When it comes to opt­ing for sci­ence as a ca­reer, women are breaking stereotypes, finds out Nouran Salahieh

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

For long, sci­ence and maths fields were dom­i­nated by men. We talk to the women who are chang­ing the equa­tion.

W‘Women… had to wield their in­tel­lects like a scythe, hack­ing away against the stub­born un­der­brush of low ex­pec­ta­tions,’ wrote Mar­got Lee Shet­terly in her book, Hid­den Fig­ures.

Shet­terly’s words ring wholly true. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, women con­tinue to be ex­cluded from fully par­tic­i­pat­ing in sci­ence on a global scale. A study con­ducted in 14 coun­tries showed that ‘the prob­a­bil­ity for women stu­dents of grad­u­at­ing with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree, mas­ter’s de­gree and doc­tor’s de­gree in sci­ence-re­lated fields are 18 per cent, 8 per cent and 2 per cent re­spec­tively, while the per­cent­ages of male stu­dents are 37 per cent, 18 per cent and 6 per cent.’

The United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly de­clared Fe­bru­ary 11 as the In­ter­na­tional Day of Women and Girls in Sci­ence in or­der to ‘achieve full and equal ac­cess to and par­tic­i­pa­tion in sci­ence for women and girls.’

‘In the global scene, I do be­lieve that women some­times don’t have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties, and they’re not en­cour­aged to have a go-get­ter at­ti­tude,’ says Dr Meis Moukayed, pro­fes­sor of nat­u­ral sciences, and a mem­ber of the UAE Sus­tain­abil­ity Re­search Com­mit­tee. ‘They are ex­pected to be more do­mes­tic or fam­ily ori­ented, rather than ca­reer ori­ented.

‘I refuse to be­lieve that women are not tech­ni­cally able to work. Be­cause in my own ca­reer, I was able to be on par with a man, and to reach where I am to­day,’ she says.

‘Women are less likely to go into sci­ence, and that’s be­cause of a wide range of is­sues, in­clud­ing women put­ting re­straints on them­selves be­cause they be­lieve that men are bet­ter, and that can be a di­rect re­sult of so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions and stereotypes that women have to deal with. It could also be be­cause of a lack of flex­i­bil­ity in the work­place. Those are just some ex­am­ples, it’s a very com­plex is­sue,’ says Raya Bid­shari, co-founder of Dubai’s Cafe Sci­en­tifique, the In­tel­li­gent Op­ti­mism move­ment, and SciFest Dubai.

In the 2015 Global Gen­der Gap In­dex re­port by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, the UAE scored above the re­gional av­er­age in most sub-in­dexes, with 96 per cent of the gen­der gap closed. It ranks first in the re­gion on lit­er­acy rate and third on wage equal­ity. UAE PhD grad­u­ates are 60 per cent women and 40 per cent men. How­ever, for STEM (sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing, math) ter­tiary-level grad­u­ates, 41 per cent are women, while 59 per cent are men.

Speak­ing about the UAE, Raya says she has no­ticed pos­i­tive changes. ‘I’m hope­ful for the fu­ture be­cause I’m see­ing an in­crease in or­gan­ised ef­fort to in­clude and en­cour­age more women to go into sci­ence fields. In re­cent years, there’s been some re­form and they’ve re­ally been tar­get­ing struc­tural changes to en­cour­age women, but any coun­try has a long way to go.’

Sev­eral sci­ence-re­lated or­gan­i­sa­tions and fes­ti­vals in the UAE have seen ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions from women. The Think Sci­ence Fair, which was set up to en­cour­age young peo­ple to study and pur­sue ca­reers in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, saw women par­tic­i­pants out­num­ber­ing men at the an­nual com­pe­ti­tion. This year, 62 per cent of the par­tic­i­pants at phase one are women.

Emi­rati Maryam Al Hashemi won prizes at the fair for con­vert­ing plas­tic into petrol, for mak­ing the first plas­tic so­lar panel, and the first trans­par­ent so­lar panel. Maryam also won a sus­tain­abil­ity award in the In­tel

‘FEWER girls go into SCI­ENCE be­cause they don’t be­lieve they can do it, and feel they wouldn’t find EM­PLOY­MENT. I used to be­lieve men should go into sci­ence, and women should stay be­hind the DESK’

ISEF com­pe­ti­tion in the United States – all be­fore grad­u­at­ing high school.

‘I got a lot of help and mo­ti­va­tion from my chem­istry teacher, and with­out her, I wouldn’t have got­ten those op­por­tu­ni­ties,’ says Maryam. ‘I be­lieve that it was im­por­tant for me to have a woman role model, be­cause I needed some­one to look up to.’

Maryam says she wasn’t in­ter­ested in sci­ence be­fore en­ter­ing the com­pe­ti­tion. ‘I think fewer girls go into sci­ence than boys be­cause they don’t be­lieve they can do it, and think they won’t find em­ploy­ment. I used to be­lieve that men should go into sci­ence, and women should stay in busi­ness and work be­hind the desk. But af­ter my ex­pe­ri­ences, I see that we’re equal – we’ll get op­por­tu­ni­ties if we fo­cus on do­ing what we love.’

