In the Middle East, where many women in many countries face stark inequality, women achieve more science and math degrees per capita than their counterparts in the United States and Europe. In fact, up to 57% of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates in Arab countries are women, according to UNESCO.
Compare this with the United States, where women account for no more than 35% of all undergraduate degrees in STEM, or even the European Union, where there are roughly twice as many male graduates in STEM studies as there are female graduates.
On the other hand, take Qatar, a small country with a population of just 2.8 million. The country’s first university, Qatar University, opened its doors in 1973, with separate faculties for men and women. But by 2012, there were almost twice as many female students enrolled in the university as there were males.
Bolstered by the country’s high uptake of higher education, more women are attending Qatar’s private universities — and more are pursuing traditionally male-dominated career paths, including engineering and science. The Qatar Foundation’s 3,000-acre Education City campus is home to eleven K-12 schools and nine leading universities — including branches of Georgetown, Cornell and Texas A&M — and stands alongside a science and technology park, runs global innovation forums, and includes a modern art museum, and start-up incubators.
Many of these Qatari campuses are already proving as much of a draw for women as their parent institutions. At Texas A&M University in Qatar, women account for 46% of the total student body; at Texas A&M's main US campus, women account for 48% of the enrollment. “For people who have never been to the Middle East, they may well think women here are oppressed, and kept at a different level,” said Lama Al-Oreibi, reservoir engineer at Shell and former student at Texas A&M University in Qatar. “But engineering and science are professions that are looked upon highly in this part of the world. And I was encouraged by my family to pursue this path.”
In contrast to stereotypes elsewhere, added Mashael Al-Sabah, a cybersecurity scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute inside Education City, Qatari people don’t generally perceive men to be better at science and math.
This sentiment was echoed by Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist and associate professor at Hashemite University, who is currently writing a paper about this subject, slated for publication later this year. “[Middle Eastern] women’s attraction to STEM studies is something that runs much deeper than the region’s modern history,” she said. “A theme in Islamic culture is that you are respected for your mind. Therefore, if you go into science, this is something respectful, because it celebrates your mind — and this was the same for boys and girls.”
But for Veronica Bermudez, senior research director for energy at Education City’s Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, the real issue comes after university, when these highly educated women are qualified for the workforce. Although Qatar’s female labor-force participation ranks higher than the world average, the proportion of Qatari women in the work force still lags slightly behind that in developed countries. “In the renewable energy sector, for example, the growth expectations in terms of jobs are going to triple in the next 10, 20 years,” said Bermudez. “We really need to engage more females in STEM to be able to address that challenge.”
Despite regional differences in female participation in STEM education, getting more women into science and math jobs remains a challenge across the world. High female participation in STEM education doesn’t necessarily translate into employment. Across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, 71% of male graduates in STEM subjects work as professionals in STEM fields, compared with only 43% of female graduates.
For Arab women in particular, a number of barriers block them from finding employment in their respective STEM fields. UNESCO’s “Science Report: Towards 2030” points to everything from poor awareness about what a career in STEM entails, to a lack of female role models, and a cultural bias against working in mixed-gender environments. A dearth of suitable positions can hold women back, too. “We simply don’t have a market like Silicon Valley,” said Sana Odeh, clinical professor of computer science at New York University in Abu Dhabi, who’s working on a study on Middle Eastern women’s participation in STEM. “There aren’t thousands of jobs that are opened up by these large companies.”
Then, of course, there are the more universal issues, which for Dajani are every bit as relevant. “The workplace was created around 100, 150 years ago by men, for men,” she said.
Anna Paolini, director of UNESCO’s regional office in Doha, agreed: “We see willingness and interest from women to continue working, but once they get married many don’t go back to work, and that’s a loss for the system and for countries as small as Qatar.”
This loss takes a toll on the bottom line, too. A growing body of evidence shows that more diverse organizations enjoy greater creativity, stronger governance, better problem-solving skills and increased profitability. What’s more, an International Monetary Fund report from this year states that the growth gains from adding more women to the labor force are larger than previously thought — closing the gender gap could increase GDP by an average of 35% for much of the developing world.
Nowhere is gender balance so valuable as in scientific study itself, according to Andrei Cimpion, associate professor of psychology at New York University, who has conducted studies on gender stereotypes in STEM. “The reality of what scientists do is that they work in teams,” he said. “They work for socially important goals that help humanity.”
However, for Bermudez, the costs of a lack of diversity in STEM could be even greater than that. “Men and women see things from a different point of view, and if we keep this male dominance in STEM, we are missing out on 50% of human resources around the world,” she said. “With a diverse group, you have more opportunities to find the right way to solve problems.”
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