‘Your first enemy is yourself. You're the person who puts the limits on yourself’

Mabrouka 3

Of all the role models that could have given Dr Mabrouka Abuhmida the inspiration to succeed in the male-dominated world of computer science, it wasn’t a woman who passed on the key piece of advice that has guided her – it was some simple words of encouragement from her father.

“Your first enemy is yourself. You're the person who puts the limits on yourself - but break your rules, break your walls, and you'll be surprised what you can do.”

This mantra guided Mabrouka along the road to becoming a computer science lecturer at the University of South Wales (USW), and also to become a role model to other young women who may want to follow in her footsteps.

Mabrouka’s route to her current position started in her home city of Tripoli in Libya. Whilst there she started her studies, first focusing on engineering. However, following a move to Swansea in 2008, she started down a different path - initially getting a first-class honours degree in electronic computer systems from Swansea Metropolitan University, and then a Masters degree in computer networks from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. She followed this up by gaining a PhD in communication systems and computer science, while also studying for a PG Cert.

Having completed these studies, the 37-year-old mother-of-one took up a teaching role at Swansea University, and then moved to the University of South Wales (USW) to take up her current role.

Despite claims to the contrary, the move to South Wales was an inspiration for Dr Abuhmida.

“What was funny, when I moved to Swansea, was that I heard the city had been described as the ‘graveyard of ambition’, but it was the total opposite for me,” she said.

“My husband had been in Swansea at the time, and I just fell in love with the city. I wanted to be by the sea, and it was perfect, studying there and then getting a job in my chosen field.”

Having already been tasted success in study and her early career – at USW she is a course leader for students who want to specialise in artificial intelligence, a specialist in deep learning, and leads on research in those areas - Mabrouka is looking to use her experiences to help others overcome the challenges they may face.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the different approach to education for women in Libya, as opposed to that in the UK, has helped guide her efforts to empower the next generation.

“When I was studying in Libya I found that 90% of the people in the classes were female,” she said.

“That’s because, historically, women’s education was stigmatised, but a lot of work was done throughout the years to support women’s education, so it became something that is natural to walk in a room full of women being on very high-end career pathways, so I didn’t really notice.

“So, when I came to the UK, I didn't really notice that the room was empty of females. There was a lot of talk here about the gap in STEM between men and women, but it has never been mentioned back in Libya.”

This difference wasn’t initially a challenge for Mabrouka, but began to manifest itself after she had been on her course for a number of months.

“The difficulty I found was, after about six months, I was struggling, being the only female in the class, and had nobody to turn to,” Mabrouka explained.

“The others in the class were gentlemen, holding open the doors and waiting for me to sit down first, but it struck me that I was different and we didn’t have those common characteristics that bring people together.

“This is why I started to learn more about the gap in the field, trying to understand the roots of the problem, because, still, it didn't really register in my brain.

“What I did know was that I found the simplest things very difficult - talking in a crowd, speaking up in a classroom, raising up my hand - because everybody will be looking at me, the only female in the room. And then I realised it's a problem that comes from an early age – seeing people like you doing the things you aspire to be is so important, but it only struck me as I came into a world where I was the only woman in that environment.”

Mabrouka 4

These experiences inspired Mabrouka to embrace ways that she could empower the next generation of girls, and now It has turned into a major pursuit which sees her going into schools - supported by a dedicated team at USW - to describe her experiences, by delivering academic lectures, and by delivering hands-on sessions directly to youngsters.

“I find that, when I help others directly, I am able to use my experiences of learning to, hopefully, give them the motivation to challenge themselves,” Mabrouka said.

“I focus on what I call ‘climbing the mountain’, highlighting issues such as unconscious bias, social expectations, and the need to be vigilant about these. I also talk to them about empowering themselves. It's one thing for me to encourage them - but it's more powerful and more impactful if it comes from within.

“There’s also the difference between being smart and having intelligence. I don't believe in ‘smart’, it is something that we created as societies to limit our abilities. I believe in ‘intelligence’, which is in every one of us. Some of us recognise it, and develop it, some don't, because of all the external factors that we receive.

“And when you can help the individuals discover their own skills, which is what I aim to do in the hands-on sessions I run, you can see all types of individuals – both the introvert and extrovert -  accepting the abilities they have, and that they can do more than what they think they can.

“The academic lectures also give me an opportunity to give some extra motivation. Although the focus is on more technical topics, I am able to use some of my personal background to help offer motivation – I tell them, if I can do this - I'm young, I'm International and female, I'm a computer scientist, I'm a specialist. I'm a programmer, I play guitar, and I love photography - if I made it here, and I could do all this, then you can do it too.”

Having used the wise words of her father to inspire her already very successful journey, Mabrouka has also learned the importance of another key group who can guide an individual’s success – work colleagues who can offer support along the way.

“Having the right people around you and leading you is vital to your success,” she said.

“What has influenced me a lot in my work is having people around me who believed in me. Call them managers, leaders, whatever it may be, they could see the potential and were there to support me to do what I need to do.

“And that’s the same for anybody. Give a person room for autonomy, don’t micromanage them, believe in them, and that will make a lot of difference to them and the team they work in.”