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In conversation with the Algerian Women in Science (ALWIS) group

The Algerian Women in Science group is a new organisation, founded in 2020, committed to training Algerian women to be scientific leaders and supporting their careers.

TIR spoke to Anissa Belfetmi, Sabrina Absalon, and Sarah Helal, three of ALWIS‘ leadership team, to discuss their goals for the organisation and how they plan to help other Algerian women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM).

Reinterpretation of “L’Algerienne” by Henri Matisse

Can you tell us a bit about yourselves?

  • Anissa Belfetmi: I was born and raised in Algeria, where I lived until completing my Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry. Afterwards, I moved to France for my Master’s and PhD, and then to the USA for my postdoc at Harvard Medical School in the field of Structural Biology, where I am still based.

  • Sabrina Absalon: I was born and raised in France. I am a first-generation college student, and the daughter of an Algerian immigrant father. I graduated from the University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, then completed two postdoc positions in Boston, USA. In October 2019, I became an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, USA. My lab studies the nuclear biology of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum.

  • Sarah Helal: Born and raised in Algeria, I am a biology graduate with a Master’s degree in Immunology. I currently work as a Research Assistant in a pharmaceutical company, BEKER Laboratories, in Algiers.

What was the catalyst for setting up ALWIS?

  • Sabrina: The catalyst was Anissa, who as an Algerian woman in STEMM lacked mentoring on her scientific journey in Algeria and abroad. This situation is the same for a lot of my Algerian STEMM peers, and a lot of potential and talent gets lost every year. The American Association for Women in STEMM, was a big help to Anissa and she thought Algerian women should have a similar organisation. A second catalyst was the COVID19 pandemic. Anissa noticed how people had to adapt to working remotely and saw the opportunity to create an online mentoring program for Algerian women in STEMM. She and I launched ALWIS in April 2020.

Reinterpretation of “Femme au Paon et a la coupe de fruits” by Bahia Mahieddine

What are your goals for ALWIS?

  • Sabrina: At ALWIS, we aim to accelerate and promote the success of our fellow Algerian women scientists through an online mentoring program. Being virtual allows us to reach Algerian women regardless of their geographical location and to engage in intellectual discussions within a safe environment. Since July 2020 we have offered an online mentoring program in various formats (one-to-one mentoring sessions, workshops, or discussion panels with guest speakers). We continue to build a diverse and inclusive environment for Algerian women by giving them a safe platform to express their challenges and dreams.

  • Sarah: We continue to advocate for women in science in Algerian society using social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram), and conventional media such as appearing on the Annasr podcast or at conferences (Africa-Europe Science and Innovation Platform AERAP in December 2021). Ultimately, we want to enhance networking opportunities for Algerian women scientists and connect the scientific diaspora and women living in Algeria to help exchange expertise.

It’s striking how often you mention things like “safe platforms” and “safe” or “inclusive environments, as well as portraying science as an emancipating activity. This suggests that women may feel threatened for pursuing such careers – is that the case?

  • Anissa: In the context of Algerian traditions and customs, many women feel more comfortable working virtually with other women rather than with their male counterparts. I would add that diversity and inclusion have several layers, including the postcolonial consequences (see here, here, and here) and ties to Western countries for research which dilutes the emergence of Algerians as role models. Another point is mobility, which is already difficult for some women because of social and economic pressures. They don’t have access to resources and will need family support if they have to move. Most research institutes are located in Algiers, followed by large cities at the national level, which already creates discrimination for women who do not live in these agglomerations.

What other obstacles do you think are faced by Algerian women in science?

  • Anissa: Due to 100 years of French colonialism, Algeria has a vast diaspora. Years of economic challenges have led to limited career opportunities and the departure of highly-skilled workers such as Algerian women scientists.

  • Sabrina: In Western countries, 23% of women are pursuing STEMM studies. In contrast, 49-53% of Algerian women are pursuing STEMM studies, more than twice the proportion of their Western peers. But even though Algerian women enrol in STEMM education programmes in high numbers, their subsequent presence in the workforce remains low. This is a consequence of Algeria’s socio-economic context, with a very high unemployment rate, and a patriarchal society where women in STEMM face gender-based obstacles. Amongst these challenges are complete responsibility for child and family care, lack of resources and mentoring, low professional mobility, few leadership opportunities, an absence of role models, and poor visibility.

  • Sarah: Our members are present on four continents (Africa, Asia, America, and Europe). We have Algerian-born members living in Algeria or abroad, and European-born members of Algerian-descent living abroad. The two categories face different challenges. Algerian-born ALWIS deal with traditional pressures and a lack of resources. In contrast, European-born ALWIS struggle with being a minority in their countries and face racism very early on.

What obstacles have you faced personally?

