How more women can be encouraged to take up STEM careers in the Middle East

Apps, artificial intelligence, fifth-generation telephony, the internet of things, drones, advanced metallurgy, microchips, algorithms, and coding. Buzzwords of the moment, to be sure — but also growth areas of the current and future economy. 

Young people today who want to succeed in these fields will require strong quantitative skills based in hard sciences such as mathematics. And technology. And engineering. Call it STEM.

In the Middle East, much work needs to be done to shift education patterns for its youth, particularly women. The good news is that some have started. Experts in the field told Arab News that mentoring, instilling a culture of experimentation and overcoming failure, and breaking down stereotypes will go a long way to ensure further progress.

Around the world, only 18% of women in college and universities are pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, compared with 35% of men, according to the UN. This means that there is a dire shortage of software engineers but, at the same time, strong demand for more young people to learn how to work in the digital space.

“These figures aren’t surprising as we’ve known for a long time that there is a STEM gap around the world and here in the region,” said Eslam Hussein, Co-founder and CEO, Invygo, a car rental app based in Dubai. “But this is a time of positive change and there’s so much happening to boost STEM education, particularly for women.”

In the Middle East, women already account for almost half the total STEM student population. Hussein pointed to Saudi Arabia, where he said the government is leading from the front to resolve the STEM gap by encouraging learning and careers in the field.

The Kingdom has created Saudi Codes, a Misk Foundation, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, and Saudi Telecom Company initiative to teach computer programming in an accessible and relevant way.

Saudi entrepreneur Nora Al-Nashwan and her friend Deema Alamer set up Code for Girls in 2018 to give Saudi women the skills necessary to join the tech industry.

In 2017, Dubai created its One Million Arab Coders initiative, offering prizes of up to $1 million. In February, it said that 1.2 million people had signed up.

“Complementing these initiatives is the rise of the startup ecosystem. Women entrepreneurs are also encouraging young female students to take up learning in STEM fields,” Eslam said.

Nevertheless, studies have shown that women prefer to pursue studies in biological sciences, business administration, psychology, human resources and social work.

Dr. Rita Zgheib, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Applied Science and Technology, Canadian University Dubai, believes the findings are consistent across much of the world.

“The figure is the same in many European countries, too. It has been linked to cultural history, where women are oriented toward simple tasks, and also to preconceived notions about engineering,” she told Arab News.

“Most women with high capabilities and the skills to integrate and excel in engineering have a false understanding of engineering,” Dr. Rita told Arab News. “They think that it is hard, and they are often afraid.”

She recommends more orientation sessions at school, as well as high-profile women describing their experiences. Nevertheless, challenges persist. Stereotyping and a lack of knowledge around education in STEM subjects are common.

Dr. Rita highlights marriage and female domestic responsibilities as barriers, pushing women to pursue less-demanding jobs. “There’s a lack of orientation and motivation,” she said.

Dr. Yousef Al-Assaf, President, Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai, said that not all regional universities fall into the low-figure bracket for women in STEM, highlighting the institute’s 23 percent ratio as an example.

“There are girls who would like to study computing more than mechanical engineering,” he told Arab News.

“So, we have to make the right initiatives and encouragement for them to be more (motivated). The region lacks coders because it’s accustomed to just adopting solutions and implementing them, but having software engineering as a discipline is new and we need more. What we make of those figures is what we have to think about carefully.”

Creating awareness of the career paths and opportunities available while studying and working in STEM may help.

Nathalie Chamaa, Head of Products, FlexxPay, an online platform based in Dubai that allows employees to access their pay, said that tech companies need to recruit female talent into their teams and invest in professional growth.

“Technology companies in the region, which are predominantly male oriented, need to establish a gender-equal culture that will help drive communication, teamwork and leadership in the workforce,” Nathalie said.

“This will create a more inclusive work environment where women feel empowered to excel in their roles.”

According to Eslam, the possibilities for women who join and stay in technology companies are endless. Equipped with just a computer and an Internet connection, young talent can achieve a great deal, he said.

“With the rise of new learning platforms and teaching methods, the barriers to STEM education are being removed rapidly. This is a time to achieve the impossible.”

So how to get there? There is a need for more mentorship for young students, especially females. In Saudi Arabia, 38% of Saudi graduates in STEM are women, but only 17% of these go on to work in related fields.

“It is critical that education is able to translate into long-term careers,” Eslam said. “We also need to encourage a culture of experimentation. This will create a major mindset shift, driving young talent to test their skills, create new concepts, and bring new, ground-breaking ideas to life.”

Providing scholarships and training to young women can shape ambition.

According to Dr. Yousef, research by RIT showed girls perform better than boys academically. “We need to change the mindset, whether from government, NGOs or academia, because, to date, women have been encouraged to study subjects that are compatible with society’s norms,” he said.

“It’s changing, but maybe parents and teachers can encourage more.”

Vandana Mahajan, Founder, Futures Abroad, a Dubai-based consultancy that helps students choose courses overseas, said that small changes in departments such as physics and computer science, and provision for a broader overview of the introductory courses on offer, can make a significant difference.

“Institutions can employ more female professors to change this perception and to motivate girls. Mentoring programs can help along with effective work-life balance policies for all faculty members. We have to make a conscious effort at home to eliminate this gender bias and to encourage girls to explore STEM-related courses,” Vandana said.

Enabling students to solve real-world problems through early direct-learning experiences can inspire and motivate for the long term. Inculcating a sense that it is not the end of the world to fail is also important.

“In our industry, many problems have many solutions and it’s OK to experiment with different ways and fail more than once,” said Charbel Nasr, Chief Technology Officer, FlexxPay.

“Experimentation is key to keep improving and innovating. Students should be taught how to overcome failure, not fear it.”

With a population of over 500 million across the region, and as legacy industries undergo digitalization, investment in talent today will reap dividends for future generations.

“Innovation-centric initiatives, like Saudi Codes by Misk and Code for Girls, are already attracting a high number of participants, and the levels of interest in coding being shown by young Saudi women is indicative of their potential,” Hussein said.

This will be critical for the future of the Arab region, as it will need to have the right skills to keep pace with the rest of the world.

“STEM encourages innovation and creativity,” Vandana said.

“Scientists and engineers are working on solving some of the most vexing challenges of our time: Finding cures for diseases, providing clean drinking water and developing renewable energy sources. When women are not a part of the design of these products, the needs and desires unique to women may be overlooked.”

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