While more and more women in the Middle East are pushing the boundaries to acquire STEM skills, the gender gap persists in STEM occupations.
Despite a global STEM skills shortage, women in the Middle East earn more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the United States.
In Saudi Arabia alone, women earn half of all science degrees. In engineering, 44.5% of university students in the UAE are female; Kuwait sees 69.9% female enrolment in engineering; whereas Oman has 46.7% and Bahrain 44%.
These numbers would lead you to believe that there is no shortage of female representation in STEM professions today.
But for various reasons, these same women are not putting their degrees to paid use for very long across the region.
You only have to look at the winners’ roll from this year’s MEP Middle East Awards to see the discrepancy in the number of women studying engineering and those going on to put their studies to the intended use.
Cundall’s Bushra Anwar flew the flag this year, landing the Electrical Engineer of the Year gong amidst serious competition.
Her vast achievements go to show that given an equal footing, women are as capable as their male counterparts.
To boost economic growth, corporations and other stakeholders are focusing on increasing women’s participation in high-productivity sectors.
Speaking at the recent Women in Leadership Economic Forum, hosted by Naseba, Hani Ashkar, PwC Middle East senior partner, said: “This falls on each of us to create equal opportunities for female professionals across all industries.
“Organisations can provide this by openly discussing and raising awareness of both conscious and unconscious bias, ensuring the right tone is set at the top.
“In the Middle East, we need to create more attractive and inclusive working environments, especially in science and technology, allowing women to reach their full potential.”
Many established companies are making bold commitments to hire a more balanced workforce.
According to Siemens, engineering and technology companies are struggling to achieve gender parity because of the limited number of females in the talent pool for STEM jobs.
Siemens aims to increase female hires by making job descriptions gender neutral and running a recruitment process that is free of unconscious bias.
The company is using AI to analyse job descriptions in real time, highlight if they are particularly masculine or feminine, and predict how people will react and suggest alternatives.
In order to create a bias-free hiring process, Siemens is also using game-based assessment to evaluate candidates for its graduate programmes.
This helps match people to careers through a combination of neuroscience, gamification and AI, and has led to more women making it to the shortlist and joining the company.
“We need courageous women to take ownership to drive their careers in STEM, and Siemens is ready to help them. I am ready to help them,” said Eva Mourino, SVP HR Siemens Middle East.
“I’m an engineer myself and work in the male-dominated technology industry.
“Changing the status quo has added excitement to my career; it’s a challenge and a battle to win. Come join us.”
The UAE’s Minister of State for Advanced Sciences says Emirati women have made significant strides in STEM fields under the country’s leadership.
Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri said that while prejudice remains a significant obstacle for women around the world, this is not the case in the UAE where a real focus is placed on equal opportunities in education, training and employment.
Her Excellency pointed to the Emirates Mars Mission, which is set to arrive at the Red Planet in 2021, as an example of the country’s progressive stance.
HE said: “Around 40% of the team working on the Mars Mission are women, as opposed to missions of other countries where women account for 14%.
“90% of the science team at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre is composed of women.”
But how will companies achieve gender parity in technology when there are simply more qualified male candidates in the sector?
Judith Trujillo, human resources director, GM Africa and Middle East, said: “At GM, we know that true movement in diversity won’t just be in our walls, but across our industry and through the next generation of leaders. Focusing on raising female candidates in STEM fields, we recently worked alongside the ThinkScience Festival, an annual competition and showcase across the Emirates, to offer mentoring sessions to STEM-driven university students.”
There is a growing body of evidence that a more diverse workforce holds a number of benefits for businesses, in particular, and the economy in general.
“The business benefits of a more diverse, gender-balanced organisation are well-known and understood: greater diversity unlocks creativity, leads to better problem-solving and drives innovation, which in turn generates growth,” said Melissa Whiting, vice president inclusion and diversity at Philip Morris International (PMI).
“So, if the tech industry and companies who are increasingly becoming more technology-minded are to achieve imaginative, creative ideas, this requires different types of people from many different backgrounds – including women.”
Elaborating on the need for role models in tech, Whiting continued: “There is nothing inherent in our gender which means that women and girls have less of a tendency to be interested in, or an ability to excel in, the STEM fields.
“What we need is more visibility of women who break through the glass ceiling in tech, and more men in positions of power to advocate for them.
“If young women see positive role models of other women working in tech, they’re much more likely to view it as a viable option and hopefully, this will encourage and inspire future generations of women to pursue technology-related jobs.”