When Dr Muneera Bano was announced the winner at the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit last month, topping an impressive line-up that included writer Benjamin Law and educator Eddie Woo, her initial reaction was that of shock.
“Out of curiosity, I asked the convenor of the jury what was it that they saw, considering I’m an academic and there were a lot of famous people [among the finalists],” Bano told create.
“He said it was about the fact that I was the one who had only been in Australia for seven years and I had faced what they never did. My background and my story stood out.”
Born in Pakistan, Bano was the youngest of five siblings. From a young age she was acutely aware of the privilege that was education.
“My mother was denied access to education [in the 1960s in north-western Pakistan], whereas my father was allowed to go to North America for his education. The difference was based on their gender,” she said.
“I was born in the capital so I didn’t have to face the adversity of the patriarchal culture that my mother was raised in, and I could automatically access education. [Nonetheless], I never saw any female role models … So I decided to be one.”
Determined to counter the stereotypes, Bano chose to study computer science after Year 12.
“At that time, most girls went into the humanities, arts or home economics,” she said.
“There were a lot of raised eyebrows. It was a decision that was unusual but it was my personal decision. Nobody else made it for me.”
After completing a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, in 2012 Bano came to Australia as a research trainee at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
“I didn’t know anyone here and I’d never lived without my family,” she said.
“That was the biggest challenge: to keep myself on track with everything, the homesickness and the loneliness … My supervisor Professor Didar Zowghi was a great woman. She was originally from Iran and she understood my background. Having a mentor and a good supervisor and friends makes a huge difference in how you assimilate into a society.”
Bano completed her PhD in software engineering in 2015, after which she worked as a post-doctoral researcher at UTS. In 2017, she moved to Melbourne to work as a lecturer in software engineering at Swinburne University of Technology, and at the time of speaking with create, had just started a new position as a senior lecturer at Deakin University.
“The new position comes with more leadership responsibilities … but my main research focus is [still] requirements engineering, the socio-technical side of software engineering,” she said.
In her work, Bano focuses on human-centred technologies and the interaction between humans and machines.
“[For example], I have worked on a project about how technology can help vulnerable young parents,” she said.
“Another of my research projects, published by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at Kings College in London, was about online hate speech and how this impacts upon artificial intelligence algorithms.”
A STEM superstar
As well as being the overall winner of the 40 under 40 Award, Bano has an impressive array of accolades under her belt, including being named a finalist of Google Australia’s Anita Borg Award for Women in Computer Science in 2015.
She was the recipient of the Schlumberger Foundation’s Faculty for the Future Award for Women in STEM in 2014 and 2015, and was awarded the ‘Distinguished Research Paper Award’ at the International Requirements Engineering Conference held in August 2018.
But she says being named a “Superstar of STEM” last year was the defining moment of her career thus far.
“For the first time I raised my hand to make a visible profile for other women from a similar background as me, who didn’t have female role models to look up to,” she said.
“I wanted to show other international students that it requires a lot of hard work but it’s not impossible.”
An initiative of Science Technology Australia, the Superstars of STEM program aims to increase the public visibility of women in STEM and create role models for the next generation.
“I’ve also been able to connect with the other 59 Superstars of STEM from across Australia, [who] are all doing such amazing work … It was a very inspiring moment for me,” Bano said.
In her acceptance speech at the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit in September, Bano explained what the award meant to her.
“I came to Australia as an immigrant, single, Muslim, Pashtun woman from Pakistan, and each of these identifiers is a barrier that reinforces and enhances the others in a vicious cycle,” she said.
“Yet here I am today … winner of the 40 under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Leadership Award. This award is a huge honour and a giant leap for me in my commitment to inspire the next generation of women in science and technology.”