But, like women elsewhere, they lag when it comes to careers in these fields. As recent research shows, bridging this gap matters not just for women, but for the future of us all. So, how come Arab women are thriving in science and math education? The New York Times tells this story.
IN THE MIDDLE EAST, WOMEN ARE BREAKING THROUGH THE STEM CEILING
Here’s a strange paradox: In the Middle East, where many countries face stark gender inequality, women earn more science and math degrees per capita than their counterparts in the United States and Europe. In fact, up to 57 percent 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 percent of all undergraduate degrees in STEM, or even in 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 only 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 fervor for higher education, more women are attending Qatar’s private universities — and more are pursuing traditionally male-dominated career paths, including engineering and science. Qatar Foundation’s 3,000-acre Education City campus, home to eleven K-12 schools and nine leading universities — including branches of Georgetown, Cornell and Texas A&M — standing alongside a science and technology park, global innovation forums, a modern art museum, start-up incubators and more.
Many of these Qatari campuses are already drawing much greater percentages of women in their programs than similar ones in the U.S. At Texas A&M University at Qatar, women account for 51.6 percent of all undergraduate engineers — more than double the U.S. national average of 23.4 percent.“For people who have never been to the Middle East, they may well think women here are somehow oppressed, covered up and kept at a different level,” says 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 stubborn stereotypes elsewhere, adds 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.
“THE WOMEN IN ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE HERE OUTNUMBER MEN AND, OFTEN, THEY PERFORM BETTER.”Mashael Al-Sabah
Up to 57%
of all STEM graduates in Arab countries are women.
This sentiment is 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 says. “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.”
THE WOMEN CHALLENGING STEM’S STATUS QUO IN QATAR
From current students to alumni, here are the stories of some women of Education City who have broken through stereotypes in Qatar to pursue their dreams in STEM.
For 14-year-old Al Shamari, technology “is the solution to everything.” “Take astrophysics, for example. If we have a way to control it, we have a way of sustaining life on Earth without having to go back to traditional ways.”
Now a student at Qatar Academy for Science and Technology, she says she enrolled because the only other STEM school for her age group in Qatar is an all-boy school. “Here, everyone puts gender aside because that doesn’t matter in education. We all know how to work together,” she says. And for the future? “I want to go to MIT. There was a girl who graduated from MIT who figured out the algorithm for the black hole picture. It’s like a 900,000-line algorithm to figure out where to put the pieces, and I’m really impressed by her.”
“I LOVE SCIENCE AND ESPECIALLY ASTROPHYSICS. PEOPLE ALWAYS LOOK TO THE GROUND FOR SOLUTIONS. WHY DON’T WE LOOK UP?”
As a part of her course, Abdalla, a student at Texas A&M University in Qatar, is currently making an innovative type of low-fuel vehicle — from scratch. But even for a pioneering engineer like her, gender expectations have been hard to escape. “We were taking the car from the garage to the lab,” she says, “and this guy shouted at my [male] friend, saying he should help me carry it!”
The 22-year-old, who is studying mechanical engineering, says she likes that engineering opens up many different areas of work. “I feel that there will always be a need for scientists and engineers. As an engineer, you feel like you’ve got some skills that other people may not have — and I like that.” After graduation, Abdalla is set to start a Ph.D. in Virginia, in the U.S.
“ONE OF THE THINGS I REALLY LIKE ABOUT GOING INTO ENGINEERING IS THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY GO INTO SO MANY OTHER AREAS. I LIKE THAT IT TRAINS YOUR MIND IN A CERTAIN WAY AND I FEEL THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A NEED FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS.”
Al-Oreibi was among the first groups of students to attend Texas A&M University in Qatar. “I wanted to stay in Qatar for university, and Texas A&M was opening here at the time,” she says. “It’s still a male-dominated industry, but in my class there were six girls and five guys, so we had a pretty good head start.”
Now a reservoir engineer at Shell, Al-Oreibi says she’s excited to be a part of the transition toward sustainability in oil and gas. “We have more awareness around our carbon footprint, something that wasn’t as strongly driven when I first joined the industry,” she says. “I’m very proud to be contributing to the global energy supply and doing so in a safe, environmentally friendly manner.”
“WITH SCIENCE, FOR ME, THE SKY’S THE LIMIT. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING WITH IT, AND YOU CAN HAVE AN IMPACT. AT THE END OF THE DAY, I’D LIKE TO THINK THAT WHAT I DO ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS HAS A POSITIVE IMPACT ON MY SOCIETY AND THE HUMAN RACE.”
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 enter the job force — or rather, don’t. In fact, 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,” says 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 OECD countries, 71 percent of male graduates in STEM subjects work as professionals in STEM fields, compared with only 43 percent of female graduates, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
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 low awareness about what a career in STEM entails to a lack of female role models and a family 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,” says 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 important. “The workplace as we know it today was created around 100, 150 years ago by men, for men,” she says.
“THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE IS BIOLOGICAL, EVOLUTIONARY — WOMEN HAVE BABIES AND NEED TO NURSE THEM. AND THE MODERN WORKPLACE DOESN’T FIT THIS.”Sana Odeh
of the total student body at Texas A&M University in Qatar are women.
Anna Paolini, director of Unesco’s regional office in Doha, agrees. “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” that Paolini points to 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 percent for much of the developing world.
And nowhere is diversity 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. They work for socially important goals that help humanity,” he says.
“SCIENCE CAN ACCOMMODATE — AND NEEDS — THESE DIFFERENCES. SCIENCE DOES NOT EXCLUDE NOR DOES IT PREVENT SUCCESS BASED ON PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS.”Andrei Cimpion
of female STEM graduates in OECD countries work in STEM fields, vs. 71% of male graduates.
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,” she says. “And if we keep this male dominance in STEM, we are skipping 50 percent of human resources around the world. With a diverse group, you have more opportunities to find the right way to solve problems.”