes it easy to “see how that misogynist culture breeds in a classroom” and how the classroom becomes a space of privilege that dismisses women.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Keighron and ten other participants who hail from Kenya, Sudan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan will meet virtually at the Talloires Network’s Next Generation Leaders conference, to be held from 30 September to 3 October, to discuss recent developments in gender equity and to share their plans for future initiatives, including those necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Dayna Lee Cunningham, dean of Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, told University World News: “We are deeply inspired by students around the world who are shaping the strategic direction of the university civic engagement movement.”

She said they have been meeting regularly this year to critically explore issues of gender equity in their respective societies with one another – and they will present their knowledge, methods and life experiences during the conference.

“They were selected to participate because they are making meaningful change on the ground now. We look forward to working with them after the conference to build a promising future together,” said Cunningham.

Drastic changes

The context in which each of the participants work to improve gender equity differs greatly and, in the case of Sarah Alharthey, who lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, also differs from Western stereotypes.

The situation for women in Saudi Arabia has changed drastically in the past decade, says Alharthey, who took both her bachelor degree in electrical and computer engineering and her masters in renewable energy engineering from Effat University in Jeddah.

While still a student at the only Saudi university where a woman could study to become an engineer, Alharthey was president for women in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers chapter with a mission to support women who wanted to become engineers. Among other activities, the chapter mounts workshops to teach the soft skills necessary for employment.

After graduating in 2016, she was one of the first 20 women elected to the Saudi Council of Engineers. It accredits engineers and allowed her to develop a network with other female engineers, who post job opportunities and support each other’s careers.

In 2017, the year Western media concentrated on the fact that women had been granted the right to drive, the promulgation by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Vision 2030, which foresees Saudi Arabia as an “investment powerhouse” and “epicentre” of trade, opened up a number of areas of the economy for women.

For Alharthey, two parts of the plan were especially important. The creation of an employment code for female engineers triggered a sea change in the private sector’s attitude towards them.

“Now, they want to recruit more women engineers because of their reputation for being ethical, doing the job at their best. Actually, women engineers are being head-hunted,” says the engineer whose first job was with Riyadh’s mass transit construction project.

Further, Vision 2030 pledges that 50% of the kingdom’s energy will come from renewable sources such as hydrogen. Alharthey works on one such project.

The subject of Alharthey’s presentation at the conference, however, is significantly less high-tech. It will focus on how rural women are affected by climate change and how indigenous practices used by women in Saudi Arabia in, for example, irrigation, can be adapted for use elsewhere.

Keighron’s point about women being invisible is also true in the realm of international aid, as evidenced by what Ilaf Nasreldin told me.

Every year when the Nile floods, tens of thousands of Sudanese people are displaced, and international aid organisations send food and clothing. But “they ignore that women have periods and need sanitary products”, says Nasreldin, who is working on her masters in gender, development and peace studies at Ahfad University for Women in Sudan.

Without sanitary products, these desperately poor women use rags, which are often washed in dirty water, leading to infections in a population without the resources to seek medical care. Later, she told me that the lack of sanitary products effectively means that for one week a month large numbers of women “who live on a day-to-day income basis” are unable to earn money.

Nor do aid organisations put money into the hands of the women who actually care for young children. Rather, in line with the rubric of Sudan’s patriarchal society, donors “usually go to the men because they are the people who have the decision-making power in the house and decide where to allocate the money”.

By researching topics relating to gender-based violence, AMNA (an organisation that works to combat violence against women, which Nasreldin co-founded) ignored the taboo against examining Sudanese society through a gender equity lens, which conservatives claim is an attempt to ‘Westernise’ the north-eastern African country.

The rise in domestic violence during lockdowns that AMNA found accorded with findings from Europe and North America. But while the lockdown measures the government put in place applied to both men and women, men ignored them with relative impunity.

And, since the nation’s ongoing economic crisis meant that the government could not provide income support to extremely poor women, some, as heads of households, had no choice but to keep working, often selling things on the street.

“These women did not have masks or sanitisers,” says Nasreldin, “or even basic awareness of how COVID-19 spreads to the extent it can jeopardise their safety and the safety of their loved ones.”

Nasreldin’s plans include upscaling AMNA (which means ‘safe’ in Arabic and in Sudan is often used as a woman’s name) to operate across Sudan. Referring to Sudan’s long history of civil wars, she says: “The masters I am doing will be really helpful to me in working with women’s groups in peace-building and women in good governance.”

Three thousand miles to the south, in Nairobi, Kenya, Patrick Oyenga, a master of science student in research methodology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, has watched as the COVID-19 crisis has thrown up new barriers to women’s higher education.

While the number of women enrolled has remained stable, their attendance has dropped off. Unlike the male students, Oyenga explains, “women’s families deny them that freedom to decide, and thus they wait for approval to go back to school.”

Persistent barriers to women’s education are rooted in rural poverty and the more conservative form of Islam practised in Kenya’s north-east. While educating girls and women is widely accepted in the nation’s larger cities, poverty-stricken families in the countryside “marry off the girls instead of educating them”, he told University World News.

