— By Keri Troutman
There is no direct translation for the words “mentorship” or “networking” in Arabic, which both surprised and challenged the Lab’s Teresa Williams (far right) during a recent trip to Egypt as part of a delegation of 16 female Bay Area scientists and technology professionals. In her interactions with girls and women in STEM fields throughout her eight-day trip, Williams strove to instill the importance of mentorship and networking as a way to break into and grow in careers not historically oriented toward women.
Mentorship was a “whole new concept” to most of the groups they met with, says Williams, a researcher at the Molecular Foundry. “It’s just not a part of their professional culture,” she says. “And so we talked a lot with them about how it could be, and how it could help them move forward in their careers.”
The trip was organized by TechWomen, a unique mentoring and exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education. TechWomen brings emerging women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East together with their professional counterparts in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Last fall, Berkeley Lab hosted six fellows.
After an initial day of taking in the amazing history, sights, and sounds of Cairo — guided by Egyptian TechWomen fellow Mariam El Nahrawi, who was hosted at Berkeley Lab last fall — Williams jumped right in. Spending her days and often her nights speaking to and hearing about the lives of Egyptian women in the STEM field, Williams and her colleagues met with many high-school, college-age, and young professional women at the U.S. Embassy, in corporate settings at Vodafone and Mentor Graphics, at universities, and USAID-funded STEM high schools for girls.
“I learned that so much of Egyptian social life is conducted electronically—over texts, WhatsApp, and so on—so for many young women just learning how to open a conversation with someone was challenging,” Williams says. “Approaching a new person you want to meet, even in a work setting, is uncomfortable for them, so we worked a lot on skills to overcome that.”
Networking could prove key in developing the Egyptian workforce, as the country is seeing a high unemployment rate among young professionals. College is free and many women are highly educated, but with a struggling economy, getting a job takes new skills.
Those skills aren’t always easy to come by in a culture that relies so much on electronic communication over personal interactions. The TechWomen delegation spent one of their afternoons at Vodafone, employer of two TechWomen alumnae and a company striving to be the “World’s Best Employer for Women” by 2025. Vodafone is well on its way, with impressive numbers of female employees across the leadership board, but struggling in technical roles. Still, the women Williams spoke with there were not actively seeking one another out for networking or mentoring opportunities. Williams worked with them on personal introductions and encouraged them to have more formal, organized get-togethers, reminding them that “the more connected you are electronically, the less you are connected personally.”
Williams has participated as a professional mentor for the past two years, hosting scientists from Kenya, South Africa, and Tunisia at the Molecular Foundry. TechWomen also organizes annual trips for women who’ve served as mentors to travel as a delegation to a participating program country to connect with former participants and share ideas and build support systems within the local community. Williams traveled with the delegation to Kenya last year.
This Fall, TechWomen will bring a cohort of 100 new fellows, including a group of Egyptian women, to the Bay Area. Some could likely spend time at Berkeley Lab. Williams hopes that a Lab-wide event will once again be part of this year’s programming and encourages all employees to engage with the participants to help them expand their networks and practice their skills, reinforcing the seeds that Williams and the delegation sowed while in Egypt.