Reflecting on the #BalanceforBetter theme in an era of polarized extremes: a scholar’s perspective on International Women’s Day

Dr. Tammara Soma, REM Assistant Professor
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By Tammara Soma

As a newly minted faculty member at Simon Fraser University and a planning professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management, the theme of #BalanceforBetter is a poignant and yet oft-forgotten reminder of a pathway that will enable us to reach a more sustainable and equitable future. #BalanceforBetter is not just a mantra for multi-tasking academics, it is a mantra to address global issues ranging from climate change and food insecurity, to personal matters such as parenting and mental health. The 2019 International Women’s Day celebration is particularly important to my work in light of the ecofeminist movement and inspired by female scholars, scientists, and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Fatima al Fihri, Melanie Goodchild, Winona LaDuke, and Rachel Carson among many others. Despite structural and systemic obstacles, they all persevered.

As a hijab wearing woman and academic, and as someone wearing multiple hats (mentor, planner, mother etc.), I have faced numerous obstacles due to stereotypes that are based simply on my physical appearance or people’s misconception of my faith. Ranging from subversive comments doubting my ability to choose for myself (the trope of the passive, submissive women), to geopolitical and national security questions outside of my scope of expertise (sustainable food systems, waste management, and planning), to more outward racist comments due to lack of understanding or plain ignorance. These obstacles and challenges persist in public, during my travel to conferences, and even in the academic world. Nevertheless, I have built my work on the foundation of collaboration and from a planning perspective, diverging views and interests is something I come to expect in city and community building.

To manage diverse expectations and interests, I apply planning tools such as conflict resolution, public engagement, social innovation, and at the very basic level, my work requires that I listen to these different perspectives with empathy. Taking a balanced and empathetic approach is precisely why I engage with diverse stakeholders across multiple scales at the food systems lab (foodsystemslab.ca), an interdisciplinary women-led research lab that I co-founded with my colleague Belinda Li.

As my work deals with food systems and circular economy, it is important to note this International Women’s Day, that there are still systematic obstacles that women face when it comes to issues around food provisioning and food insecurity. For example, in Canada, Matheson and McIntyre (2014) noted that women respondents in their study consistently report higher household food insecurity than men in similar households. As such, critical to the much-needed transformation towards a more equitable food system is the important recognition and valorization of women’s knowledge. It is important to ensure that women are equitably represented, have spaces in positions of leadership, are represented in the media, and are consulted upon for their expertise.

On this day, I will be celebrating the strong women (and their allies) around the world who work to challenge stereotypes, open spaces for those who are marginalized, push for justice, and bring diverse people together to collaborate on solutions. As SFU is committed to becoming Canada’s top engaged university, I recently perused the university’s community engagement strategy and reflected upon what the university noted that we should be asking ourselves when engaging communities, “How is the community better?” I know one of the solutions! Join and celebrate the #Balanceforbetter movement, not just on International Women’s Day, but every day.

[1] Matheson, J., & McIntyre, L. (2014). Women respondents report higher household food insecurity than do men in similar Canadian households. Public health nutrition17(1), 40-48.