Engaging women and girls in STEM is fundamental to inclusive growth in MEA
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Engaging women and girls in STEM is fundamental to inclusive growth in MEA

Engaging women and girls in STEM is fundamental to inclusive growth in MEA

According to the State of Science Index (SOSI), within STEM equity, gender disparity remains an issue

Gulf Business

Building an inclusive economic framework is not about being nice or fair. It has a fundamental role to play in catalysing and accelerating national and intra-regional economic growth that is creatively diverse and sustainable. Getting there requires a root-and-branch recalibration of women and girls’ involvement in industries tied up in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

That journey begins at school. UN data shows that only around 30 per cent of female students globally and in Africa select STEM-related fields in higher education. This disparity is a problem because in the age of digital transformation and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) the world’s industries are underpinned by STEM innovation. Our innovators increasingly revolve around a digital ecosystem – from fintech to robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The good news is that research from the Mastercard Foundation shows that girls and boys have the same level of interest in STEM at the early stages of their education – with girls and women becoming particularly interested when they understand its potential applications in helping others. Yet research shows many girls ‘self-select’ out of STEM subjects at school because they often do not feel that they ‘belong’, and social pressures steer them towards selecting careers that complement family and marriage commitments.

Role models

Even those women and girls that do make it to STEM industries still need a framework that will enable them to excel and succeed at par with their male counterparts, at the very least. In industry, women in STEM fields are shown, according to UNESCO, to publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers. This is where industry should step in to make a difference. In the Middle East and Africa, major corporations are widening access to women in STEM fields.

There is work to be done therefore in preventing girls from dropping out of STEM subjects at school. Female role models can play a part here. Women and girls in Africa and the Middle East can benefit from seeing successful women in science and technology, the great news is that there are many coming to the fore. Nora al-Matrooshi, from the UAE, is the first Arab woman to train as an astronaut, one of two Emiratis picked from thousands of applicants as the Gulf nation looks to the stars. The 28-year-old mechanical engineer from Sharjah has dreamt about space since she was a girl and is now heading to the United States to train at NASA’s John Space Centre. Gitanjali Rao, 3M young scientist, Time Kid of the Year 2020, and American inventor, is another excellent example of what the future holds for thriving females in STEM.

In Saudi Arabia, women outnumber men in graduating with science degrees according to news from the Kingdom’s Education Ministry. Yet securing jobs in STEM fields remains a challenge. Commenting on the jobs gap, Dr Fatima Alakeel – herself a cybersecurity expert at King Saud University – said, “We have more girls in STEM education compared to Western Countries. But, in the Kingdom, STEM-related jobs are limited at the moment, as the economy is primarily oil-based and there are few technical jobs available.”

Breaking the mould

This is one of the challenges laid out in Saudi Vision 2030, which sets out to diversify the economy away from oil and towards promoting sustainable changes that will enhance the potential to empower Saudi women in STEM. When we choose to look, we can find role models in dynamic economies like Saudi Arabia – and in countries that have particularly noticeable gender disparities in STEM fields. Pakistan is a case in point.

In Pakistan, only 21 per cent of those working in engineering and technology are women – and they make up only 40 per cent of people working in natural sciences. UNESCO suggests that issues affecting women in STEM in Pakistan include “Gender stereotypes and biases women may face when choosing a career.” Yet Pakistan is brimming with notable female role models breaking the mould in the sciences. Nergis Mavalvala is a Pakistani physicist known for her research in gravitational waves detection.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she comes from the kind of ordinary background that most girls could relate to and has spoken about issues of gender roles. “I grew up in a family where the stereotypical gender roles were not really observed.” She also speaks about how people in Pakistan can break down gender roles and stigmas if they wish to do so: “Anybody should be able to do those things. And I am proof of that because I am all of those things.”

A global challenge

Whilst the race is on to engage more women and girls in STEM in places like Pakistan, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the reality is that the challenge is one that all regions face. It remains a global task. According to the State of Science Index (SOSI), within STEM equity, gender disparity remains an issue; more than two thirds (70 per cent) of the survey felt that there are negative consequences to society if the science community fails to attract more women and girls. The overall agreement is that more needs to be done to keep women and girls engaged in STEM education (87 per cent).

It is clear that across the Middle East and Africa region, stereotypes are being dismantled, barriers broken, and glass ceilings shattered. The passion for science across Africa and the Middle East is everywhere to be seen and 87 per cent of people surveyed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agree that science brings hope and makes the future brighter. That is why together – in education and in industry – we are presented a brighter reality powered by a more inclusive economic model with women and girls in STEM.

Laszlo Svinger is the VP & managing director at 3M Middle East and Africa

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