In the Middle East, more women enrol in degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related subjects than men, a study by The Economist revealed recently. February 11 this year was also marked as the first ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science. One of UNESCO’s objectives in setting this day was to encourage more women to enter STEM-related studies and jobs.
The number of women participating in STEM-related PhDs and careers dwindle when compared to men. Clearly, although the Middle East does not have an issue in the enrolment rate of women in STEM subjects it does have an issue in retaining them and providing them with the opportunities to grow and succeed in their chosen field of study.
Root of disconnect
There is a clear leak in the pipeline between completing tertiary education in STEM, which Arab women are more than capable of doing, and achieving advance research in the area. In Saudi Arabia, for example, although there are more female undergraduates in STEM than there are men, a mere 29 percent pursue education in these subjects past their undergraduate degree, according to UNESCO, and an even smaller 1 percent of researchers are women.
The root of the disconnect between education and the labour force can be tracked back to the absence of role models, the lack of opportunities that allow women to juggle socio-cultural norms while pursuing further personal development and poor financial support opportunities when it comes to scholarships aimed at women.
Women in STEM are under-represented at management and technical levels across the world, but even more so in the Middle EastYara al-Wazir
Women in STEM-related industries are under-represented at management and technical levels across the world, but even more so in the Middle East. The Arabian Business list of 100 most powerful Arab women has less than 20 percent women in the science, construction (engineering-related), or IT industries.
The majority of women in STEM subjects happen to come from either the Arabian Gulf countries or Lebanon. The rest of the women are in retail, culture and society, or the business and finance industries. Without being disrespectful toward the incredible women and their strong achievements one can say that this list is a testament to the failure of governments, culture, and society to foster an environment that encourages women to thrive in technical STEM-related fields.
However, role models inspire women to achieve greater heights. Having role models from similar educational, cultural, and monetary backgrounds makes success seem that much more realistic and achievable and therefore pushes women to work even harder.
Additionally, role models can provide strong mentoring and support to women, which their Arab male counterparts may find in after-work activities at their local golf club or shisha bar. Sadly, the region faces a severe shortage of Arab women as role models and mentors in STEM-related industries.
Critical for growth
The case for involving more Arab women in STEM-related careers is not just about allowing them fulfil their dreams – it’s also about the economy. Involving women in STEM-related careers is key to the region’s advancement. STEM industries are some of the fastest growing industries in the world. Middle East cannot expect to catch up with the rest of the world, or even be at par with it, if it leaves 50 percent of its population behind.
More efforts are needed to attract and retain women in STEM-related subjects. University degrees are more than just wall-decorations; they are the key to entering a world of opportunities, for the individual and for the region. Thus, the socio-cultural barriers that restrict the activities of women outside of traditional working hours must be waived.
Governments and private firms need to put in more efforts to allow women to achieve their goals – all of them, whether they are at home, or at work. Additionally, more female role models and opportunities to network are required to make this change come about.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir