Noushin Mahmood: Helping women join STEM Fields

From an article on MSU Today.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, but are very much underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Only 39 percent of chemists, 28 percent of environmental scientists, 16 percent of chemical engineers and 12 percent of civil engineers are women.

Growing up in Bangladesh, media and information student Noushin (“Sus”) Mahmood often saw girls being oppressed and discouraged when trying to pursue higher education and careers in STEM fields. This observation, which also carried over into the U.S., soon became a lifelong passion, inspiring Mahmood to conduct research on ways to combat the issue. She then presented her findings at ComArtSci’s ”Say it in Six” presentations this October.

A Trip to Tanzania

In 2017, Mahmood studied abroad in Tanzania on the ICT for Development trip, furthering her inspiration on her research project. While there, she was able to work with two separate high schools, studying the reasons behind why girls avoid STEM fields for their higher-level studies.

“I wanted to propose some solutions that the schools could do to change that,” said Mahmood. “I always wanted to work for women’s education and empowerment and I thought it'd be a great opportunity for me.”

Mahmood notes that Jennifer Olson, associate professor of media and information, was particularly helpful throughout the research process. Olson was Mahmood’s study abroad program leader and acted as a guide for Mahmood, as she hadn’t had any previous experience with conducting research.

“We worked together and came up with a strategy of how she could get some data to understand the problem,” said Olson. “[Mahmood] had to interview groups of high school students in Tanzania and was pretty gutsy about it since English isn't their language.”

Fellow MSU student Agnes Ntapara helped Mahmood in overcoming this language barrier, as she herself is from Tanzania. Ntapara would translate Mahmood’s questions to the high school students and teachers and, in turn, would help translate each answer.

Keeping an Open Mind

Mahmood found a variety of reasons why there was a lack of women in STEM fields. In Tanzania, girls are discouraged to join them from an early age. Cultural norms and stereotypes play a large role in this issue.

“Tanzanian society, especially in rural areas, has very defined roles for men and women,” said Mahmood. “Women are supposed to stay home and take care of the kids, whereas men are supposed to go out and work.”

These gender roles act as obstacles for women entering STEM fields. They made Mahmood realize just how important it is to keep an open mind and be respectful towards others.

“When doing work in a country or a society which might be very different from your comfort zone, people don't understand what is appropriate or not,” said Mahmood. “People might be very different than you, but no one should judge anyone on the basis of their own perception.”

Finding New Solutions

In terms of solving the overall problem, Mahmood had a variety of ideas. She knows that many things need to change in order for more women to enter STEM fields.

“Teachers can make sure that in a computer club session, the access will be equally distributed between girls and boys,” said Mahmood. “Also, schools can make computer classes compulsory for all. Then, they can start parent-teacher conferences to make parents more aware of female education in STEM.”

Though both difficult and eye-opening, Mahmood’s favorite part of her research was getting to meet a handful of students in Tanzania. She was moved by what they had to say and the positivity they expressed, despite the challenges they face.

“Some rural girls face so many obstacles, but their dreams and hard-working attitudes are very inspiring,” said Mahmood. “Going to Tanzania was a thought-provoking experience for me. It was quite different from the lifestyle we see in the U.S., but kind of similar to the lifestyle I saw in Bangladesh. I think those unique differences in cultures, yet also some similarities, made the trip enjoyable."