Saadia Muzaffar - Creating Change for Girls
During Saadia's childhood she was often told that she was 'too much.' She wasn't. She was just curious. And that curiosity unravelled into answering the question, "why can't girls do this?" The answer has always been: they can. And Saadia is making sure girls know that. She's the founder and CEO of TechGirls Canada, a non-profit organization committed to developing solutions that address barriers in the fields of STEM - Science, Tech, Engineering and Math. TechGirls is about creating diversity and equality for girls.
We had a lot to talk about during our walk through High Park where Saadia often goes to clear her mind with a walking meditation. We talked through what it’s like to be an immigrant woman of colour, childhood revelations, and how adopting a dog completely changes your life. The hard hitting stuff.
tell me about your childhood. what was it like?
My childhood was spent questioning my place in the world. I remember telling my third grade teacher that I feel too much. I think that was my way of saying the world, and what was happening around me, was overwhelming to me. I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged my curiosity and I drowned myself in books, art, travel, and asking "why can't girls do that?" over and over again until I started getting told I was too much. Too bold, too clever, too curious, too sure.
How was the experience of moving countries for you?
I moved from Pakistan to Canada when I was 19. At that age, you're very aware of having to straddle two worlds, and the feeling that you don't belong anywhere. But I was also excited by the notion of getting to reimagine who I could be in this new reality. That I could rewrite some of the narratives I had been forced into for 19 years. To my mother's horror I landed here and chopped off my hair as a sign of starting fresh. Years later, she would tell me she did the same thing when she started college. People are funny in what they forget and what they choose to remember.
You worked in finance before switching to the non-profit sector. What is it like to work as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
A strange thing about being in large systems like this is that you're forced to accept it and integrate into it. But my nature always ensured that I didn't accept the status quo. But I didn't know what the alternative looked like. I also didn't have the vocabulary to express the million paper cuts I was feeling every day being a woman, a person of colour, and an immigrant. I fought back the best I could, but you can see that it wasn't always easy.
How did the idea of TechGirls Canada come to you? What does your organization do?
TechGirls Canada, or TGC, was born out of frustration. When we started five years ago, there wasn't a lot of talk on diversity. And when there was, it referred to "women" which translated to mostly straight, abled-bodied, white women. Someone like me had almost no place in this conversation with my many intersecting identities and experiences. TechGirls Canada (TGC) is the hub for Canadian women in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math (STEM). Proudly supporting Women of Colour, LGBTTQ, and Indigenous trailblazers. TGC is committed to fostering collaboration in designing solutions to address the barriers for diversity and equity in the technology sector. TGC works to advocate for resources, funding, private and public sector partnership opportunities, and catalyze joint programs.
In your opinion, what does the world need more of?
The world needs more people saying, "Huh, I hadn't thought of it that way." We are drowning in a lot of performance of allyship with not enough of us doing the work of unlearning what terrible social systems like toxic masculinity, racism, and patriarchy have taught us. We squander so many opportunities for becoming better humans when we get defensive. Next time you are presented with information that counters what you believe about someone's lived experience that you don't share, try saying "Huh, I hadn't thought of it that way," and taking a step back.
What is your advice for young women looking to pursue their careers in STEM?
Build a group of supportive people around you who will lift you up when these sectors weigh you down. Stay focused on doing your best work. Keep your receipts. Ask for help. Don't drink the Kool-aid of "always be closing" - give your body the sleep it needs.