Powerhouse South Asian Women in STEM – In Conversations with Dr Muneera Bano and Dr Nisha Khot

We continue our celebration of the incredible South Asian Women working in STEM and leverage this spotlight to draw attention to the tremendous efforts and immeasurable contributions made by them across Australia.

This week, we highlight Dr Muneera Bano and Dr Nisha Khot and invite you to join us in recognising and celebrating their journeys – packed with experiences surrounding challenges, uncertainties, nervous first days, small and big wins and the unceasing desire to grow. Let's amplify their stories and inspire the ones to come. Let's turn the 'well-known reality' into shattered fragments of glass.

Profile – Dr Muneera Bano

“There are many ways to empowerment. You can choose to affiliate with your culture, your people and yet not surrender to the stereotypes that define you as a woman from that culture. “

As a passionate advocate for women in STEM, Dr Muneera Bano wears many hats. She specialises in the field of socio-technical domains of software engineering focusing on human-centred technologies and currently works as a Senior Lecturer of Software Engineer at Deakin University. She is also a member of ‘Equity Diversity and Inclusion Committee' for Science and Technology Australia and the 2020 Ambassador for the ‘Go Girl, Go For IT’ initiative, which aims to inspire the next generation of girls in STEM.

Dr Bano is widely recognised for her leadership in science and innovation and for the vital role she plays in enhancing and advancing diversity and inclusion in STEM across Australia. Notably, she has been recognised by the Government of Pakistan as an under-40 Pakistani-Australian leader in ‘Science and Innovation’ by Pakistan Foreign Minister’s Honour List 2021.  To add to the list, Dr Bano was also announced as the ‘Most Influential Asian-Australian Under 40’ by the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit in 2019 and was declared a 'Superstar of STEM' in the program run by Science and Technology Australia.

This excellence can be traced back to humbling beginnings. Dr Bano recalls her motivation as a child stemmed from the equal opportunity to education as her brothers and her fascination for computers. Growing up in a household with four brothers and several video games, she was perceived computers to be a magical device – “one that would take you to a whole other world”. Given that, it was only natural for the young Muneera to jump at the chance to study science. “For me, the motivation came from the fact that my own mother was not given an opportunity to pursue education,” Dr Bano recollects, reflecting on the cultural constraints faced by women in the northwest of Pakistan.

“I was given equal opportunity to education, just like my brothers and growing up, I knew that it was a privilege not to be taken for granted. I moved into the male-dominated field [of science], just like my brothers did, and then came a point where I wanted to prove that if provided equal opportunities, girls can outperform men. I think over time, this became a bigger vision - that I have to break the barriers and stereotypes that exist in the culture and show that they don’t define me.”

Determined to carve her own path, Dr Bano reflects that even with access to education, there existed a strong cultural expectation for girls to finish their degrees and get married. She speaks on how academic choices for girls are strongly impacted by cultural expectations and act as “filtration”, as girls are strongly encouraged to venture into more "nurturing" courses such as arts, home science or by a stretch, medicine. “That was the norm – if you are smart and want to study, be a nurse or a medical doctor. But I didn't want to be a medical doctor,” she says. “I realized that I don't have the personality for it and I was far more interested in the engineering side of things. At that time, I realized that there existed pressure for me to conform because of my gender. So even if the doors were open, there were stereotypes behind them. And at that point, I blatantly refused to give in to them.”

Dr Bano moved to Sydney in 2012, as a Research Trainee at the University of Technology. She then received a PhD scholarship, which she accepted and graduated in 2015 with a PhD in Software Engineering. After graduation, she worked as a post-doctoral researcher and ‘Learning and Teaching Adjunct’ at UTS. Remarkably, during her research career, she received several prestigious recognition for her work, including being named as a finalist for Google Australia’s Anita Borg Award for Women in Computer Science, Asia-Pacific 2015 and being awarded the Schlumberger’s Faculty for The Future (FFTF) Award for Women in STEM (2014 and 2015). “None of it was pre-planned,” Dr Bano says. “I was given an opportunity and I took it – that PhD has now led to everything else in my career.”

