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

Students operate their robots as they participate in the 12th Arab Robotic Championship in Kuwait City on January 9, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
Students operate their robots as they participate in the 12th Arab Robotic Championship in Kuwait City on January 9, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 15 October 2021

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

Students operate their robots as they participate in the 12th Arab Robotic Championship in Kuwait City on January 9, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Too few MENA women are choosing to study or work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields
  • Experts say good role models, help from parents and schools, and a changing workplace culture will tip the balance 

DUBAI: 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 percent of women in college and universities are pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, compared with 35 percent 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 at 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.”




Students operate their robot as they participate in a local competition for schools in Kuwait City. (AFP/File Photo)

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,” Hussein said.

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

INNUMBERS

* 18% - Women in college and university who study STEM worldwide.

* 38% - Women who make up STEM graduates in Saudi Arabia.

* 17% - Saudi STEM graduates who go on to work in the sector.

Dr. Rita Zgheib, assistant professor at the faculty of engineering, applied science and technology at the 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,” Zgheib 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.

Zgheib 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 of the 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.




Employees at the Dubai COVID-19 Command and Control Centre (CCC), which plans and manages novel coronavirus fallout plans. (AFP/File Photo)

“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 at 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,” Chamaa said.

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

According to Hussein, 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.




Women account for almost half of the STEM student population in the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia the government is leading from the front by encouraging learning and careers in the field. (Shutterstock)

“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 percent of Saudi graduates in STEM are women, but only 17 percent of these go on to work in related fields.

“It is critical that education is able to translate into long-term careers,” Hussein 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 Al-Assaf, 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 of 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.




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. (AFP/File Photo)

“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,” Mahajan 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 at 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,” Mahajan 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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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Lebanon reintroduces some COVID-19 prevention measures

Lebanon reintroduces some COVID-19 prevention measures
Updated 13 min 48 sec ago

Lebanon reintroduces some COVID-19 prevention measures

Lebanon reintroduces some COVID-19 prevention measures
  • Mandatory vaccinations for all civil servants and workers in the health, education, tourism and public transport sectors

BEIRUT: Lebanon will impose a night-time curfew starting Dec. 17 on non-vaccinated people for three weeks.
And full vaccination will be made mandatory for all workers in several sectors due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, the COVID-19 committee said on Wednesday.
Vaccination will be mandatory for all civil servants and workers in the health, education, tourism and public transport sectors as of Jan. 10, the committee said.
A new coronavirus variant found in South Africa and detected in several countries was determined as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization last week and has led to strengthening COVID-19-related restrictions around the world.


Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO

Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO
Updated 01 December 2021

Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO

Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO
  • Low-income countries, mostly in Africa, have received only 0.6% of the world's vaccines
  • "The longer that these inequities persist, the greater the chance of more variants,” said WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean

CAIRO: An official at the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office said on Wednesday seven countries in the region have not yet reached a threshold of 10 percent vaccination coverage.
These countries represent a high-risk setting for the emergence of further variants, Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said at a news briefing in Cairo.
Low-income countries, mostly in Africa, have received only 0.6 percent of the world’s vaccines, while G20 countries have received more than 80 percent, Al-Mandhari said.
“The longer that these inequities persist, the greater the chance of more variants,” said Al-Mandhari. “Indeed, no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
So far, 24 countries may have reported cases of the new Omicron variant, said Abdinasir Abubakr, infection hazards prevention manager for the region.
Early Omicron cases suggest mild symptoms, added Richard Brennen, WHO regional emergency director in the region.
In terms of the response to the variant, he warned of complacency and COVID-19 fatigue and encouraged social-distancing measures.
However, he said social and travel curbs require risk assessment before implementation.
“While we understand that some countries locked down international travel, this has to be done on evidence and strong analysis,” said Brennen.
As of Nov. 29, over 16.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 309,500 deaths were reported across the Eastern Mediterranean region.


IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant

IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant
Updated 01 December 2021

IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant

IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant
  • The 2015 Iran nuclear deal does not allow Iran to enrich uranium at Fordow at all
  • Until now it had been producing enriched uranium there with IR-1 machines and had enriched with some IR-6s without keeping the product

VIENNA: The UN nuclear watchdog plans to increase the frequency of its inspections at Iran's Fordow plant after Iran started producing enriched uranium with more advanced machines there, the watchdog said in a report to member states on Wednesday seen by Reuters.
“The Agency has decided and Iran has agreed to increase the frequency of verification activities at FFEP and will continue consultations with Iran on practical arrangements to facilitate implementation of these activities,” the International Atomic Energy Agency report said, referring to the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.

The IAEA said Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to up to 20 percent purity with one cascade, or cluster, of 166 advanced IR-6 machines at Fordow. Those machines are far more efficient than the first-generation IR-1.

Indirect talks between Iran and the United States on bringing both fully back into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed this week after a five-month break prompted by the election of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.
Western negotiators fear Iran is creating facts on the ground to gain leverage in the talks.
Underlining how badly eroded the deal is, that agreement does not allow Iran to enrich uranium at Fordow at all. Until now it had been producing enriched uranium there with IR-1 machines and had enriched with some IR-6s without keeping the product.
It has 94 IR-6 machines installed in a cascade at Fordow that is not yet operating, the IAEA said in a statement.


Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens

Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens
Updated 01 December 2021

Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens

Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens
  • The move is the latest in a slew of preventive measures introduced by Egypt to contain the spread of COVID-19
  • Once vaccinated, citizens will be able to get a vaccination certificate that will allow them to enter government facilities

CAIRO: Egyptian citizens who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 will from Wednesday be denied access to all government services and buildings unless they can provide evidence of a negative PCR test.

The decision was taken by the Supreme Committee for Coronavirus Crisis Management, which said the rule would apply to the provision of government services in all governorates and ministries.

The Ministry of Local Development instructed governors to implement the committee’s decision and refuse entry to government departments for anyone who is unable to provide evidence that they have been fully vaccinated or submit a negative PCR test result.

The move is the latest in a slew of preventive measures introduced by Egypt to contain the spread of COVID-19 in places of work and study.

The Ministry of Health and Population said it had made vaccines available to all citizens and that they should get vaccinated to avoid being disadvantaged by the new ruling.

It added that people who had not yet had their jabs should visit one of the many vaccination facilities located at medical centers, subway and railway stations, or the mobile units that travel throughout villages and towns.

Once vaccinated, citizens will be able to get a vaccination certificate that will allow them to enter government facilities, the health ministry said.

Egypt implemented a rule on Nov. 15 that prevents unvaccinated government employees from entering their place of work.


Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence

Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence
Updated 01 December 2021

Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence

Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence
  • The council will hold its next regular meeting in Manama, which will coincide with the Dialogue of East and West for Human Fraternity 2022 conference
  • The Muslim Council of Elders is headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb

CAIRO: The Muslim Council of Elders has decided to hold the next round of the Dialogue of East and West in Bahrain after postponing it in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

The council is an independent international body based in Abu Dhabi and aimed at promoting peace, dialogue and tolerance. It is headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and its membership includes an elite group of Muslim scholars.

The council will hold its next regular meeting in the Bahraini capital, Manama, which will coincide with the Dialogue of East and West for Human Fraternity 2022 conference.

The imam expressed his appreciation to Bahrain’s people and the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa for hosting the new edition of the dialogue.

He noted that the dialogue comes within the framework of strengthening relations between religious and cultural institutions in Islamic countries and their counterparts in Western societies, establishing common ground based on shared values and promoting coexistence.

Sheikh Abdul Rahman bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Khalifa, chairman of the Bahraini Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and a member of the Muslim Council of Elders, expressed Bahrain’s excitement to host the meeting and the new edition of the dialogue.

Sultan Al-Romaithi, secretary-general of the council, said that arrangements for the dialogue are now being finalized and that the new edition will witness positive interactions between Western and Eastern scholars and intellectuals.

He explained that the council is in the process of nominating youths to participate in the dialogue who have the capabilities to become future leaders and ambassadors for the Muslim Council of Elders.

The council was founded on July 13, 2014 to spread a culture of peace in Muslim societies, reject violence and extremism, and confront hate speech.