Action needed to encourage more Arab women scientists

“More Arab women than men are graduating in science, but not at all are finding their way into postgraduate research or into the workplace,” says a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit. It calls for news ways of teaching and improved workplaces to tackle the problem.

This was outlined in the report, Accelerating Growth: Women in science and technology in the Arab Middle East. The Economist Intelligence Unit announced its findings on 17 October at the Abu Dhabi headquarters of the Advanced Technology Investment Company.

Based on research and in-depth interviews with experts, including policy-makers, academics and business people, the report examines the role of women scientists in Arab nations, the state of science education in the region and the prospects for women scientists in the workplace.

It also highlights discrepancies between numbers of women earning advanced degrees, and those able to integrate effectively into the workforce.

According to the report, female students perform at least as well as their male counterparts in science and maths, and in many instances are outperforming them. Grade eight girls across the majority of countries in the Arab Middle East, for example, score consistently better than boys in maths and science.

Early high performance is reflected in the number of women seeking higher education.

In Palestine, 56% of undergraduate enrolments in 2010 were women, compared to 47% a decade earlier. This is especially pronounced in science: in Saudi Arabia, 65% of all enrolments in science degrees in 2010 were women, versus 40% a decade earlier.

But the rising number of Arab women graduating in science is not translating into more women scientists in the workplace. Women account for just 1% of researchers in Saudi Arabia, 19% in Palestine and 22% in Libya, markedly lower than the world average of 30%.

And despite their high proportions in undergraduate places, many do not pursue postgraduate research. Women make up just 34% of participants in science masters courses in Saudi Arabia, and 29% in PhD programmes.

“These figures are especially remarkable given that women pick up almost three-quarters of bachelors degrees in science in the country,” the report pointed out.

Explaining the Saudi pattern – which exists across most of the Arab Middle East – Moneef Zou'bi, director-general of the Jordan-based Islamic World Academy of Science, was quoted in the report as saying:

“While women perform well, it can be difficult for those wising to pursue postgraduate study to do so, because of social, economic or family factors.”

The report recommends that efforts be made to remove these obstacles in order to increase female participation in the fields of science and technology, and that workplaces be made more attractive to women.

Other initiatives needed to motivate women scientists to participate in the workforce include introducing policies such as parental leave and flexible working hours for female graduates.

Zou'bi also described the higher education systems in most Arab and developing countries as “at least a generation out of date” in terms of market demand and current jobs on offer.

Curriculum content needed a sharper focus on science, technology, maths and foreign languages and students needed to get excited about science at an early age. One successful programme is sending UAE students to South Korea for hands-on training in nuclear power plants.

Besides intensifying collaboration between industry and the growing ranks of female science undergraduates, to bridge the divide between study and work, the report suggested that vocational education in partnership with the private sector be improved, along with introducing summer jobs and internships for students.

Sponsorships and scholarships were another useful tool to strengthen ties between employers and undergraduates, according to the report.

A further way to encourage qualified Arab women to pursue careers in science would be to highlight success stories among women scientists via conferences, workshops and industry events, and to give female graduates opportunities to engage with these successful women scientists at first hand. Mentoring and role-model initiatives should also be enhanced.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre, welcomed the report.

"It has a good agenda and action plan to be adopted by regional bodies including the UAE-based Arab science and technology foundation's Arab women network for research and development, and the Bahrain-based Arab network for women in science and technology,” Abdelhamid told University Word News.