BREAKING STEREOTYPES

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Dr Muneera Bano has broken stereotypes. Coming from the Pasthun ethnicity in Pakistan with its strong patriarchal culture, she says, “Pashtun girls don’t have a glass ceiling over their heads, they literally have to blast the ceiling’. Take Malala Yousafzai, a Pashtun girl and winner of Nobel peace prize, who is an internationally known example for being targeted for her stance on girl’s education.
But having born and raised in Islamabad, Bano says she was blessed with the opportunity to education – something she never took for granted, considering that her own mother was denied access to education due to her gender. “Even in the capital of the country, the career options for a female student of science were limited. In order to break the stereotypes, I opted for Computer Science at Bachelors and Masters level. In 2012 I made the decision to pursue my PhD at University of Technology Sydney. My decision to pursue PhD in Australia without any male chaperon met with resistance, but I persisted,” she says.

Her persistence paid off. During and after her PhD, Bano received prestigious scholarships during different stages of her research career. She has been a finalist for the Google Australia’s Anita Borg Award for Women in Computer Science, Asia-Pacific 2015. She won the Schlumberger’s Award for Women in STEM for two consecutive years – 2014 and 2015. She was given the ‘distinguished research paper award’ at the International Requirements Engineering Conference held in Banff Canada in August 2018. And she has been announced as one of the Superstars of STEM for 2019–2020 by Science Technology Australia.

In September 2019, Bano was named as the overall winner of the inaugural 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australians Awards. As the award winner, she will join Sydney University for 13-15 Nov 2019 for Dr John Yu Fellowship for Cultural Diversity and Leadership. A passionate advocate of women in STEM, she has been selected as a member for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, of Science and Technology Australia.

By her own telling, Bano’s journey to Australia has been full of cultural, financial and psychological barriers. “It required persistence, resilience and sense of purpose to achieve my goal and make it to the spot where I stand today from amongst the female Pashtun diaspora.” In conversation with Dr Muneera Bano.

Your academic background and excellence are very impressive. Can you run us through where you began your schooling and how the career trajectory took shape?
My mother wanted me to study medical science (the only popular feminine profession for female science students in Pakistan) at the end of high school but I overheard a conversation that computer science was not intellectually suitable for girls so I decided that I would set an example for other girls and break stereotypes by studying computer science.
I did my Bachelors and Masters in Computer Science from International Islamic University Islamabad, Pakistan. I graduated from the Faculty of Engineering and IT, University of Technology Sydney in 2015 with a PhD in Software Engineering. After my PhD, I worked for a year as a Post-doctoral researcher and ‘Learning and Teaching Adjunct’ at the University of Technology Sydney. In August 2017, I joined the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology at Swinburne University of Technology, as a lecturer of software engineering. In November 2019, I moved to Deakin University, as a senior lecturer in software engineering.
While I may have originally started studying computer science to prove a point, I am well and truly hooked now. I feel like computing and technology offer creative opportunities that can push the boundaries of our imaginations and is fascinated by the digital world, which is its own universe, a creation of human genius, and by how it’s impacting the way we perceive our world.

What are you working on at the moment?
I work in various cross-disciplinary research domains that explore the impact of technology on different aspects of the society and it is important that the results of such research reach wider audience for awareness.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and Australian Council of Education Research, Australian students showed a gradual decline in their performance especially in the areas of STEM for more than a decade. This has prompted a strong push to go beyond the boundaries and use the technological solutions in order to improve students’ learning. One of my research streams is addressing this issue by analysing the use of mobile technology to help science and math students in ‘out of classroom’ learning environments.
Another research work that I am currently part of is analysing the hate-speech on Twitter in order to debate on the feasibility of using biased data from social media in machine-learning algorithms. It is important for the researchers in Data Science to understand the repercussions of the use of biased social-media data (which comes with every level of misogyny, racism, xenophobia and homophobia) in artificially intelligent systems, which will eventually exacerbate these biases in machine made decisions.

What aspects of your work do you think is the most pioneering for the future?
My academic job has three main areas; teaching, research, leadership and services.
In teaching, I teach both on undergraduate and post-graduate levels. The most interesting part of my teaching is supervising the ‘Final Year Projects’ of students with industrial clients where we train them to work on the real-world problems while improving their skills of collaboration and communication.
As a researcher, I work with both local and international researchers from various universities and I actively publish my research results in highly ranked journals and conferences. Recently I was given the ‘distinguished research paper award’ at the International Requirements Engineering Conference held in Banff Canada, in August 2018 for my work in educational pedagogies for requirements engineering education and training.
One of the important aspects for growth and promotion in academic job is to provide services to academic community and show leadership qualities. I choose my personal passion for being an advocate for gender equality for “Women in STEM” by becoming one of the Superstars of STEM for 2019-2020.

As Superstar of STEM for 2019-2020, how, in your individual capacity, do you plan to use your expertise as an influencer to address the gender gap in STEM?
My main areas of focus are mentoring and guiding other female international students who wish to have a career in similar fields to mine. Increasing cultural diversity in STEM is equally important to gender balance in these fields. Creating opportunities for all on the basis of merit and promoting intersectional diversity that represent the true multiculturalism of Australia is important for the advancement of STEM fields.

The most influential Asian-Australian under 40 title is a prestigious one. What do you plan to use your title to accomplish in the year ahead?
Being the overall winner of under 40 Asian-Australian award 2019 was a huge honour and a giant leap in my cause for inspiring other women in STEM. The award came with a prize of John Yu Fellowship at Sydney University for the training of “Cultural diversity and leadership”. This would be the first time I will be undertaking professional training for leadership. In November 2019, I was announced as one of the members of the inaugural committee on “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion” by Science and Technology Australia.

What advice would you give to a reader or the young generation to pursue a career like yours?
Australia is the land of opportunities. Seven years ago, I came as an international student from Pakistan, and with a sense of purpose and hard work, I was able to climb through the first steps of academic ladder and leadership. I would like other international students, especially females, to know that it’s possible to make your mark if you have the right desire and intention.
(As told to G’day India)