  • Sarah: Like many Algerian women, I lacked guidance during my studies and early in my work life integration.

  • Sabrina: Because of the lack of mentorship you grow up with the idea that you must succeed on your own; at worst, you might even think that success only means succeeding on your own. You are so used to working through obstacles that you don’t even dare to fantasise about a situation where you won’t have to face microaggressions, switching codes, sexism, racism, and so on.

  • Anissa: I lacked a network and opportunities to build a community. As Sarah mentioned, Algerian women in STEMM do not find enough support. Having a sense of community helps to build confidence and foster the culture of mentoring.

How much has the coronavirus pandemic affected Algerian women scientists?

  • Anissa: The pandemic dramatically inhibited scientific recruitment in Algeria. The cancellation of internships and a near-absence of Ph.D. openings put the scientific career of most students in Algeria on hold. Consequently, we observed an increase in applications to study abroad from Algerian students. At ALWIS we’re doing our best to support them in their quest to get scholarships, fellowships, or a job. The high unemployment rate in Algeria was concerning pre-COVID and now the situation is catastrophic.

How has the pandemic affected you?

  • Sabrina: I did not see my family and friends for two years. Feelings of isolation. And you worry about the people you love both in the country you live in, and the country you left from.

  • Anissa: I haven’t seen my family for three years now and they haven’t met my newborn who is 4 months now. It’s hard, but I hope I can visit home soon.

  • Sarah: I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety and fear, especially for my parents. But I was at least able to secure a job position during the pandemic. The pharmaceutical sector has been very active during the pandemic and that has opened lots of opportunities, in that area at least.

Reinterpretation of “Moorish girl, Algiers countryside” by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

What programmes are you offering Algerian women in science?

  • Sabrina: Our group of extraordinary volunteers has built a one-to-one online mentoring space where 14 mentors are matched with 1 or 2 ALWIS mentees, and accompany them on their scientific journey. We also offer group mentoring where ALWIS members from a common field of science can meet, connect, and help each other. Today there are seven mentoring groups: Biology, Medicine, Petroleum Engineers, Computer Sciences, Physics, Astronomy, and Electronics.

What events are you organising for Algerian women in science?

  • Sarah: ALWIS events come in different formats. We started with panel discussions (our first was based on the screening of the documentary “Picture a scientist”). Since then, we did one on “Femme Foreur en Algerie” with the ALWIS Petroleum Engineering Community to increase the visibility of ALWIS in scientific workplaces where a male presence is viewed as the norm. Our workshops to date include:

    • Protein Biochemistry (with the ALWIS Biology Community)

    • Leadership in Science

    • The one-hour success story (with ALWIS Medical Doctors Community)

    • Careers Insights for Biologists (with ALWIS Biology Community),

    • Womenpreneur Initiative “Mentorship & Entrepreneurship”

    • Algerian Women in Artificial Intelligence

    • Sahra* with ALWIS Event: a networking event held during Ramadan. *Evening (Arabic)

Are you cultivating connections to academia in Algeria?

  • Sarah: We already have a few contacts in different universities that are willing to help us. We currently exchange a lot with scientific clubs created and led by students. We would love to promote a peer mentoring culture amongst Algerian scientists at large – by all means, get in contact if you would like to partner with us and get involved with this!

Do you hope that this is something that could be used as a blueprint by other groups of female North African scientists?

  • Anissa: That would be wonderful. We participated in the 2021 Africa-Europe Science and Innovation Platform (AERAP) summit meeting to present our work with ALWIS and we were surprised to be the only online group/association – see here for a longer account. We would love it if our group empowered more women in Algeria, scientists or not.

2022 marks 60 years of Algerian independence – do you have anything special planned?

  • Sarah: We think it’s an opportunity to host an event with different generations of Algerian women scientists, to discuss the post-colonial landscape of research in Algeria, and to work together in building a brighter future for women in STEMM.

  • Sabrina: It’s important to highlight how our women have been emancipated intellectually since independence.

  • Anissa: For example, my grandmother – who lived during the colonial era – was never taught how to read and write, which shows the discrimination that Algerians were facing. As her granddaughter, I’m proud that I’ve earned a Ph.D. in Biology and can read and write in three languages.

What’s something everybody should know about Algerian food or culture?

  • Sabrina: The best couscous is from Algeria! And we have amazing artists such as Fellag who have been promoting Algeria’s history and culture through his art.

  • Anissa: Mloukhia is a popular dish in eastern Algeria, which is made of highly nutritious plant and olive oil. The Algerian writer Kateb Yacine and his notable work “Nedjma”.

  • Sarah: Algerian pastries, and traditional Algerian music Chaabi

*Modifications to artworks in this posting by Anissa.

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