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Women in Academia - A Voice in Politics (Interview with Dr. El-Masri)

A role model or a mentor is like a fairy godmother, they turn pumpkins into miracles with a Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo! Whether your idol is Michelle Obama, Oprah, a teacher who saw your potential, or a boss who made you their protégé, there’s no wrong place to find a mentor.

Women in academia will inevitably encounter obstacles because they are unique to the academic experience. Regardless of whether you live by the motto "dreaming is believing," these challenges can arise from an array of sources, including menstrual cramps and maternity leave. True, there is comfort in viewing the world through rose-coloured glasses, but in an article, I recently read by the Harvard Press, the author painstakingly critiques Oprah's motivational speech. “Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself.” Oprah may be right. But “putting a ceiling on” oneself does not seem to be the issue for many women in academia. Rather, the ceiling is thrust upon them.

So, how are women academics working to break through the components that make up this ceiling?

The easiest way to accomplish something is to ask someone who’s already done it. If you are a woman in academia, especially pursuing political science, international relations, race, class, and gender theory, this is the blog post for you. Dr. Samar El-Masri, a professor at Western University, reminds us in an interview that the yearning for a female president does not appear all that remote from reality. In all, this post is meant to capture the silver lining in your field of study, considering the tone of many classes tends to turn a bit morbid if you're trying to make a career out of it.

At the American University of Beirut, Dr. El-Masri earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s degree. She then pursued a Ph.D. here at Western, where she is currently teaching topics on Transitional Justice, Human Rights, and Middle East Politics. She moved quite a bit from Lebanon to London (Ontario), to Saudi Arabia, to Halifax and then back to London again. Dr. El-Masri asserts that she has always loved teaching, and is quite frank about the hardships she has faced as a scholar. Given that she moved to a distant country and built a new life as a student while carrying her entire life on her back and across the seas, she is the epitome of the light at the end of the tunnel.

Life wasn’t as connected like it is today 23 years ago. Overnight, things might get difficult or alter drastically. You might be required to travel, miss important events, and say goodbye more frequently than most people. The hardest thing, she explains, is the passing of a loved one without being able to say goodbye. Despite grief, distance and separation, Professor El-Masri was able to fall back on her family and utilize what she had in her surroundings to find strength, grounding herself at the moment and maintaining optimism.

Pursuing a career as an academic is hard not only because of the scarce employment opportunities in this field, but also because of how tedious the publication process is. For this reason, Dr. El-Masri told me that she actually thought about going back to school to pursue a different career path, preferably in clinical psychology. But she changed her mind after recognizing how much teaching means to her. As for a career in politics, she does acknowledge how hard it must be for women to be politicians in some contexts. If you come from the Middle East, nepotism, patriarchy, chauvinism, unequal opportunities, cultural restrictions may make it extremely hard for women to pursue that path. But this should not stop anyone. She reminds us of the inspiring and courageous role of women in mobilizing against repression and oppression, despite the high cost.

When I asked Dr. El-Masri, if she were to do things differently, she said "nothing." She mentions that “I realized the person that I am today is the product of the good AND the bad decisions that I made in my life.” Having said that, here are the top strategies that assisted Dr. El-Masri on her academic journey.

Plan & Calculate: Weigh and calculate your options, while considering the costs and benefits associated with the outcomes of your decision. Do not lose sight of your priorities and what is important.

Overprepare: Whether you are preparing for a test, a presentation or a meeting, make sure that you do your research well. Who knows, you may have a solution or an answer to a problem that no one else in the room does… In this sense, it can be empowering.

Organization: Organize your time wisely, “When I was writing my Ph.D. thesis I had a toddler and I was pregnant with another.” As a mother pursuing her academics, she realized that her productivity is not reflected based on a picture-perfect routine. Determine your peak productivity hours, then work during those times.. "I wrote the bulk of my PhD thesis between 3 and 7 in the morning," she explains.

Re-examine: Do not shy away from re-examining your behaviour and your beliefs. You may reach different conclusions if you see things from a different angle or perspective.

Gratitude: Try to remind yourself of all the positive things in your life. It can be anything from a support system, friends, and good health to living in peace…Remember to keep tabs on the glass half full, recognize that mistakes can provide the greatest learning moments, and that hard times will pass too.

An hour with Professor El-Masri shows how one can work to break through the components that make up the ceiling that is thrust on women's academics. Her journey is proof that the most joyous and worthwhile experiences are along a bumpy road.

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