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Women in academia & the COVID-19 pandemic: challenges, opportunities & what comes next

25th March 2021

Seham Ghalwash

Author: Seham Ghalwash, Research Manager at the School of Business at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Growing up, I often heard the message that girls do not need to complete their education. In my hometown, a small village in the Egyptian countryside, education was a luxury for many and a priority for few.

All around me, I saw children dropping out of school. Some began working to support their families. Others, lacking role models or positive reinforcement from friends and family, never envisioned themselves pursuing higher education, let alone a professional career.

I took a different path. At 17, I became the first young woman from my community to travel to Cairo for my university studies. A few years later, I went abroad for my master’s degree before returning to Egypt to pursue a career in academia. Today, I have dedicated my career to researching entrepreneurship and supporting social entrepreneurs based on their local needs and desired impact.

In light of these experiences, it would be easy for me to just focus on the challenges. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy. I sometimes felt alienated from the place where I grew up but did not feel that I fit within my new surroundings either. I had to exceed the expectations placed on me and prove the value of my work – and myself – in everything that I did.

But, in truth, this journey made me a better researcher, academic, and community member.Every day, I bring this first-hand understanding of the challenges faced by marginalised groups researching to my academic entrepreneurship work. My research on enterprises in Egypt and across the MENA region is informed and enriched by these insights. In addition, I am driven to pursue projects and publications which aid marginalised communities like mine, whether in Egypt, or around the world.

'I have dedicated my career to researching entrepreneurship and supporting social entrepreneurs based on their local needs and desired impact.'

COVID-19: women’s double burden

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally upended the ways that we live. For many women, the pandemic collapsed the often-fragile boundaries between our professional and personal lives. Routines were upended. Daily habits completely changed. Homes suddenly became workplaces and childcare spaces. For women already juggling “double burdens” or “second shifts,” the pandemic shattered this already precarious balance.

Women researchers were no different. At a certain point, we felt compelled, or required, to conduct the same meaningful and impactful research as before the pandemic. But at the same time, the double burden which so many of us were already carrying felt increasingly impossible to carry.

I never imagined giving up research. I love my job. I love my research. But the pandemic made conducting thoughtful,quality research harder than ever before. At home, I was constantly disrupted. Like many women, I found myself managing my child’s virtual education, juggling childcare, and providing essential caregiving. Finding additional time for any physical or mental wellness became a herculean task, let alone the responsibilities of a full-time job.

'Like many women, I found myself managing my child's virtual education, juggling childcare, and providing essential caregiving.'

As a researcher and a mother, I still expected myself to put in long hours for multiple research projects while transitioning to remote work and managing day-to-day uncertainties of a global crisis. The stress of managing so much, on top of a global pandemic, of course made many of us, including myself, less productive. We missed deadlines. We felt frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed, or depressed. To say that it became more and more difficult to create the time and space for intellectual inquiry is an understatement. At this point, this is a familiar story.

Hardships always create opportunities

In the midst of this crisis, however, I began to feel parallels between the struggles I have faced this past year and the struggles I overcame during my academic and professional journey. I once again saw how these struggles informed my insights and made more inquisitive, perceptive, and compassionate.

This time, equipped with a researcher’s mind, I renewed my dedication to empirical research projects which address some of the most marginalised segments within our societies. For me, this meant analysing vulnerable enterprises, particularly new businesses and SMEs in Egypt and the MENA region. I wrote case studies and analysed policy. I prepared academic articles and (virtual) conference presentations. Through this work, I advocated for marginalised voices or issues to be at the centre of academic discourse and advancement.

This perspective and work also allowed me to present novel findings within the field of entrepreneurship and SMEs. This past year, I explored the types of support that Egyptian social enterprises required to survive and thrive. Through this research, I found that successful enterprises were rooted in strong networks which produced new ideas around business and technology.

These findings challenged the popular idea that successful businesses are driven by a 'lone genius',particularly ones who struggles against the odds. Rather, I found that interactions and collaborations are essential to scientific and technological advancements.

This finding is not just crucial for identifying potential successful new businesses or understanding the development of social enterprises. It also has important implications for policy and private sector development support, especially in developing countries. For example, I found that many social enterprises in developing countries have survived by utilising their connections or networks to access grants or other support from international donors. Similarly, these small businesses also engaged networks to access forms of social resources or engage their communities. As social enterprises face additional challenges connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will likely continue to engage these networks. In fact, if and how they engage networks may be crucial to their survival.

Glimpses of hope

Over one year later, we still very much struggling. I, personally, am still struggling to adapt, to cope, and to persevere. Like many women, I have struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am also one of many women who has benefitted from assistance from a therapist: something which I am happy to see increasingly normalised and encouraged.

At the same time,this crisis has opened my mind to new ideas, and renewed my commitment to explore key social and environmental dimensions within entrepreneurship. I have also discovered newways to work and to continue pursuing my love of research.

For example, I have developed a morning routine which gives me uninterrupted time for research before my family starts their day. I have also prioritised hobbies such as swimming, yoga, and arts which have helped me to clear my mind and stay healthy.

As we celebrate another International Women’s Day, I hope that my experience can encourage other women to pursue their dreams and to see challenges not just as obstacles, but as opportunities. It is within this challenges that we often make our greatest discoveries. I cannot wait to see what we may learn and discover next.

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