Johnson Diversity Series - Blasting the Concrete Ceiling

Jan 2020

When Pakistani born Dr Muneera Bano finished school, she was staring at a future like most Pashtun women before her. One that regarded education for women a privilege, unlike the basic right that was afforded her four elder brothers and all men in her country.

Despite the patriarchal culture, Muneera’s progressive father raised her equal to her four brothers, and this assured her an education. Her story is compelling and well deserving of being awarded the overall winner of the “40 Under 40” Most Influential Asian-Australian award, which formed part of the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit. An award that she was honoured to receive and that wholly reinforces her commitment to inspire the next generation of women in science and technology.

Asian-Australians account for roughly 12 per cent of Australia’s population, yet they hold less than 2% per cent of CEO positions in our top 200 companies, government and academic institutions.  While Australia is making great strides toward inclusivity for diverse groups, a recent study revealed that approximately 82% of surveyed Asian-Australians report that they have experienced discrimination in Australia. So, the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit is an important event; shining the light on the work that these young influencers are doing shaping a different, better, more diverse and inclusive future for other Asian-Australian’s. 

Muneera completed both her Bachelor and Master of Computer Science in Pakistan. Then, having no connection to Australia, nor knowing a single person, Muneera fearlessly relocated to Australia to undertake a PhD in Software Engineering at the University of Technology Sydney.  Not only was this a move into a hugely male dominated field, even by Australian standards, she also faced cultural, financial and psychological barriers when she first arrived. 

It didn’t take long before she found her place of belonging inside the walls that housed UTS, where she was surrounded by like-minded students and a PhD supervisor who could empathize with her journey, having emigrated from Iran. Muneera was awarded her PhD in software engineering in 2015; a day that is indelible in her memory, one that marks the transformational journey of her life toward her own empowerment, her liberation.  Recounting the feeling, Muneera says, “That day I felt this enormous sense of achievement, resilience and fearlessness, so much so that I knew there never ever is going to be any ceiling, glass or bamboo, that I am not capable of bringing down, for I am the breaker of my concrete ceiling”.

It was perhaps this moment that wetted her passion and drive for becoming a role model for young women to smash their own concrete ceiling; specifically, in STEM, an area still largely dominated by men. 

And role model she has.

After her PhD, Muneera worked as a post-doctoral researcher at UTS before taking on lecturing roles at Swinburne University and recently at Deakin University.  Her research work focuses on human centered technologies looking at the intersection between humans and machines and then developing ways to engineer technology to work better with the people that use it. This includes technology assisted pedagogies for education and social media analysis. It’s exciting stuff. Even more exciting is her project working on eliminating the biased data in machine learning algorithms, which is largely derived via social media; a heavily biased data source. Muneera’s research casts a lens on this bias and the impact of online hate speech and their effect on artificial intelligence algorithms. Watch this space…

In addition to the “40 Under 40” Award, Muneera has an impressive array of other awards under her belt, including being named a finalist of Google Australia’s Anita Borg Award for Women in Computer Science in Asia-Pacific for 2015. She was also the recipient of Schlumberger’s Award for Women in STEM in 2014 & 2015 and was given the ‘Distinguished Research Paper Award’ at the International Requirements Engineering Conference in 2018. 

Of all the recognition Muneera has received, her most defining moment of her career was being named a Superstar of STEM in 2018. An initiative of Science Technology Australia, The Superstars of STEM program aims to increase public visibility of women in STEM and create role models for the next generation. 

Muneera has an insatiable drive to show young women of all backgrounds how possible it is, “…for other women, like [her] to cross the psychological boundaries and break the stereotypes”. Muneera believes that the “future is technology driven”, with all future jobs requiring technological skills that will be an integral part of each profession. She is inspired by the creative opportunities that technology enables, allowing us to push the boundaries of our imaginations and its impact on the way we perceive our world. 

Muneera is a rising leader, a worthy recipient of the “40 Under 40” award and a true ‘Superstar of STEM’.