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Time to ensure women get fair chance in science

A student at Khalifa University Abu Dhabi conducts an experiment in the university’s fluids and low speed aerodynamics lab. (Khalifa University)
A student at Khalifa University Abu Dhabi conducts an experiment in the university’s fluids and low speed aerodynamics lab. (Khalifa University)
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26 Feb 2021 04:02:49 GMT9
Maha Akeel
26 Feb 2021 04:02:49 GMT9

I was not fond of physics when I was in school, although I was very much aware of its importance as a subject, having grasped the significance of gravity, the atom and the theory of relativity. On the other hand, I did enjoy biology and chemistry, dissecting frogs and mixing chemicals in the lab. I was also good at math, algebra and geometry.

At one point, I considered going for a scientific field of study or becoming a doctor like my father wished, but I did not think I could tolerate the bloody part of medicine. And female members of the family who had pursued a degree in science or math either became teachers or stayed at home without work after graduation due to the limited job opportunities for women. Many women also drop out of medical school and other scientific fields or leave work after getting married and having children. Generally, fewer girls go into scientific fields compared to the humanities, business or the arts.

But things have changed considerably for women during the past 10 years, with more colleges in computer science and engineering, in addition to medicine and medical sciences, opening up. There are more job opportunities too, especially under Vision 2030, which identified female empowerment and gender equality as one of its main objectives.

However, women around the world still face many hurdles during their education and careers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

On Feb. 11, we celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Unlike in previous years, this time we felt the critical role of science and medicine in our lives first-hand. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists and medical personnel have been fighting the virus, advancing our knowledge of it, and developing techniques for testing and vaccinating against it, all while also treating and caring for the infected. And female scientists and doctors have been at the center of this effort. The scientists who developed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were a husband and wife team.

Nevertheless, just as the coronavirus disease has had a negative impact on women’s family life and employment, it has also had a significant negative impact on women scientists, particularly those in the early stages of their career. This will contribute to widening the existing gender gap in science and will reveal the gender disparities in the scientific system, according to UNESCO. At present, fewer than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women.

According to UNESCO data from 2014 to 2016, only 35 percent of all female students around the world select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in information and communications technology (3 percent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 percent), and engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 percent).

UNESCO has called for new policies, initiatives and mechanisms to support women and girls in science. In order to do that, we need to understand the factors that deter women from pursuing careers in STEM. Among these factors are gender biases, social norms and expectations influencing the quality of the education girls receive and the subjects they study. This gender disparity is a serious problem in all countries, especially as STEM careers are often referred to as the “jobs of the future,” driving innovation, social well-being, inclusive growth and sustainable development. Scientists will play a key role in addressing the challenges of food security, climate change, clean energy, health, water and sanitation, in addition to our everyday lives and activities through computers and gadgets. It is imperative that we encourage girls and women to enter STEM education and careers, and continue in the field.

Statistics show there has been an incremental increase in the enrolment of female students on STEM degree courses, but this is not translating into a greater presence of women in high-level decision and policymaking roles. According to recent studies, 41 percent of Ph.D. students in STEM fields are women. Among these, just 28 percent are on the tenure track. Disproportionate differences in the share of women researchers also exist at regional and national levels. In regions such as Central and Eastern Europe, the Arab world, Latin America and the Caribbean and Central Asia, women make up between 39 percent and 48.5 percent of researchers. In North America, Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, and South and West Asia, the figure is between 23.1 percent and 32.9 percent.

It is interesting to note that many Arab and Muslim countries are doing much better than many Western countries of the Global North, such as Switzerland, Germany, the UK and Norway, which is extremely encouraging and reassuring that investment made in women’s education can have a great dividend in terms of socioeconomic transformation.

According to UNESCO, 34 to 57 percent of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women. They make up 64 percent of Jordanian students in the natural sciences, medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, as well as 60 percent of engineering students in the Gulf (compared with only 30 percent in the US and Europe). Irrespective of these numbers, the translation of STEM graduates into a skilled workforce and high-level decision-makers is marred by various dropouts. In Arab countries, the average proportion of women scientists stands at 17 percent. This persistent problem in higher education and academia is the “leaky pipeline” — a term that refers to the disproportionate rate at which qualified women leave science as they move up the educational and career ladder. Globally, women account for only 16 percent of managers in the information technology industry, 3 percent of CEOs and 20 percent of chief financial officers.

According to experts who participated in a webinar organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) last year, this dropout rate is due to various reasons, including: Work-life balance conflicts, a hostile environment from coworkers, gender discrimination, relatively few professional development opportunities, especially in fieldwork, and a lack of role models and mentors.

It is imperative that we encourage girls and women to enter STEM education and careers, and continue in the field.

Maha Akeel

Participants in the OIC webinar recommended enhancing national policies that encourage girls and women to enter STEM fields of education by investing in quality, inclusive education, and investing in major potentials for science, technology and innovation as strategic engines for economic growth. They also recommended increasing early orientation and awareness on the importance of STEM for girls, as well as providing training programs for marginalized and disadvantaged girls and women to integrate them into the various available professions and projects. It is also important to highlight, promote and reward women achievers in the field. As a result, the OIC last week launched a platform on its website and social media celebrating women scientists in its member states.

Maybe if I had more encouragement and support and knew the potential of studying any of the STEM fields, I would have had a different career.

  • Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1
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