Aisha Al Marzouqi, the UAE’s first woman crane operator, works at Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: GN Archives

Women in the Arab world have made great strides over the past few decades, breaking stereotypes and emerging successful. 

Take countries such as Kuwait and Turkey, which boast relatively high percentages of women in scientific and tech fields. Or look at individuals like Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian, the only woman ever to receive the Fields Medal — the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics. And then there’s Etihad Airways, which employs a sizeable number of women pilots and technical staff. 

Progress has been made with respect to women in the region engaging in science, engineering, technology and mathematics (Stem) careers. 

But more needs to be done. Why, one may ask? Why do more girls need to think about Stem careers? Simply put, these fields, worldwide and even more so in the Middle East, offer the highest career growth potential and will eventually shape future economies. 

Various regional employment statistics point to more than 30 per cent expected growth in recruitment in IT and IT-enabled services, with IT, telecoms and health care leading all industry groups by way of long-term growth. So it holds to reason that women, who comprise 50 per cent of the population, should actively tap into these employment and economic opportunities. 

Similarly, as countries in the region transition into a post-hydrocarbon era, it is necessary that women are involved and contribute to the creation of innovation-, tech- and knowledge-based economies of the new Arab world. 

Having spoken to many women at various conferences and mentoring sessions across the region, it has been heartening to note their enthusiasm for leading in Stem careers. 

The UAE continues to be seen as a hub of Stem careers and opportunities. The country acts as a gateway for technological innovation and advancement in the region and serves as a role model for female empowerment for the rest of the Arab world. Women from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other places continue to make it home for realising their scientific career dreams. 

In terms of making society truly inclusive and positively impacting economic and social growth by encouraging women to embrace the Stem industry, the UAE stands out, boasting a positive trend 

in tertiary education, where nearly 60 per cent of women are opting for Stem subjects, according to a 2014 Economist Intelligence Unit report.

Challenges

However, this is not translating into more women in the Stem workforce. While women across the region are opting more for Stem subjects at the university level, in some places reaching nearly 70 per cent (for computing courses), the leaking pipeline, post education remains a problem. Social stigma associated with Stem careers (they are more demanding, masculine and/or aggressive) and the double burden syndrome — stereotyped female gender roles for familial and household responsibilities and child-rearing — result in a massive dropout rate of women from university to workplace, which is nearly 50 per cent in some places. For example, Oman and Qatar see only 30 per cent of women in the workforce, despite relatively high numbers at tertiary levels in Stem fields, largely computing and technology.

This is largely due to the gender bias faced by women in Stem workplaces. While sectors like banking and finance, especially in the UAE, are showing higher signs of acceptance of women — though still not as much in leadership positions — a lot remains to be done in engineering and scientific fields such as oil, gas and petrochemicals, where representation is only one third. 

However, for participation to improve it is essential to review the tertiary education curriculum to ensure the availability of appropriate technical and engineering courses. 

Making role models

Another example that bears testament to the growing power of women in the Arab world and their determination to succeed in Stem fields was seen during our Hackathon in January 2015. The All-Women Hackathon, one of the initiatives of our Women in Stem (WiStem) programme, saw the winning team, comprising five Saudi girls, code a fantastic mobile gaming app based on the customary henna patterns of the region, marrying technology with tradition. I think there is a key message for parents of women in the Arab world here: Embracing Stem careers does not mean forsaking family values or traditions. Both can coexist, while providing women economic freedom and growth opportunities in flourishing Stem industries. It’s a message we will push further at our February Hackathon, held at Astro Labs, JLT, where the theme is Smart Cities, an inspirational topic that is bound to invite a myriad of creative and brilliant applications that can change the world. 

While a lack of women role models in Stem careers persists in the region, the numbers keep growing and there are many inspirational stories out there, be it Mariam Al Mansouri, the UAE’s first female fighter pilot, or Aisha Al Marzouqi, the country’s first woman crane operator at Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi. There’s also Esra’a Al Shafei, a Bahraini civil rights activist, digital entrepreneur and founder of Mideast Youth at the age of 20; Saudi scientist Hayat Sindi; the Egyptian schoolgirl trio of Mona Al Sayet, Hoda Mamdouh and Sara Ezat, who won third place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles for their project; and the several other successful women in banking, health-care, research and technology careers. All are woman role models in Stem in the Arab world.

Our goal as part of the WiStem programme is to connect these role models with young girls — high school, undergraduates, interns, postgraduates and young employees — to inspire them with their stories, journeys, challenges and successes.

— The writer is Chairperson of the Meera Kaul Foundation. The Women in Stem All-Women Hackathon will be held on February 19-20 in Dubai. It brings together and challenges wannabe women tech entrepreneurs to develop mobile apps that present innovative solutions to the problems women face daily. To learn more, visit Meerakaul.com/meera/hackathon/dubai2016/