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STEM in the U.K.: Perspectives from a Successful Female Engineer

Hind Saidani-Scott

Dr Hind Saidani-Scott is a senior lecturer in Mechanical engineering at Bristol University since 1994. She is the only female lecturer. Previously, she was a Royal Society Fellow at the Building Research Institute (BRI), Tsukuba city, Japan for 6 months (between August 1993 to January 1994); she was a research assistant and a PhD student in the EESU (Environmental Engineering Studies Unit) from 1988 to 1994, sponsored by the Algerian government.
From 1984 till 1987, she was a lecturer then a senior lecturer in the Physics, Engineering and Biophysics groups/departments in Algiers' largest university of science and Technology (USTHB).. From 1979 till 1984, she studied at the École Nationale Supérieure de Mécanique et d'Aérotechnique (ENSMA-Poitiers) as a recipient of a French government grant to study for an MsC and a Doctorate in engineering, after graduating , as the only woman of the 1979 fluid mechanics class from Algiers university of Science and technology. She was also the only female in the convection group at ENSMA-Poitiers, France. From 1975 till 1978, she studied
physics in Constantine University of Science and technology, a four year degree with the final year in Algiers.
Dr Hind Saidani-Scott speaks fluently three languages and was born and grew up in Constantine (the 3rd largest city in Algeria situated in the West of the country) during the Algerian war against the French (1954-1962). It was the most difficult times in Algerian history. However, it was the era which gave women opportunity to be educated due to the death of men and destruction of the family structure, with women taking responsibility of their life and of their children. This was the time of the most successful generation with nearly all women being educated and some going up to Doctorate level in Algeria and abroad.

Q: In the U.S., we often hear about the need to encourage more students, especially those who are women and ethnic minorities, to pursue careers in fields pertaining to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). How does the picture look in the U.K.? Is there a similar push?

Saidani-Scott: Similarly in the UK, a lot of small to medium activities are run at all levels to encourage girls and women to take up science, especially mathematics. Personally, I have been involved in some, through the Women Engineering Society (whom I am a member) and the meetings and discussions of regional colleges and schools All this is positive, but I am still waiting to see more female and ethnic minorities at the university level in engineering, especially mechanical.

Q: At one point you were a student who had to overcome incredible challenges to achieve your goals. Now, you are faculty. How has your perspective changed with respect to a career in a STEM field?

Saidani-Scott: I love science, mathematics, physics and engineering and wouldn't choose anything else if I could go back to my youth and, with all my present experiences, knowledge and challenges, was given the opportunity to do so. I love working in a STEM related environment despite the discrimination and racism I have been subjected to. It is sometimes very hard to be the only woman or/and minority in a group or in a department. The more I think about my student and lecturer situation, the more I know I couldn't have changed anything as there were no good procedures in place or an anti-segregation or anti-discrimination law when and if I wanted to complain. Therefore, due to my age and the era I was a student in, I just have to accept the existing "practices" or leave.

Q: Given your experiences in STEM, what advice would you give to a young person who is interested in pursuing a STEM career, particularly a young person who belongs to an underrepresented group?

Saidani-Scott: It does vary immensely from one country to another. If the university or school has a discrimination/segregation zero tolerance criteria and are sincerely thinking of improving and recruiting minorities and underrepresented groups, a young person will succeed easily as science, mathematics, physics and engineering are not difficult subjects (or equally difficult to both gender). The main advice I would give to a young person who wants to pursue a career in a STEM subject is to go for it and take all science subjects to A level or baccalaureate. It is challenging but rewarding. There are a lot of opportunities for science and engineering graduates (male and female) and it is full of fun.

Q: Do you think that female or minority scientists and engineers in the UK, face unique challenges in academia that impact their research and teaching activities?

Saidani-Scott: Yes, I sincerely think so. Being a minority from outside the UK with English not my native/first language and, more importantly, not used to "British culture" and education is even more challenging. In the UK, for any ethnic minority person to progress, he/she has to be part of the men's club. It could be social class system or university and school background. British women face challenges but nothing comparable to black and minority women. However, the common challenge faced by all women in science and engineering is the high administrative and teaching load, making their progression to higher levels very difficult.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your activities with the Women's Engineering Society with respect to broadening the participation of women in STEM fields?

Saidani-Scott: The Women Engineering Society of the UK is very active at all levels (from primary schools activities to Universities, plus the annual conference and prize giving). Their main message is that engineering, in all its forms, is where nation development lies. I have been a member of council in a very difficult time when there was an economical crisis and funds were very scarce (2008-2011). All the members are volunteers and their WES work and involvement is additional to their family/children commitments and sometimes to a very successful career. WES has been very involved in recruiting influential women scientists and engineers to speak to children, students and volunteer for mentoring. I met extraordinary women through my involvement with the WES and as said "a problem shared is a problem halved"; hopefully, one day, it will be "a problem shared is a problem solved".

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)