Dr Bano urges everyone to find their tribe and build genuine relationships as they navigate their careers. She fondly celebrates her PhD supervisor, Professor Didar Zowghi, and reflects on the support she felt while working alongside other women of colour. “There were things that were culturally implicit I didn't have to explicitly mention - there was an implicit understanding of the cultural background and the values which made all the difference for me,” she says. She stresses the need to network and invest efforts in relationships to maintain a positive bond.

“I think finding your tribe and connecting them makes a huge difference in reminding you that you are not alone. You have a support group and there are people to guide you.”

“Finding mentors like my PhD supervisor, who is still my mentor, has helped me [navigate] through all the stages of my career – from applying for academic jobs to learning how processes in Australia work, from helping me through interviews and being my referee – she has always been there as a champion. So, I encourage building these relationships and putting the work in,” Dr Bano says. “Once you put the work in and prove yourself, you [will] have your champions and mentors there.”

She concludes on the note that because life is unpredictable, we must recognise and seize all the opportunities that come our way. “Not every arrow you throw will be on target, but there will be some that will definitely get you to where you want to go,” she says. “I have seen some amazing women from the South Asia region who are really hardworking and intelligent but lack confidence. The question of the confidence or having this issue that we have to be ten times better than someone local here in Australia to make it to the top can act as a barrier to you and your growth. Elevate yourself from that and don’t let it stand in your way.”

You can connect with Dr Bano via LinkedIn.

Profile – Dr Nisha Khot

“When you get pushed back - and you will - get back up, dust yourself off and look for another way to get where you want to be. Find your own path and if there isn’t one, make a path for yourself and for [the] other women who will follow.”

Dr Nisha Khot is a Melbourne-based specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist who currently practices at the Royal Women’s Hospital and the Sunshine Hospital. She grew up in a Punjabi household, alongside her grandparents who were refugees of the India-Pakistan partition. As a young girl, Dr Khot’s grandmother became her driving force in life and always pushed her to aim higher. “My grandmother was a very smart woman who did not have the opportunity to get educated,” says Dr Khot. “She made sure her granddaughters were treated the same as her grandsons, with equal opportunities - her legacy is what inspires me to this day.”

The stark contrast in healthcare access for men and women motivated Dr Khot’s specialisation in women’s health. “I strongly believe that the health of women and girls is the best measure of the health of a nation and by extension, the health of the world,” Dr Khot says. Growing up in the sub-continent, Dr Khot reflects on how medicine was considered the pinnacle of achievement, despite the industry having a sharp gender bias.

“[On] my first day of starting medical school, I can remember the dean of our institution in his inaugural address said to our class – ‘you girls will all just become mothers and want to work part-time or give up your careers completely.’ I can remember feeling very angry hearing this and silently vowing to myself that I would never give up my career.” After putting her best foot forward throughout her undergraduate studies, Dr Khot proceeded to specialise in gynaecology and moved to the UK to complete her further training, before finally moving to Melbourne.

“My experience of being a doctor in three different countries made me realise how crucial it is for diverse representation in all aspects of healthcare. I could see that women of non-Caucasian origin had worse health outcomes and developed more pregnancy complications. This was partly because healthcare systems were difficult for them to negotiate [as] they were not designed to include women of colour.”

Dr Khot reflects that this realisation has led to her involvement with several medical organisations like the Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Rural Doctors Association of Victoria. She also believes that for a woman to succeed, regardless of the industry, she must be supported and empowered by her network, especially in the South Asian culture.

“There are many ‘duties’ that are still considered the domain of women, even more so in the South Asian cultures. For women to succeed, it is absolutely critical that we change these cultural norms.”

Dr Khot encourages all young girls and women to have confidence in themselves and be boundless in their approach to achieve leadership, being careful to not limit themselves to the “traditional route”. Here, she quotes Dame Jane Goodall, the renowned pioneer in computer programming and one of Dr Khot’s idols and says, “the most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘we have always done it this way'".

“In STEM (and in life), you will hear this phrase often. Challenge it. Because only by challenging it will you make new and exciting discoveries,” Dr Khot concludes.

You can connect with Dr Khot via Twitter.

Pranjali Sehgal is a writer, a creative and a journalist based in Melbourne. She is a member of SAARI's Editorial Team and can be contacted at pranjali@saaricollective.com.au