Gulf experts want continued efforts to rectify region’s gender imbalance in science and technology professions
Saudi infectious diseases specialist says good role models, mentoring could get more women to take up STEM fields
DUBAI: When the pandemic is finally defeated, the scientists who devised vaccines in record time will no doubt be hailed as the paladins of coronavirus prevention. So too will the tech experts who through the lockdowns helped move jobs and infrastructure into the digital space. There will be no shortage of heroes, but can the same be said about heroines?
In spite of recent progress, women remain a minority in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Now experts in the region are calling on schools, governments and employers to do more to fix the imbalance.
Speaking during a recent L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science webinar, in partnership with the speakers’ platform She Is Arab, experts from across the Gulf stressed the central role women have to play in research and innovation.
“I can see the passion in women in science,” said Dr. Maha Al-Mozaini, an infectious diseases specialist and educator at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Saudi Arabia. “It’s changing dramatically and quickly, and I believe they can bring a brighter future.”
According to 2018 figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, just 28.8 percent of the world’s researchers are women. Female enrolment in engineering, manufacturing and construction courses stands at just 8 percent worldwide, while in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics it is 5 percent. For information and communications technology (ICT), the figure drops to a paltry 3 percent.
“These numbers are alarming,” said Dr. Anna Paolini, director of the UNESCO Office in Doha and representative for the Gulf and Yemen. “They call for action to close the gender gap in science, technology and innovation and equip the future generation with adequate skills and competencies, and harness the power of emerging new technology, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality, just to name a few.”
In these unprecedented times of disruption, particularly in education where 1.5 billion students have missed out on learning, Paolini says the contributions of men and women to the sciences, technology, problem-solving and decision-making cannot be underestimated.
“Research and innovation are catalysts for achieving our goals to live on a healthier, sustainable and prosperous planet,” Paolini said. “However, the world urgently needs more scientists to tackle the global challenges we are facing today. And we cannot afford to let half of the world’s population, which are women, go unnoticed behind their remarkable achievements.”
* Proportion of the world’s researchers who are women (UNESCO).
Female teachers, doctors, nurses and researchers have all been at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19. In the case of Al-Mozaini’s team in Saudi Arabia, a remarkable 99 percent of her researchers are women.
“When I advocate for women’s empowerment in STEM, the challenges that we face as women are different from country to country,” said Al-Mozaini, who is a winner of the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Middle East Regional Young Talents Program.
“We have seen that, in the United States, the numbers of graduate women in science are there but they tend to decrease in the workforce. In our case, it is very promising. We only have one man on the team.”
Many factors have contributed to their success, including career support from their families, Al-Mozaini said. “So, we have advantages compared to other countries in the Middle East, and especially in the GCC,” she said.
“They all come from different backgrounds, from molecular biology and genetics to virology and immunology. They were working 24/7 during the lockdown, leaving their families behind. And because little was known about the virus, we all had to take precautionary measures to protect our families.”
The work was arduous. Early in the pandemic, the Saudi research center had to spread its resources across many different aspects of the outbreak. “Our team, which was (focused on the) immunocompromised, was trying to establish testing, because the early signs of the virus showed that it was transmitted at very high levels,” she said. “So, in order to stop the cycle of the virus spreading, you needed to do testing.”
“We cannot afford to let half of the world’s population, which are women, go unnoticed behind their remarkable achievements.” Dr Anna Paolini, UNESCO representative for GCC and Yemen
Their efforts involved establishing a mode of in-house viral testing as a back-up diagnostic test. “The test is very sensitive, reliable and fast,” Al-Mozaini said. “Best of all, in developing and low-income countries that don’t have the opportunity to get these expensive kits; they can use our protocol and do the testing.”
Al-Mozaini is heartened to see a growing number of women in the Gulf entering the sciences. Women in the Middle East now account for almost half of the total STEM student population and they will no doubt play a prominent role in the post-pandemic world.
In the UAE, 61 percent of university students in the field are women, 71 percent in Oman and 55 percent in Bahrain. However, women are still underrepresented in the research community. Although 38 percent of Saudi graduates in the field are women, only 17 percent of them work in STEM sectors.
Al-Mozaini says the best way to support women entering careers in science is to provide them with appropriate mentorship and good role models. “We, as scientists, should give that to younger generations,” she said.
“I pursued STEM because I was exposed to it early in my schooling. I had a really nice professor who was retired and teaching biology at school, and he inspired us. So that gives you good mentorship and role models and exposure to STEM.”
In September, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) discussed plans to step up the provision of STEM education for women and girls at a meeting in Jeddah. During a virtual workshop, members of the OIC’s general secretariat looked at ways of improving access to learning for women and girls in member countries.
In the host country of the OIC, Saudi Arabia, women’s participation in the workforce and the wider economy and having more women in leadership positions is one of the key goals of the Vision 2030 reform strategy. A growing number of Saudi women are already holding high-ranking positions even as new government policies aim to increase the employment of women in all fields.
Al-Mozaini says Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries at large are fortunate, thanks to a strong support system at various levels of education, including scholarships.
“In the workforce, we need to create the right environment for them,” she said. “They are mothers, they have kids, so they need to have the best childcare system within their working institute to leave their kids and go to work.
“They need to have the best mentorship program at an early age and most important of all is providing them with a leadership opportunity, and this is why the Vision 2030 of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is promoting women in leadership.”
For Paolini, the key to promoting women in science is inspiring girls at school and in the home. “It really shaped all of us,” Paolini said. “We all have a story that inspired how we are today and this is why this network and platform are so important.
“Everywhere in the world, we need more science and we need more women in science.”