Arab Women Make a Charge into Engineering

Nuclear engineers newly hired in the United Arab Emirates stand in front of a model of a nuclear reactor during orientation.

Nuclear engineers newly hired in the United Arab Emirates stand in front of a model of a nuclear reactor during orientation.

What the … ?

Try as people have, getting and keeping women in U.S. engineering programs remain vexing challenges. For a decade now, the numbers have stayed the same: 30 percent of students enrolled, 20 percent graduated. Individual successes like Dartmouth and Harvey Mudd notwithstanding, the overall rates don’t seem to budge.

Meanwhile, in Arab countries, rates of women participating in engineering education have shot past those in the U.S. Across the Arab world, in countries both developing and wealthy, women enroll and graduate in noticeably greater numbers.

How can this be?

The reasons vary, and it’s not clear that researchers have fleshed out the whole story. But throughout the Middle East, women’s participation in engineering is notably higher than in the U.S. For reasons as diverse as the countries themselves, Arab women exceed their U.S. counterparts in enrolling and completing engineering degrees, and it’s not even really close.

Recent U.S. history

From 1990 to 2000, women’s share of earned engineering degrees in the U.S. rose from 15.4 percent to 20.1 percent. At this rate of increase, one-third over 10 years, we should have seen women earning about 27 percent of degrees in 2010.

The actual result: 18.4 percent.

It ticked up to almost 20 percent in 2014, but still below the 2000 rate after nearly a decade and a half of extensive outreach to girls extolling the opportunities and rewards of studying engineering. Perhaps indicating a break-out, the rate of freshman women intending to major in engineering has gone up from 3.3 percent in 2008 to 5.8 percent in 2014. Until more numbers come in, though, the story remains that women resist the engineering argument.

Meanwhile

In Arab higher education, however, the story is different. Women are responding to the engineering argument. UNESCO estimates that women could comprise as many as 60 percent of engineering students in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf.

Among rich countries:

Kuwaiti engineering students gather for the country's first Women in Engineering Day, held in June at the American University of the Middle East in Eqaila, Kuwait.

Kuwaiti engineering students gather for the country's first Women in Engineering Day, held in June at the American University of the Middle East in Eqaila, Kuwait.

Developing countries do well, too:

Knowledge-based economies

Governments across the Arab region have made transitioning to knowledge-based economies a policy priority. One study found 17 of the 22 Arab countries have made this commitment, and the education pieces of this project have accelerated women’s entry into STEM fields, and engineering in particular:

  • With national education systems in place, countries have pushed STEM-related reforms quickly and substantially throughout primary, secondary, and post-secondary education systems.
  • Many girls attend single-sex schools, which might (or might not) be a factor promoting their achievement in math and science fields.
  • University admissions are typically tied to performance on tests, which are gender-neutral. Girls who do well on tests move into areas of their demonstrated aptitude.

Prestige

Engineering enjoys a higher social status in the Middle East than it does in the U.S. Notes Tod Laursen, president of Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi and former Duke University faculty member, “The engineering profession in general holds a lot of prestige in the UAE and we find that the families of our female students are very highly supportive and proud of their daughters, wives, siblings studying these subjects.”

Opportunity

Startup culture, and the technology industry in general, can be, surprisingly, less gendered in the Middle East. A recent meeting of Internet entrepreneurs in Amman, Jordan, was over one-third women, a rate that attendees confirmed as typical in the field.

Internet work done at home or in single-sex environments can provide Arab women in technology with opportunities they would not otherwise have in public, male-dominated workplaces.

Internet work done at home or in single-sex environments can provide Arab women in technology with opportunities they would not otherwise have in public, male-dominated workplaces.

Where it shows up

Still much discrimination

Arab women’s higher profile in engineering education does not necessarily lead to the same opportunities in the engineering workplace. They still face great obstacles, in the form of discrimination, exclusion from certain kinds of work, restrictions on their mobility, and imperatives to remain at home in caretaker roles.

Indeed, law and medicine remain overwhelmingly male in Arab countries because women are often prohibited from arguing with men in public or treating male patients. In addition, the courses of study take longer, delaying the time at which women would be available to return to the home and tend to parents, children, and/or husbands.

For all the opportunities the Internet can provide, online work is often available to women precisely because it is out of the public eye. As one Arab woman entrepreneur noted, “Well-educated women in Saudi Arabia want to work, but their family often objects … running an Internet start-up from home is the perfect compromise.”

What we might learn

The factors and forces behind Arab women’s increasing prominence in engineering education and technology fields in general cut in fascinating, confounding ways. The phenomenon has garnered enough attention to be serving as the focus of a two-year, NSF-funded study of female engineering students in four Arab countries.

The researchers themselves emphasize the counter-intuitive nature of their work. Predominantly Muslim countries, notoriously restrictive for women, are unexpected places to go for insights into how to unlock the potential of women in engineering in the United States.

And yet, the data are clear, for all the complexity underlying them. We should clearly keep working on how to bring the lessons from the Middle East back to the U.S. in a form applicable to our own challenges with the gender gap in engineering.

Any thoughts? If you found this discussion interesting or useful, please share it with friends or colleagues who might be like-minded.

 


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

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