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University supports closing the gender gap in science

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Published on Tuesday, 11 February 2020

11 February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, designed to raise awareness for gender gaps in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). In the academic year 2018/2019, 1689 students were enrolled at the Faculty of Science, Technology and Medicine (FSTM) of the University of Luxembourg. 541 (32%) of those were women.

While gender gaps remain, the University of Luxembourg celebrates its female students and staff and encourages more women to explore scientific fields of study and research.

Prof. Catherine Léglu, vice-rector for academic affairs, says: “In this university, women have equal opportunities in the study of the Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering, but the ratio of female to male students remains an obvious challenge. One explanation may be that these subjects are often perceived as male-dominated and might be less attractive for female candidates. One of our priorities is to rethink the image of STEM subjects in society.”

Interview with Amal Tawakuli - Researcher in Computer Science

Amal Tawakuli was recently awarded the 2019 Zonta Women for Technology Scholarship to highlight her remarkable career in the field of science. Tawakuli is a doctoral candidate within the Department of Computer Science at FSTM, supervised by Prof. Thomas Engel. Previously, she has worked as a software engineer in the Cloud Computing industry. In an interview she shares her experience of studying and working in a mainly male-dominated field and offers thoughts about what can be done to close the gender gap:

Why did you decide to study computer science?

I am motivated by how computer science enables us to apply knowledge to create tangible solutions. It is not about memorising but rather about application and problem solving thus building your own unique set of skills.

What does your research focus on?

My research is a practical investigation within the field of Big Data. I am investigating the distribution of the data preparation process and leveraging edge computing to reduce the costs and resources required to obtain quality data. My current topic is Big Automotive Data, particularly sensor data. At a later stage, I am interested in investigating Bias Data and Fairness in AI to address disparity in model performance, particularly between genders.

You have worked as a software engineer in the industry in the UK before pursuing a career in research. As a woman, did you experience challenges along the way and how did you overcome them?

There was always this initial doubt in my capabilities; I remember one instance when I was the only person in the group to solve a challenge but instead of receiving praises, I was met with shocking faces. While my male colleagues would get encouragements such as “I know you could do this, I trust your abilities,” I would receive comments such as “You are lucky to be here.” It is a male dominant field and women do not have much say in forming and shaping the work environment and culture. Women find themselves working harder to prove themselves and this is exactly what I did and eventually earned trust through my work and achievements. I stayed focused and did not let stereotypes and biases deter me from pursuing my aspirations.

Today, I am proud to be a member of the SECAN-Lab under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Thomas Engel who encouraged me and supported me from day one. With him, it is a completely different experience as I am treated and respected equally.

What can be done to close the gender gap in STEM fields?

This a complex global problem; there are many initiatives in and outside of Luxembourg that address it and we must acknowledge them, but more needs to be done. For example, Zonta International awards scholarships to women pursuing careers in technology which provide support and also create role models for the next generations. This recent initiative has already had a positive impact. We need to create a neutral environment for all regardless of their gender or other attributes to thrive and enjoy equal respect. This will attract women because they find themselves in environments where they feel comfortable and valued. Another game changer is having women in top roles such as female professors in Computer Science who would add a healthy balance of perspectives that stimulate innovations and add richness.