“I was so thrilled to discover the Women in Engineering society – their professionalism, attitude and friendship.”
Dr Hind Saidani-Scott has been in the Mechanical Engineering department for over thirty years. She tells us here about her unique personal history, and how it shaped her career.
1.Tell us about you – where are you from?
I grew up and was educated in Constantine, then in Algiers (both in Algeria). This was during and after the Algerian war of independence from France (1954-1962). Constantine is a town built on rocks connected by several bridges. One of these is a suspension bridge, which resembles the Clifton suspension bridge here in Bristol.
The war with France resulted in a high death toll – 15% of the population was killed (1.5 million out of 10 million people). And for me, 17 men from my father’s family were killed, including my father, my uncle, my grandfather and three of his brothers, as well as my aunt’s husband. Not surprisingly therefore I grew up surrounded by females.
The Algerian educational system was totally in French and was identical to the French system, until the 1970s, with the use of French books, history and facts. It was as if: ‘our ancestors were the Gaulois’! It is still in French today, at least for scientific subjects.
Most women in the generation preceding mine did not go to school. Only girls from the upper classes were educated till the age of 12 on average. We were the first generation of women in Algeria to have had the opportunity to be educated to a very high level. The sky was our limit in terms of education. The war created an opportunity for females to be educated, due to the high number of male deaths. This was a huge change, although it was still a patriarchal society.
After independence, schools were segregated: girls-only schools or boys–only schools. This was, in my view, the reason why girls excelled and had, for the first time in Algeria history, the chance to study mathematics, physics, and science – and feel equal and able to study whatever they wanted. There was no male competition or intimidation. On the negative side though, there weren’t any female teachers, apart from the very few French women who remained after the war. This meant that the majority of teacher were male and had not adapted to a more modern outlook. They were very patronising and told us we should all be housewives! In the course of my studies, I encountered many instances of gender discrimination.
In the mid 70’s, I was in the first female mathematical class created in the whole east of Algeria. We were 35 girls and were the first to do a mathematical baccalaureat without having to go to a boys-only school. A total of 31 out of the 35 in the class got their baccalaureate and went on to get a degree in engineering and science. Around a 1/3 did a doctorate, either abroad or in Algeria.
I did Physics, as Engineering was relatively new and there weren’t any established laboratories for practical work. I always wanted to do Engineering, but had to take Physics instead. It was not a problem, as we all did the same year 1, then choose our subject for Year 2 onwards. Physics and Maths were the most competitive, with engineering the least competitive!
I was the only female in the Fluid Mechanics Degree in the whole country that year, which was my final year. I was also the only student who finished her degree without repeating a semester and this was crucial in helping me secure a competitive French government grant to do postgraduate studies in France.
2. Tell us how you got here – what did you do to get here, what decisions did you make, what motivated you?
I went to do my doctorate in France, in an Engineering school in Poitiers. Due to my very French education and background, I never had any problems communicating in French or feeling alien to their culture. We fitted nicely in the French system and performed very well. I was the only female in the Convection and Conduction group doing a PhD and there were only 4 female postgraduates in the entire school. I was one of 5 North Africans in the group and the only female. We were segregated – which meant we had to wait for the French students to finish using the sensors or measuring devices before being able to use them. Unfortunately, there was a lot of blatant racism at that time, which I hope no longer exists.
I went back to Algeria and taught Physics for Physics and Engineering students. It was very challenging because the university was new and lacking everything! However, more than 40% of the students and teaching assistants/lecturers and professors were female.
Then I came to Bristol to improve my English and found myself doing another PhD in Thermodynamics. I joined the Mechanical Engineering Department in 1987, and have now been here for 32.5 years! When I joined, I was 1 of 3 female PhD/research assistants in Mechanical Engineering. As English was my third (or even 4th) language, I had difficulties communicating with British people – I sincerely think it was more a cultural barrier than a linguistic one. But I was lucky with my supervisor (Mr Brian Day) as he was very ‘avant-Garde’, open minded, patient, and tolerant. I learned a lot from him.
After my PhD, I got a postdoctoral EPSRC grant for 3 years. However, in the middle of this grant, I obtained a 6 months Royal Society and Japanese government Fellowship for postdoc research at the Building Research Institute (BRI) in Tsukuba. It was a great experience in terms of resources and support, although in Japan in those days there were also some out-of-date practices. I was 1 of 3 female scientists/researcher only in the whole institute!
3. How have you been supported, and how do you support others?
Back in the 1980s, I discovered a poster in the staff common room about The Women in Engineering Society (WES). Initially I didn’t join, due to poor advice from a male colleague. When returning from Japan, I received an invitation from WES to talk about my experience as the only British Female Fellow in Japan and I accepted. I was so thrilled by their professionalism, attitude and friendship that I immediately joined them. I have now been on their Council for 3 years. They have achieved a lot – and are still doing a lot for females in Engineering, and particularly for engineers, technicians, apprentices. They were among the first to introduce a mentoring scheme.
I have always been very supportive of minority students and receive frequent messages from past students telling me how much they appreciated the help I provided when they were undergraduates. I also try to help other female academics in Engineering – giving them advice, as well as helping them to realise their potential. I was proud to help one past female student through her Phd and into an academic career recently, and she is now one of the best lecturers in Mechanical Engineering.
I think, in recent years, a lot has been done for women, but I feel it is still very ‘administrative’ and not ‘sensitive,‘ or related to the needs of all women. But a lot more needs to be done, especially in engineering for minority women. We are still the forgotten ‘group’. I still feel many equality initiatives are not designed with minority women in view – we need to challenge that.
4. Why do you like your job?
I have always liked understanding how things work – I can remember my mother and her family worrying that I didn’t like dolls as a little girl, and they were so relieved when I finally wanted one. Actually, I just took the doll’s head apart to see how the eyes worked. I wasn’t interested in playing with it!
The main reason I like my job is the challenges I face everyday with research. I love thinking and trying to find a solution and learn something new. I love searching for a solution until I find one.
I also love the flexibility the work offers: I work hard when needed and take a break when not. The negative side is that I find myself working more than my part-time paid job!
5. How do you make it work in terms of work/life balance? who you are outside of work?
I have worked part-time for many years. It’s not always been easy, but I think it would be better if I was starting my career now. Many times, I thought about writing a book about my life experiences and my work, but I’d only do that if I thought it would be helpful to other women, particularly women from minority backgrounds. I want to encourage more women from minority backgrounds to come forward, particularly if they love research and finding solutions to problems.
6. What advice would you give people considering a similar career?
I sincerely think that Science and Engineering are great subjects and careers paths for women and will always be. I will always try, whenever I have the opportunity, to promote them or advertise them. Women are a great asset for Science and Engineering, adding diversity in approaches and research methodology. They have a proven positive impact on research and development.