What do a doctoral candidate in neural computation and an engineer with over 22 years of experience in high-tech companies have in common?
We invited two women who have careers in the fields of science and technology to an open conversation. Both were deeply concerned about the issue of gender equality, stood up and took extraordinary steps to address this issue.
Revital Duek is an engineer with over 20 years of experience working in hi-tech companies in the field of education, marketing and big data. In tandem with her work, Revital has volunteered in various organizations to help women enter the workplace by providing them practical skills and self-confidence. She also volunteers with the Israel Scouts and is a member of an Non-Profit O called New Faces which encourages teenage girls to choose science and technology professions. In this context, she goes to classrooms and talks to the students about her work as an engineer. Revital is currently completing her studies at the Mandel Leadership Institute and pursuing a doctorate in gender studies at Bar Ilan University.
When and why did you begin to be concerned with the issue of gender?
The turning point for me was the decision to change course and start studying at the Mandel Institute – a school for education leadership that operates in Jerusalem.
This was a lengthy process. From a professional aspect I understood that I no longer wanted to continue switching from one trendy corporation to another, and that my passion was in the social sphere. In the wake of my volunteering with the Scouts, I realized that what primarily excited me was working with young people.
During that period, my twin daughters decided to move from 5 units in math to 4 units [5 units in math is a program for outstanding pupils and it is a prerequisite for admittance to the most prestigious university departments]. I did not oppose this – I knew that my daughters, whose mother is an engineer, know that they can be engineers, but I realized that this might not be the case for girls who do not have an engineer mom at home.
At that point in time, I had arrived at a juncture in life where everything was coming together – volunteering, work and motherhood. I happened to see an ad in the newspaper for the Mandel Institute and discovered that the institute’s program would enable me to make the change that I looking for. At the Mandel Institute I was asked to bring the social topic that I wanted to promote into focus. It was natural for me to focus on encouraging young women to go into the STEM disciplines.
At first, I was not thinking about the topic from the perspective of gender. If someone had told me several years ago that I would be studying gender – I wouldn’t have believed it… I thought that the solutions for having girls select the STEM disciplines are related to content, not gender. Today I understand that gender is highly significant. Thanks to my gender studies, I gained a new perspective on the world – gender “goggles”.
I think that women in hi-tech understand quantitative data (the number of female engineers in comparison to male engineers) but they do not understand the gender component, the fact that this is a matter of a social construct. I remember presenting the topic at the Mandel Institute to my peers – everyone was educated, praiseworthy, intelligent – and when I received comments like “and who will be waiting at home for the children?” I understood the magnitude of the problem!
Everything began with a chance meeting with my high school English teacher. I told her that I was studying the doctoral program in neural computation at the Hebrew University. She was a bit surprised because in high school I had chosen to study more humanities subjects – history, music, art and Arabic. (In fact, I also took an accelerated math track following pressure from my mother who said “you never know where life will take you.” Those math courses naturally helped me with the math classes at university, but they mainly contributed to my sense of my own capability.)
My former English teacher introduced me to a teacher who was in charge of the program for encouraging girls to choose to study science and math in my high school. Following this introduction, I meet with 9th grade girls – who are at the decisive stage when they choose what study tracks they will be taking in high school. She asked me to try to convince them to select advanced maths, or at least not completely rule out the option. I spoke with groups of girls about own experience for 45 minutes, which turned into 90 minutes, which turned into a great success.
This is essentially where everything began – the connection with the teacher responsible for this area grew very close and at the same time, my feeling that I can have an influence at the same school where I studied was very significant for me. I invited few students from the university to get together – women and men for whom the issue was important – and brainstormed the correct way to bring the subject of gender equality to young people. Along with my former high school teacher, we got together with the director of the gender equality unit at the Ministry of Education. We drew up a curriculum, which we started to present in classes at mixed gender schools (as volunteers).
How are you operating in the realm of gender equality?
At the NPO Common Ground, we soon understood that the true agents for change are the teachers who see the students on a daily basis and must conduct themselves in a different manner – not only teach gender, but also “behave gender” …. My goal was to embed gender studies into the “life skills” curriculum in all of the grades. When the Ministry of Education will take responsibility for gender studies in the schools, the organization that I established – Common Ground – would no longer be relevant. Well, we’re not there yet.
At the Mandel Institute I received a platform for opening doors, an academic background in the field, and dialogues with amazing people. I established a steering committee for promoting girls into scientific and technological subjects at the ORT schools network and I received pedagogical support, which was not my specialty.
In my work, I have found that a lot is going on in the field. Over the course of the years, I was the sole female member of the management team in hi-tech companies. Today many global companies deal with diversity, and there’s an awareness of giving women representation in this sphere. Having said that, there are also places and people that are not interested in the topic and who claim to be weary of hearing about the subject of gender.
I have found that the way to change the situation is not through some program or a specific action but actually in collaboration and partnership, by addressing the holistic experience of a young girl (whom she meets during her life as a girl in the formal and non-formal system, parents, teachers and her peers), and by finding the appropriate methodology. For example, the methodology known as “collective impact” is based on an innovative approach that claims that in order to solve a though social problem, agreement, commitment, action and joint evaluation are required from all of the elements in the various sectors. In this scenario, one entry point could be the local authority as it is responsible for various aspects of citizens’ lives, “from cradle to career” (one example is the program currently being implemented in Cincinnati, USA).
Why hasn’t there been any change yet, and how do you propose to tackle the problem?
The key word is relevance. In the US they talk about social learning – an approach that offers teaching by means of solving social problems using technology. A student can finish studying an extensive course in physics without understanding how it pertains to the world. Women’s tendencies towards a social approach and desire to change the community must be oriented towards science and technology. If teaching methods are changed, perhaps it will be possible to reach a different understanding, one where girls are not intimidated by the reputation of math and physics as difficult subjects.
We must change teaching methods as soon as possible, and create awareness of the subject among nursery teachers, kindergarten teachers, school teachers and parents. I also propose to focus on raising the awareness of young people who will be parents in the future; we must give lectures and raise awareness in corporate forums and for high school students and future parents. By talking to them, it will be possible to make a true change.
What is your greatest success?
My greatest success is that today I am identified with the subject of gender equality, I can recruit people to the cause and I am invited to provide guidance. In the past several months I have said the words “female engineer” more times than I have said them in 22 years of work. Thanks to my academic research and work on the ground, I now have an overview of the entire system.
My greatest success is that, despite the fact that I left the organisation, the Common Ground NPO continues to operate without me. No less important are the small successes. When responding to a thread on Facebook with the question “When was the first time you understood that you were a feminist?”, a young woman wrote about how an excellent lecturer came to her school to speak about gender and screen some films. Her description corresponds with the meetings Common Ground holds – it was very moving to learn that she still remembers this encounter after finishing her high school!