Driven by a lifelong sense of inequality, Dr Tuleen Boutaleb is determined to entice more women to enter the male-dominated world of engineering.
As a researcher and lecturer in Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering at GCU, Tuleen feels female representation among the students in her classes is sadly lacking – a manifestation she says she has experienced throughout her life. Born in Tripoli, Libya, Tuleen moved to Damascus in Syria after just a few months. She had something of a nomadic upbringing from there, with spells in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Dubai all following.
“I did most of my 12 years of school in Saudi Arabia, and then moved to Algeria and Morocco, where I did my high school and maths baccalaureate,” she says. “I then moved to Scotland to do my degree at GCU. I’ve now been here for almost 25 years.
“I had grown up wanting to be a vet but, when I finished my baccalaureate, a family friend, who is an engineer, suggested that I study electronic engineering based on his experience. He thought I would be good at it. I liked the idea and I’m glad I took his advice as I really enjoyed the GCU degree. I discovered I had a real passion for it.”
But while Tuleen was fully immersed in her programme, she found very few other young women felt the same way.
“When I came to GCU to study, the class in year one had almost 200 students,” she explains. “Of those, only 10 were female.”
The female representation issue is one that continues to rankle.
“Unfortunately, to this day, there has been no change. There is still the same representation in my classes as when I started my own degree.”
It’s fitting then that Tuleen was the GCU lead for this year’s SmartSTEMS event, tailored to inspire more young women to get involved in STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
Over 500 pupils between the ages of 11 and 14 visited the campus in June and took part in activities that included a robot race, forensics investigation, model-bridge building, coding, TV news programme production, and surveying.
The first SmartSTEMs event, held at GCU last year, won an Inspiring City Award at a ceremony organised by The Herald and Glasgow Chamber of Commerce in association with city brand People Make Glasgow.
On top of the workshops and internal and external exhibitors on the day, the pupils heard from keynote speakers Dr Susie Mitchell, programme director at Glasgow City of Science; and Jane Grant, a contributor to Girl Geek, a community for women working in computing, creativity and enterprise in Scotland.
“SmartSTEMs gives young girls a real insight into STEM subjects,” Tuleen says. “Not only do they receive talks from role models, they also get practical hands-on experience, which a lot of them really seem to enjoy. It brings the subjects to life for them.
“I am hoping SmartSTEMs will work in the long term. A lot of similar work has taken place in the past resulting in no change, but this time we have a lot of commitment at different levels – school, university, government and industry.
“However, we still need more parents and teachers to help ensure young girls who attend events such as SmartSTEMs – and who are inspired to be a future engineer, mathematician or computer scientist – will not be discouraged.”
SmartSTEMs, now a Scottish Charity, is a collaboration between several partners including Beyonder and Women’s Enterprise Scotland and is driven by Seric Systems, a technology business specialising in security, fraud prevention and infrastructure.
The event also supports the University’s commitment to gender equality and is a key part of its Athena SWAN activity, the national scheme which recognises commitment to supporting and advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine in higher education and research.
“Athena SWAN is an excellent opportunity not only to get recognition of the good work already done by GCU, but also to identify issues and act to improve the working environment for both men and women,” Tuleen says.
“Athena SWAN looks at every aspect, such as promotions, work-life balance, recruitment, workload, parental leave and so on. Although the focus is on advancing the careers of women, improvements will benefit both male and female colleagues.
“My involvement in the activity is at both a University and the School of Engineering and Built Environment level. While Athena SWAN is primarily a staff-focused initiative, at a School level, I consider the students also.
“At the end of the day, advancing equality and diversity improves the staff and student experience for everyone working and learning in institutions.”