Women in STEM in Tunisia and the US: Interplay between professional opportunities and cultural legacy

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Tunisia is considered one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East and North Africa when it comes to women’s rights and gender issues, thanks first to Tahar Haddad, and later to Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia.

Growing up in Tunisia, my parents, my male and female professors and mentors always encouraged me, like any other student, to follow my dreams. I didn’t think twice before I chose my major or considered the future ahead; I never worried about reconciling my career choices with being a woman. The idea that certain professions were “good for women” while others were not, never occurred to me. Nearly 50% of those in Tunisia working in STEM are women.  As a child, I remember seeing the advertisments on TV showing the first Tunisian women pilots, women soldiers or women scientists, and various documentaries on women in the workforce in Tunisia. I myself was member of a Youth Science club.

This trend has continued to the present day, and since my time as a student dedicated groups for women in STEM have been growing in number. Examples are (but not limited to): Technovation Tunisia, Tunisia Techwomen and Techwomen and Women’s Entreprise for Sustainability, among others.

When compared to Europe and the US, however, some of the cultural attitudes in Tunisia remain relatively conservative. Most coffee shops, gaming centers, and drinking establishments are “men only” by custom, even if they’re not so by law. Young women’s social lives typically fall under more scrutiny by their family and neighbors than those of their male peers. Tunisian single women are much less likely than men to travel outside of Tunisia for education or for career advancement. More importantly, most Tunisian women still feel pressure to prioritize marriage and starting a family over pursuing careers and personal dreams, and arranged marriages are still a common occurrence.

Overall, we grew up with the impression that, even though legally and socially the situation of women was up to par in our country, there was room for progress to be made with regards to cultural attitudes about gender, especially compared to “Western” societies. It was only natural to assume that the advantages women had in the “West” in general, would be reflected in “western” STEM environments as well.

Since then, I have worked in France, Japan and the US, and was frequently surprised to notice that women in STEM and in the workforce in general in these countries did not always have it better than women in Tunisia did.

In the US, I am surprised by the purely cultural obstacles faced by women in STEM. Women report feeling like they have to walk a tightrope: they cannot act “too feminine” if they wanted to be taken seriously, and yet they are perceived as “bossy and too aggressive” if they show assertiveness, directness, or “typically  masculine behavior”. Many also speak of a fear of mentioning their kids, and avoid keeping pictures of their kids at their desks, for fear of being “mommy tracked”. Then of course there is the wage gap between men and women, in many professional occupations, including in STEM.

I have never had to face any of these obstacles during my time as a scientist in Tunisia (although I still didn’t have kids at the time). I never felt that acting feminine would cause my colleagues to take me less seriously, nor was I ever worried about being perceived as pushy and aggressive by my male peers. My friends and ex-classmates who are now working mothers active in STEM in Tunisia have never mentioned any fears of being “mommy tracked”. If anything, traditional Arab attitudes towards motherhood and family made it easier for them to achieve work life balance, as a Tunisian manager or department head would never object to a woman leaving early to pick up her kids up from school or working from home to tend to a sick family member.

Many women I know in science and engineering in the US put off having children until they are secure in their careers. I’ve even come across those in academia who’ve deliberately waited until they achieved tenure before having their first child. In Tunisia, on the other hand, many women don’t hesitate about having their first child while still in graduate school, and this is seen as perfectly acceptable by their colleagues and supervisors – again traditional attitudes about prioritizing family over career end up working to the advantage of young women scientists.

This is not to say that the situation is perfect in Tunisia – as I mentioned above, some young women do feel social and family pressure to prioritize finding a husband over career goals. Nor is it desperate in the US – indeed progress is being made: in the US, several firms are implementing systems to improve gender diversity and create women and mother friendly work environments, and various women in science and business associations are in place to help women with the challenges they will faces in their STEM careers.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that conservative cultural attitudes occasionally end up working in favor of women in STEM in Tunisia, instead of against them.

 

Imen Elloumi Hannachi

Seattle, WA, USA
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