Attitudes differ in urban areas, Oyenga says, as “city residents believe that education is for self-reliance” and the Muslim community in Nairobi believes this also.

Similarly, while in the country’s north-east, in accordance with a more traditional understanding of the Koran, “women cannot hold certain positions like that of being a Kadhi [Muslim court judge], in Nairobi there is no problem with a woman being a Kadhi”.

Oyenga was clearly proud that three of his professors are women and that 75% of the university’s tutors are female. Muslim students from more conservative areas of Kenya are considerably less pleased, he suggests.

“It is evident that some male Muslim students despise female lecturers. Some are openly heard saying that they cannot be corrected by a woman even if they are wrong,” he says.

As founder and CEO of Communis Minds Research and Community Resource (CMRCR) Initiative, which operates across Kenya, Oyenga is now focused on combating unemployment among recent university graduates.

CMRCR partners with businesses to understand what skills recent graduates need to find a job in their field. The programme is especially important for women because they often do not enter the job market directly after graduation, a situation exacerbated by the dislocations to the economy caused by COVID-19.

“After graduation, most women get back to the care of their parents and thus lack the networking for employment. This is contrary to their male counterparts who get to urban centres through greater established links while in the university,” he says.

The only speaker from the Americas at the innovations in gender equity session of the conference is 24-year-old Keila Zurisadai Contreras Santos, who next month starts her masters in impact of social innovation entrepreneurship at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estuios Superiores de Monterrey in Mexico, where she did her BA in biotechnology engineering, with a focus on social innovation and molecular biology.

She has been active in women’s social development for almost a decade and a half. At 10 years old, Contreras Santos organised a programme to help 50 children in extreme poverty train for and attend the International Mathematical Olympiad, funding her efforts by food sales and government and business donations.

At 17, she organised an art gallery where the paintings were paired with literacy workbooks produced by the painters. “As people learned to read and write, they learned about the cultural richness of contemporary authors,” says Contreras Santos, who attended university on a (full) Lideres del Manana scholarship.

While working on her BA, she founded Aliyel en Libertad, a home for traditional midwives in one of the most violent parts of the Americas, Cruz Chen, Tenejapa in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The design of the building that houses Aliyel en Libertad reflects Contreras Santos’ commitment to developing indigenous architectural solutions. Equally important is what the building’s very presence represents.

“The house signifies women’s power. It is made by midwives. You see the development of women in the community,” she says.

Women’s status, Contreras Santos told University World News, differs greatly between Mexico’s north and south. In the north, where Mexico City and Monterrey are, women are expected to work hard at school and go on to university.

The south is much poorer and more traditional. Both social mores and the Catholic Church tell women to dedicate themselves first to babysitting – instead of studying and being independent – then to marriage and having children.

“Society teaches that women do not have a voice, so it’s a vicious cycle that generates emotional and other sorts of violence against women,” she says.

Next steps towards equity

The other participants at the Talloires Network innovations in gender equity session of the conference can look toward Keighron’s NUI Galway in Ireland to see many of the next steps their universities will take on the road to gender equity.

Three years ago, NUI Galway approved the Gender Identity and Gender Expression Policy, developed collaboratively by NUI Galway’s equality, diversity and inclusion office and Keighron and several other trans folk. Among other things, the policy allowed trans students to change their names on university documents such as class registers and e-mail addresses.

In 2019 NUI Galway put in place a maternity leave and pregnancy policy (that provides a pathway for women to access support services) as well as a training programme on how to support trans folks.

The Active Consent workshop was incorporated into orientation last year. According to Keighron, the programme’s scenarios show students what consent means in different situations: “This is what consent is. This is how you notice what consent is.”

The COVID crisis revealed how scheduling was another largely gender-based barrier to higher education, Keighron told University World News. Since many creches were closed and many female students were caring full-time for their children and, possibly, sick elderly parents or siblings, the university professors recognised the need for flexibility in scheduling classes.

“I think this has started a wider conversation now as we return to class about how to support these students,” says Keighron.

There is much more gender equity work to do, Keighron told me. Referring to an accounting textbook with examples that say the woman is a stay-at-home mom and the father is an engineer, we discussed textbooks and lecture examples that run afoul of his favourite aphorism (from Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the US-based Children’s Defense Fund): “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

On par with not seeing themselves in their course materials are female students who report remaining silent in class either because the lecturer doesn’t call on women or because an overbearing male classmate “contradicts everything they say”.

Given his obvious love for his subject and research, perhaps the most surprising gender issue Keighron raised concerned the grind of the graduate student.

“We’ve created a system that pats itself on the back first for being inclusive by the numbers of women or minorities enrolled. It then expects students to work sometimes 20 hours a day Monday through Sunday. Finally, the system congratulates itself for graduating the 1% to 2% who come out of the end, without having provided, for example, child-care support.

“This is a system designed for winners, for celebrating surviving what many describe as an awful four years,” he says. As it is, we end up “celebrating suffering”.