International Women’s Day – Interview with Dr. Safia Barikzai

International Women’s Day – Interview with Dr. Safia Barikzai

International Women’s Day (Thursday 8th March 2018) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. International Women’s Day is all about unity, celebration, reflection, advocacy and action – whatever that looks like globally at a local level.

To celebrate this International Women’s Day I, Indira Patel, Women’s Officer at LSBSU, will be bringing you an exclusive series of interviews from strong women here at London South Bank University.

For our first interview, we have been lucky enough to talk to Dr. Safia Barikzai. Safia joined London South Bank University as a Senior Lecturer in 2007. She is now an Associate Professor and has taught on and led a number of different teaching modules, she was seconded to the Nathu Puri Institute for Engineering and Enterprise, and is a part of LSBU’s RoboGals team. 

Why is International Women’s Day important to you?

It’s important to me on two levels.

Firstly, on a personal level I am from Afghanistan and I came to the UK as a refugee. In Afghanistan fewer girls have the opportunity to study and to get an education, therefore one of my passions lie in increasing accessibility to education for girls and women – and International Women’s Day helps to raise awareness of issues around gender inequalities and promote education for girls.

Professionally, I see fewer female students taking up STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and that’s an area we need to work on. International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us to celebrate the strong female role models from diverse backgrounds and I’m really pleased that the university and Student Union do so much work around LGBT+ week and Black History month. These intersectionality’s are important and if they are celebrated during International Women’s Day we can get more diversity in subject areas where women are less represented.

Can you tell us a bit about Robogals? What are its aims and what does a typical session look like?

Robogals is very new to LSBU, and it was through my colleague and our team leader Dr. Gabriela Gallegos Garrido, Ph.D., that we got connected to Robogals Global – I consider her to be the real ‘Robogal’!

Robogals is a global initiative that promotes STEM subjects including the arts (so STEAM rather than STEM) to young girls. We work alongside our university students, who are STEM ambassadors and role models, and go into schools to run training programs and workshops.

We work with young pupils, both girls and boys, to heighten their awareness of STEM subjects. There is a perception of what engineering looks like and we want to demystify that and showcase that actually, engineering is very much creative and fun. The aim is to promote STEM and make it more accessible to young people; especially within the local area which has a high level of socioeconomic challenges.

We’re very new and are in the process of becoming a Student Union society and we hope that in the future it is led by students for students with our support. RoboGals LSBU team won an award for at the RoboGals EMEA SINE conference held at Aberdeen University, 10 – 12th Feb 2018. The award was in recognition for our STEM outreach activities.


Who has inspired you to get to where you are in your career?

I have had many inspirational role models but the person that has really inspired me personally is my grandmother. Often when we speak of inspirational people we speak of well-known names and people that we hear about in the media, but for me it is my grandmother. I am from Afghanistan and when my grandmother was young it wasn’t the norm for girls to get an education and there weren’t schools for girls, yet she was home schooled and she taught herself beyond that. It’s really important that we can acknowledge those family connections and are able to see the strong women within our own support networks.

Professionally, my female students inspire me the most, especially those with young families. They are the people that you may not know from the press, and that you haven’t heard of yet, but despite the challenges and hurdles they may encounter, they drop off their children, come to university, study, and may also commit to other carers responsibilities – for me they’re real heroes! I think that LSBU, the Student Union, and student services have a proud tradition and share my passion of supporting them in their education.

What advice would you give to a young woman who may be considering doing a degree in engineering?

The best thing I can say is yes, you can do it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Engineering is not a gender specific subject: it’s a creative discipline, it’s fun, it’s innovative and it’s open to anyone. Go for it and don’t be afraid, when you need support, whether it be academic or personal, there are wonderful people at LSBU ready and willing to help you and guide you. The best decision you can make is to choose a subject that resonates with you – that’s really important.

You were a PRECIOUS Awards 2016 finalist in the ‘Outstanding Woman in STEM’ category, what first sparked your interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?

My parents were both medical doctors and at home we were encouraged to focus on the sciences. I think that you should focus on what you are interested in rather than a particular subject, however my upbringing initially got me thinking about science and how scientists can do experiments, how those experiments can lead to discoveries, and those discoveries can have a huge positive (or sometimes negative) impact on society. I realised that there is potential to do work in engineering that can help other people, it excited me, and I wanted to be part of that.

I chose computer science, it’s a great discipline, there is so much potential in coding and the code that you make can be used for a variety of purposes. You can use codes within business analytics tools to look at, make sense of, and make predictions from data such as predicting the next flu epidemic.  Computer science is used so widely and has so much potential, I chose the best subject, and the best decision I made was to teach the subject that I love! My job is amazing, I really enjoy the work that I do, and I’m equally excited about what other people are doing within the field.

What has been your proudest moment?

It has to be graduation. To be at my student’s graduation, to see their families, to celebrate the work that they have done, and then later on hear about the work and projects that they are doing as graduates is amazing to me as an educator, I feel really proud.  

What main change would you like to see for young women in the next generation?

That’s a tough one, it’s not that women are doing something wrong, I think the issue is more about society’s’ perceptions of women. I’d like to see an increase in awareness of the stereotypes and unconscious biases we may have and focus on unpicking these.

How can working with men and boys help to create and advance the social, economic, cultural, and political achievement of women?

Robogals is not just for women and in whatever we do we are mindful that we must create an inclusive environment. Inclusivity in education is paramount to the success of educational delivery, so I feel that any conversations that we have around International Women’s Day should also involve boys and men – these conversations would not be as impactful if they just involved women. In addition, some people may not associate with a particular gender, and it’s important that everyone should be a part of these conversations. Making an inclusive environment in education is essential, whether they are a boy, girl, they, or them, it’s important that everybody is welcome to the conversation.


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