The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, observed earlier this month, was one more reminder that women are still a long way from having equal opportunities in science and related careers. For Nazira Karodia, growing up under apartheid in South Africa meant experiencing more social prejudice and educational inequality than most in the Western world. But, thanks to her passion for chemistry and support from her family and peers, she made it through university education and pursued an academic career. Now based at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom, Karodia spoke with Science Careers about how her dual role as a professor of science education and the acting dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering puts her in an ideal position to empower scientists from minority groups, and women in particular, to overcome whatever barriers they encounter. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Can you briefly describe how you got to where you are today?
A: My primary schooling was in rural South Africa, but when I lost my dad, the family moved to a city. Without that move, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to progress to secondary school. Even so, because of the racially segregated system, the schools I attended were underresourced and I received poor schooling. This could have been enough to curtail my ambitions, but I became really excited about chemistry and mainly taught myself by reading books from the local public library. I was fortunate that, when I finished school, some English-speaking universities previously reserved for white students opened their doors to people like me, marking the slow drift towards the collapse of apartheid. I embarked on a degree in chemistry—even though, of course, my secondary education ill-prepared me for it. Despite the challenges, I persevered and graduated in 1988.
I then started pursuing my postgraduate degree at the same university, but because I was also planning to start a family, I decided I would do research toward a master’s degree rather than a Ph.D. My twin daughters were born while I was writing up my thesis. After graduating, I stayed at home for 2 years, which was one of the most rewarding, exciting, and fulfilling times of my life. However, I also wanted to have a career in science. My husband, who was an academic and already had an established career, was very supportive of my aspirations. He relinquished his job to be the at-home parent so that we could all move to St Andrews, Scotland, where I started my Ph.D. in chemistry.
Teaching undergraduates as part of my Ph.D. training made me realize that I wanted a career in academia. After an open, pragmatic discussion, my husband and I decided that he would continue as the primary carer for our children. When I was finishing my Ph.D., in 1995, I took up a postdoc fellowship at the University of Florida and the whole family moved. There couldn’t have been a better place for my professional and personal development. The challenges were there in terms of producing quality research, but I was given support and flexibility in my working hours. This allowed me to have the joy of both doing research and being with my family.
Then we returned to the United Kingdom, where I gained a lectureship in chemistry at the University of Bradford. Over the 10 years that followed, I became associate dean for student recruitment in the university’s Faculty of Life Sciences and also led the regional branch of a national program whose aim was to help universities further develop the STEM workforce and curricula. Finally, in 2016, I moved to Wolverhampton to work in science education, where I still also run a small chemistry research lab.
Meanwhile, my daughters both developed a passion and talent for science and maths and began undergraduate studies in physics, Leyah in York and Sarah in Edinburgh. Tragically, Leyah passed away during the last year of her Master of Physics degree. Sarah is currently busy with her Ph.D. in particle physics in Glasgow. I am so proud of my daughters. I have enjoyed developing my own scientific career, and I enjoy encouraging other women to embark on scientific paths—and that includes the young women in my family. Developing a successful career as a woman scientist is not easy, but it can be achieved, and the rewards are immense.
Q: How are you promoting diversity in the sciences within your university?
A: Women have demonstrated, now and throughout history, that they are as capable as men are in STEM. Yet, sadly, today the prevailing mental image that young people have of a scientist or an engineer is still of a man. And so my work is about how to challenge and change that mental image, that social assumption which may limit women’s educational choices and career aspirations. The issue of race, and the intersection of race and gender in particular, is also one that creates immense challenges for our students, and which we are trying to tackle.
Then, it’s not enough to raise the aspirations and hopes of young people if employers and society still have a narrow vision of the kind of employees they want. And so another challenge is also to change mindsets so that employers see diverse people as having equal potential. I believe that, by creating a more diverse student group, followed by a more diverse workforce, deeply ingrained societal prejudices will be challenged and ultimately disappear.
My current role allows me to take a multipronged approach to these issues. As a professor of science education, I can do the research to make sure there’s an evidence base for the actions I think we should take. As acting dean, I can ensure that the resources are aligned to make some of these actions happen. And then, through research again, I can monitor and reflect on the initiatives that we have put in place to make sure they meet the needs of our young people, as well as our broader university’s strategy.
Over the past year, for example, I have approved a Women into Engineering and Science Scholarship to encourage young women to enter undergraduate programs where they are underrepresented. We also regularly run career events and activities that introduce women to the worlds of engineering or computer science. At the broader level, we are making our STEM curricula more inclusive of gender and minority considerations, by tapping into their particular interests and experiences, for example. We are also implementing structural changes across the faculty in accordance with the framework offered by the Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter, for instance, by offering more formal mentoring and support to all of our postdocs and new lecturers.
But while there are various structures and processes within the university to provide diversity training, support, and advocacy, both the staff and university need to make sure that the students who are excluded feel empowered to engage. I believe that students, too, are agents of change, so when I liaise with employers to create equality of opportunities, I try to involve students as full partners in the process.
Importantly, I don’t do all this work just because this is my academic field; I also have an emotional investment in helping minorities. My personal experience of unequal education and legal discrimination remains with me to this day. And while I was angry about this and other inequalities for a long time, deciding on an academic career has given me the structure and opportunity to work for greater inclusiveness in science.
Q: What advice would you give to women and other minorities?
A: First, you need to be aware that, whatever your personal history and career ambitions, there are sources of support out there and you need to go and grab them. Early on, as a postgraduate student in St Andrews, I became aware of professional development opportunities such as career workshops and networking opportunities at seminars and conferences through my involvement in my professional society. This helped me develop a network and friendships. Then, throughout my career, I have actively sought out people who can give me the support I need, and have developed my own informal network. Looking back upon my upbringing, you can look at it as a deficit, or you can look at it as a strength; certainly it has made me hungrier to seek and seize opportunities.
It has also made me more resilient, and you need to develop resilience, as you will encounter setbacks along the way. You also need to keep up your excitement about the career path you have chosen in order to overcome the challenges. This is true in education, but also when you go into the workplace. You are faced with prejudice and unconscious bias, and the important thing is to approach those situations in a way that leads to positive change—both for yourself and then, ideally, for the other minorities who will follow in your footsteps.