There has been a lot of interest in increasing the percentage of women in STEM fields. But tackling the challenge of access and inclusion to these professional fields may be missing the point. Perhaps we should take a broader view and ask: how can we create a society where women are not only free to define their own diverse paths to success, but also confident that society will value and respect those paths? To do so, we require a paradigm shift in how we perceive success.
I was recently chosen as one of the 20 most influential women scientists in the Islamic world by Muslim Science magazine, a UK-based organization. In the magazine, I was given the title of “Islamic feminist.” I was concerned that could perpetuate negative stereotypes about Islam or feminism. And therefore, last year, I set out on a “pilgrimage” to create my own definition of Islamic feminism. My journey took me to many countries, where I interviewed more than 100 women from different cultures and backgrounds. Similar to a scientist testing her hypothesis, I could not resist taking a scientific approach to tackle an apparently non-scientific problem: evaluating how women, across the world, defined career success.
I found that while the global percentage of women in the work force is not low, the percentage of women in senior positions and the percentage of working women in many individual countries is low. For example, in my country of Jordan, only 16 percent of women over 15 were part of the labor force in 2014. Many attribute this to women not being educated or skilled enough to work, but statistics suggest otherwise. For example, the percentage of women in higher education is over 70 percent in Jordan. Alternately, some attribute this to workplaces that are not friendly to women’s needs. Yet a 2012 “Women Matter” McKinsey report on gender diversity showed that even after creating nurseries and flexible hours, the percentage of women working in many corporations did not increase substantially.
Let's rethink our approach. Measuring strict percentages of women in the workforce doesn’t accurately capture the diverse motivations of women across the globe. For much of our history as a species, the whole family unit—including women—worked in the home and fields as a group effort, similar to how the various cells in the body work together to maintain the organism. Only relatively recently have men moved to work outside of the home area, creating their own rules of success. However, in the fight for equality, women have entered the workforce outside of the home in greater numbers. Yet once there, women are assessed by a measurement of success defined by men.
How does this narrow definition of success affect women? Women are valued in the workforce only for their time at work. Taking time off to raise children, for example, is not perceived as contributing to a company’s success, and is therefore often detrimental to a woman’s individual career success.
I believe that when we ask why there are fewer women in the workforce, we are asking the wrong question. First, we should ask how women themselves define success. Then, we should value that definition.
Of course, this definition will vary from woman to woman, and be contextualized by her surrounding environment – including type of work and level of development in her community. Some women will define success by how much they earn and their seniority. Others will define success as being the caregiver and bringing up a generation of children. Some women will be in between these definitions, or use a different metric altogether. Many women’s careers may follow a less traditional path as a result. As Professor Lotte Bailyn of MIT argues in her book, Breaking the Mold, women’s careers may follow a rising, zigzag trajectory, whereas “traditional” career curves may grow steadily but eventually plateau.
In line with this trajectory, it is important that women have the freedom to choose to take time off for family. Dr. Martha Welch’s clinical research at Columbia testifies to the importance of parents being able to nurture their children in the first few years for normal social development. Many women who choose to be the primary caregivers for their children must confront the challenge of re-entering the workforce after leaving it.
Technological innovation can help mitigate this dilemma. Technology is changing rapidly, and new skills and expertise are now virtually accessible. For some, but not all, women this will decrease the burden of taking time off from work. However, I also advocate for the creation of a success framework that values compassion. Given the incredible scientific advances I see in my work, I have to ask, why can’t we also redefine success?
Of course, workplaces will need to radically restructure their design to support this change. Employing human centered design may help by putting the beneficiary of new policies at the center of the paradigm shift. We must see things in new ways. For instance, maternity leave often means that companies have to hire someone else or redistribute work; this becomes very costly. However, this cost is not balanced against the value of bringing up the next generation. If the time and effort put forward by women (and men) in this area were calculated as part of the GDP, then the whole concept of cost will be turned upside down. By supporting maternity leave, a company could actually be contributing to this more accurate measure of GDP.
Society should support, value, respect, and give freedom to women to pursue their definition of success, whatever it may be. It is not only crucial to define our own path for the benefit of the family and society, it is a source of innovation!