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Shima’s insights inform new book on the meaning of success

Dr Shima Barakat will today (5 March) join a group of 126 female academics in launching a new book that challenges what academic success means and how it should be measured.

Shima BarakatShima, a Research & Teaching Fellow in Enterprise based at the School’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL), features in The Meaning of Success and on the accompanying website, speaking about her career and philosophy of success.

The book brings together the stories of women from across the University and examines what success means to them as they share the individual life journeys that have led them to Cambridge. In interviews with twenty-six women connected with the University, along with contributions from a hundred more, it makes a compelling case for a more inclusive definition of success.

Commenting on the launch, the Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said: “By exploring these inspirational stories, this book reminds the reader that talent and excellence can be found across the University and in every walk of life. It provides an opportunity to reflect on how success is recognised and rewarded, giving us scope to redefine and extend the qualities and attributes we associate with being successful.”

The story Shima shares starts with her parents and how their influence has shaped her:

I have polarised parents. My mother is as risk averse as you can possibly get, whilst my father breaks all the rules. He’s an entrepreneur, so we’ve had our highs but we’ve also had bailiffs at the door. Unlike my father I’m aware of boundaries but I’m also very willing to question them. If I don’t think a rule is valid, I’ll choose to either push back or go round it. I think this attitude has helped me, particularly as a woman in engineering.

And her guiding philosophy? “My starting point is that I have the power to change something and I go from there. When I graduated I worked on the construction of the Cairo Metro; it was 400 men and me. I didn’t even have a toilet, so I commandeered the men’s when needed and put up a sign – ‘occupied for feminine use’. That’s illustrative of a broader mind-set, where if a situation doesn’t work, I’ll try to improve it. You don’t just sit there complaining. I think I have the genes of a planner and I apply this to the chaos and uncertainty of the entrepreneurial world that I now work in. I get energy from making order out of mess.”

Her observations of how success is measured in the academic environment have led her to join calls for a radical re-think of how gender balance can be nurtured in academia. She was one of the signatories to a letter published recently in the Times Higher Education (THE) on the issue. Shima says: “Our systems are inconsistent and based on a masculine world view. We need to question them because they determine who gets recognised as successful. And it’s not just about women ‘leaning in’ more: that’s throwing the problem back on women when there are structural and organisational issues going on. Also, when thinking about gender, it’s important to step away from ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as categories and look instead at femininity and masculinity. There is pressure to conform to stereotypes and they apply to men too. We need to break down these stereotypes and make the workplace ‘human’ friendly.”

Talking about contributing to the book, Shima said:

“It has been fascinating being involved in the book. Taking the time to reflect in the first instance and then seeing the reactions to the book and the ideas that are coming. It has already started to stimulate dialogue around gender both within the university and with ripples beyond, through things like our letter to the THE. I think this is the beginning, challenging what we think of the definition of success and then starting to make changes, slowly but meaningfully.”

The Meaning of Success will be launched today at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge by BBC newsreader Jane Hill and the Vice-Chancellor. Dean of Cambridge Judge Business School, Christoph Loch said: “On behalf of the School I warmly congratulate Shima on her contribution to this thought-provoking book. It puts together voices that look at work and success from different angles, which are different from what we take for granted, and force us to reflect.”

Shima has recently been carrying out research into why women in science and technology tend not to pursue a career in entrepreneurship after their education. Look out for a future article on her findings.

© Photograph copyright by University of Cambridge