On Gender Dimensions of Education, Communication and Ethical Leadership

By Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, PhD

Over the last few years as a member of SAYAS and a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg I’ve had the opportunity to branch out and contribute as an Education for Justice Champion for the United Nations, where I am also a consultant faculty member of their Leadership, Women and the UN Program. Among my various responsibilities, I’ve been involved in creating partnerships between the United Nations and education/academia to explore how various communication paradigms can impact and enrich ethical leadership and in particular its gender dimensions. In the course of this, I have been helping develop, roll out and conduct the impact assessment study of a tertiary level curriculum called Education for Justice. What has stood out from my findings and what intrigues me particularly as a woman with a complex ethico-cultural background is that relational or what I like to call mutualistic paradigms of communication are best suited to help promote ethical leadership and governance, empower women and raise integrity in the sciences and in many other fields and institutions.

My point of departure for this is the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, in light of which equality, ethics and integrity are thought to require a foundational outlook that is world-embracing. The assumption is that we cannot foster these values nor the institutions that support them, if, as individuals, communities and societies we are focused only on our own interests or the interests of our closest group of peers. Sustainable, ethical governance that is inclusive and diverse requires looking towards the good of other individuals, communities and societies. It requires a broader outlook and other-regard. Through programs such as Education for Justice, we are able to widen the sense of responsibility and identification participants have towards others. Our pre- and post-survey data evidences an expanded sense of relationality that goes from smaller, more insular understandings to ever-expanding notions of solidarity with the human family at large. In providing content that exposes participants to meaningful explorations around values and lawfulness, we can see foundation-building for peace, justice and strong institutions and a nuanced and richly-textured global identity that empowers women and fosters equality.

But it is not just through the content of curricula that we can achieve the above. My research shows that deliberative, collaborative approaches to communication are key. Through the participatory methodology, we find in programs such as Education for Justice, participants can actively engage in co-studying and co-shaping curricula together with lecturers and scientists who act as facilitators. This paradigm draws from feminism, from theories of the global South – particularly Ubuntu – and from the Baha’i notion of consultation. It empowers individuals and in particularly women/girls as well as those, whose voices are routinely marginalized, and it does so by democratising communication and leadership. By democratization, I do not mean established Western liberal notions of competition that pit ideas and interests against each other in mutually exclusive ways. Contrarily, those approaches demean, exclude and amplify those who are already privileged by the established discourse. It is another, gentler and more inclusive form of democracy that is created through relational communication strategies. This transcends partisan approaches and allows lesser-heard perspectives to enter the discourse, to complement and enrich others in a process that is mutually reinforcing and empowering.

Beyond the content and methodology we pursue in delivering curricula, what is also important is our intention and emphasis. From my personal observations as both a facilitator of the Education for Justice program and someone who regularly accompanies others in facilitating these modules, it has become clear that we can only create spaces for equality and ethical leadership when we cultivate possibility and optimism. In other words, while it is important to outline, understand and unpack issues such as inequality or corruption, it is even more important to spend time on providing possible solutions for promoting equality, ethics, integrity and good governance. The emphasis must be on equality and good governance, with anti-discrimination or anti-corruption as sub-goals. In particular, it is also helpful and empowering to offer or explore tangible actions and steps that can be taken for both women and men to tackle the various challenges that exist in achieving equality and ethical governance. This helps activate hope and mobilize action among all.

Going forward there are many opportunities for partnerships that could enhance the above endeavours. I’m thinking particularly of grassroots community projects that are gaining momentum all over the world, both in rural and urban contexts. In these settings, youth and junior youth engage in community-building and development that is self-driven. There are examples of groups all over South Africa, for example, but also in Europe, where I currently consult. In Vienna, for instance, there is a group that has formed around a district with a great number of refugees. Youth from various ethnic and religious backgrounds get together to create bonds of friendship, engage in sports, arts and the study of meaningful, empowering texts. They also introduce a spiritual dimension, which is powerful and empowering as it transcends sectarian and gender divides and focuses on what people have in common, namely the desire to lead good lives and to serve their fellow humans. I think these sites of experimentation are rife with opportunity and should be exploited together with the more formal work that is done in academia and through the United Nations.



LeylaDr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian is a senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg and a consultant for UNSSC, where she is a faculty member of the Leadership, Women and the UN program. Her areas of expertise include media, communication, leadership, ethics, education, development and governance. Leyla regularly lectures and keynotes at international fora such as TEDx, The US State Department, NATO Building Integrity and the UNSSC/University of Stellenbosch Business School MBA program in Managing International Organizations and continues to produce television content for Persian Baha’i media services. She serves on the editorial board of an international communication journal and is a member of the South African Communication Association as well as the Young Academy of Science. Leyla is also a South African Women in Science Awards nominee.  Social Media handles: @/lavidaleyla


Mentors Matter

A factor that had the biggest impact on making my journey as a woman in a male-dominated field easier was the luck of having good mentors and role models. I have been fortunate in finding women who I could relate to and who believed in me, which helped me get through tough times and helped my career progress so far.

There is an important difference between a mentor and a role model. A mentor is someone who knows you personally, advocates for you and supports you in a professional capacity. A mentor can be your supervisor, but may even be someone completely outside your narrow field of study. Whereas a role model is someone you may not know personally, but you can relate to in terms of their journey and their values. They often represent something you would like to replicate in your own life or career. Finding mentors and role models can be quite challenging, but the search pays off in many different ways.

Although many postgraduate programmes and universities run mentorship programmes, I have found my mentors informally like most South African students. As an undergrad, I would often ask questions in class and speak to my lecturers and tutors afterwards. This helped me form a relationship with the academics and postgrad students, which made it easier to seek out advice from them when I needed it. If I am struggling with something, I know there are several people who want me to succeed and would be willing to help me – whether it is directing me to resources on writing a good application letter, listening to me vent about a difficult course, or helping me find an internship.

A good mentor will help you progress as a scientist. By sharing their knowledge and experience, they can improve your skills and help you grow as a researcher and as a person. You should also be willing to take their criticism – which should always be constructive – and approach them with respect and eagerness! 

I would like to emphasise that although there are advantages to having a mentor who shares part of your identities, such as your gender, race or religion, for example, a good mentor does not have to be someone who resembles you. As I was working on this post, I attended the UCT Vice Chancellor’s Postgraduate Brunch. During her talk, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng also mentioned the importance of having a mentor. She shared her definition of a good mentor, as someone who is “‘highly achieved and generous with their knowledge”. To me, these are some of the most important characteristics of a good mentor as well – someone who cares about your progress and can help you grow as an academic. 

In rWhatsApp Image 2019-08-22 at 10.07.25ole models, however, it is more important to have people who you can identify with. When I started studying astrophysics, I didn’t know of any other Muslim women in my field. Like many sciences, astronomers also wanted to stay as far away from anything political as they could, which felt isolating as someone who cares about social justice. It was comforting to me when I stumbled across a blog post about Naziyah Mahmood – a Muslim aerospace engineer who advocates for women in STEM, and seeing Professor Chanda Prescond-Weinstein openly discuss politics, share advice on surviving academia as a woman of colour and – most importantly – happily talk about her work on axions on twitter has been incredibly valuable to my experience as a scientist. 

Up until recently, most portrayals of scientists have focused on white men in lab coats, but fortunately, there has been a shift in popular culture to diversify this image. With movies like Hidden Figures and even seeing women as scientists in the cartoons my 3-year-old niece watches, it’s reassuring to know that, in the future, girls will easily be able to see themselves as scientists.

I hope that this post will inspire you to seek out new mentors and look out for role models. Who inspires you to be a better scientist?