Kenya · 28 February 2023 · 6 min
Waseema Khawaja, Headteacher of the Aga Khan Academy, Nairobi – Nursery School, tells us what has changed over her 26 years in teaching, with a focus on girls’ aspirations and the importance for young girls and boys alike to step out of the box they are placed in.
As an older daughter in a large family, Waseema grew up helping her younger siblings with schoolwork. She taught before even starting her undergraduate degree, providing after-school tuition to young children. She specialised in early years’ education at the University of South Africa and has guided the Nursery School to become the first International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme Early Years-authorised school in Kenya. Alongside her main role, she is an IB workshop leader and also leads programme evaluation visits in IB schools.
When you were a child, did you notice any constraints or negative attitudes about girls studying science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects during school or in higher education?
It was almost always assumed that women were to go into “simpler” career choices such as teachers, cooks, or social workers, as STEM careers were created for and dominated by men. No one would want to hurt the ego of a man through the extreme intelligence of a woman. Women had to underplay their intelligence solely to fit into the idea of a “woman” that society had created for them. It is an irrational stereotype; one doesn’t have to fail in order for another to succeed.
Do these stereotypes persist today?
To an extent this is still an extremely prevalent issue. With more and more girls being engineers, mathematicians and chemists, it is safe to say that there has been extreme development in the mindset. However, we still see women who are studying these degrees considered to be “risktakers”. Even though it is exceptional that young girls can make the choice, their step to want to undertake these degrees should be normalised.
Cultures, beliefs and backgrounds play a big role in the professional expectations of young girls and boys, and many times these beliefs are imposed on them regardless of their personal choice. Young girls are given the opportunities, but the opportunity is clouded in judgement, the expectation that they should exceed because they are making a “daring” move, and a lot of societal pressure to be an all-rounded individual at the same time. Therefore, the barrier has been lifted from the ground, but there’s still a long way before it is entirely eradicated.
How does the Academy continue to lift the barrier?
At the nursery level, there is almost no awareness of what gender means, and therefore, there is inclusion in all aspects. We ensure that occupations are taught in a non-gendered approach. Every child can envision themselves in the position of a chef, actor, doctor, or engineer.
The stereotypes come into play from around age seven. That is when it is key to focus further on making young girls and boys understand the importance of stepping out of the box they are placed in; longstanding tolerance of gendered stereotypes is what eventually creates a divide in young people’s minds.
School administrators and teachers must also strive to create such environments in high school, with no bias in the language used or the approach to teaching, or any subtle inference of these subjects being more appropriate for boys. Creating more science fairs for girls to participate in, and more opportunities for them to explore these options, such as trips to STEM firms, makes everything seem possible.
It is important for gender to be taken out of the equation when it comes to intelligence, capabilities and the ability to succeed, and the only way of doing that is having equal representation of gender to make the field as inclusive as possible. When a woman is working in a career field that is so largely male dominated, it shows that the system can be rebuilt. For a young girl looking at a female CEO of a bank, it does not show her what women are assumed to not do, it shows her just how much they can. And when young girls see a woman as a pilot, they don’t feel like it’s something they’d have to work extra hard for, but simply a career they’d have to work equally as hard for compared to any other male.
My favourite thing about working with children is being able to develop their minds and their thinking to be as diverse and broad as possible. You can instil bravery, fearlessness, strength in ways that will shape the individuals they are for the future. No other job gives you this challenge, while providing all the joy at the same time. A job where you learn from children as much as they learn from you.
What kind of world do you envision your current pupils creating?
This generation of children will reinvent what it means to be human. The idea of being put in a box is something that they will eradicate entirely. This is because the current exposure they have to social media, the conversations they have with their parents, interactions with friends and a lot more creates this awareness of the world they live in, and they realise how it doesn’t accommodate them. The world I envision the current children creating is one that allows free, open and equal expression of character and preferences. Ultimately, they will create their own understanding of the world and make jobs for themselves, as they may not fit into spots that already exist.
What will be the challenges for them? What gives you hope for them?
I think their biggest strength may be their biggest challenge too. Children can locate the “skip ad” button on YouTube before they can clearly speak. Their exposure to social media has brought about a lot of curiosity to know more, speak more, have more. This creates a lot of pressure as over the Internet, everything seems void of flaws. They may feel alone for not having the “picture perfect” life they see and will feel they must accomplish the exceptional in order to stand out. Feeling sufficient and adequate will be emotions scarce to achieve.
However, what gives me hope for them is knowing that they are no longer compromising for the identity the world has created for them – they are reinventing their [own] identities. It equally gives me hope to see the world accommodating their curiosity and validating their thoughts. This will encourage them to think more, learn more and share more too.
I consider myself fortunate and humbled to be in a field where I can clearly see the children we shape becoming the leaders of today, and ready to face tomorrow.