Nina Tan­don is CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, a US-based com­pany that grows liv­ing hu­man bones for skele­tal re­con­struc­tion. ‘I stud­ied elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing, then bio­med­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing for my PhD, then I went to get an MBA as well, and that helped with start­ing up the busi­ness. It’s a mix­ture of sci­ence and en­trepreneur­ship, and both of those things don’t have a lot of women.’

Nina, who was in the UAE this month for the Fes­ti­val @ Ideas Fo­rum at New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi, be­lieves young girls are at­tracted to sci­ence when it is part of a mis­sion. ‘What we found when we re­searched this is that the more we can con­nect what­ever the field of study is, to its mis­sion, the more likely we are to have women. For ex­am­ple, sure, isn’t it re­ally cool to learn about dif­fu­sion? But isn’t it much cooler to learn about dif­fu­sion when you’re try­ing to de­velop a medicine so it can get to where it needs to go?’

An­other speaker at the Ideas fes­ti­val, Dr Dava New­man, MIT pro­fes­sor of as­tro­nau­tics and for­mer Nasa deputy ad­min­is­tra­tor, told Fri­day that schools and or­gan­i­sa­tions need to be more in­clu­sive and ‘fil­ter peo­ple in.’ She says: ‘When it comes to younger peo­ple, you have to ask, what prob­lem do you want to solve in the world? Clean wa­ter, clean en­ergy, or maybe get­ting peo­ple to Mars? What­ever it is, I say, good, we need you. That’s how I feel about tal­ent, we need ev­ery­one, and we don’t leave sources un­tapped.’

The L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Sci­ence Mid­dle East Fel­low­ship award, which hon­ours Arab women re­searchers, and en­cour­ages them to pur­sue a ca­reer in sci­ence in the GCC, was awarded to an­other lo­cal trail­blaz­ing woman sci­en­tist, Dr Han­ifa Al Beloushi. Dr Han­ifa, who works at Mas­dar In­sti­tute, won the fel­low­ship for pro­duc­ing eco-friendly biodiesel that doesn’t com­pete with food sources. She was a re­cent grad­u­ate when she won.

‘The com­pe­ti­tion was tight. There were 60 ap­pli­cants from the UAE, and it felt amaz­ing when Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi [UAE Min­is­ter of State for Tol­er­ance] con­grat­u­lated me and let me know that I’ve won. It was like a dream. The

ex­pe­ri­ence was the best recog­ni­tion of my work that I’ve ever had,’ she says.

‘If you look at what was hap­pen­ing in the World Gov­ern­ment Sum­mit [in Dubai in Fe­bru­ary] you will find a huge en­dorse­ment of women,’ says Dr Moukayed. ‘His Highness Shaikh Mo­ham­mad Bin Rashid Al Mak­toum [Vice-Pres­i­dent and Prime Min­is­ter of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai]... and his wife Princess Haya, Chair­man of the Board at the Dubai In­ter­na­tional Hu­man­i­tar­ian City… are re­ally em­pow­er­ing and en­cour­ag­ing women to step up fur­ther and be in po­si­tions of lead­er­ship. I think the UAE is a unique place to en­hance the role of women and to em­power women.’

‘There’s more than 50 per cent women in UAE uni­ver­si­ties, and I love that. There’s 75 per cent work­ing in the aero­space in­dus­try, that’s amaz­ing,’ says MIT’s Dr New­man. ‘It’s set­ting the bar re­ally high, and that’s telling us in the US or in the UK, that we bet­ter catch up. So that’s a great ex­am­ple of when there’s the willpower and great lead­er­ship, then you can make those chal­lenges go away.’

Dr Moukayed says she be­lieves any gap is a re­sult of so­ci­etal stan­dards and lack of fam­ily en­cour­age­ment, rather than gov­ern­ment pol­icy. ‘Some­times, the is­sues are be­cause of women them­selves. Some­times some of them may favour, be­cause of per­sonal, cul­tural or so­ci­etal rea­sons, to stay within a softer set­ting, or a fam­ily set­ting. Al­though I don’t be­lieve bal­anc­ing both is im­pos­si­ble. I think it’s more to do with guid­ance from fam­i­lies. Women are more en­cour­aged to go to softer set­tings. The trend is def­i­nitely chang­ing. I re­mem­ber at first, women were just be­ing en­cour­aged to

‘It’s not so much about the LACK OF AVAIL­ABIL­ITY of women role mod­els, be­cause those are PLENTY. It is more about PRO­JECT­ING those women as role mod­els to the LIT­TLE GIRLS’

go into pro­fes­sional set­tings. Full stop.’

‘Some­times, a lot of girls are not set up to be bread­win­ners, and some­times it hap­pens sub­con­sciously,’ said Raya.

Are­port by Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit, com­mis­sioned by the Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy In­vest­ment Com­pany in Abu Dhabi, re­ported that ex­perts in­ter­viewed said many as­pir­ing STEM stu­dents face prob­lems with male and fe­male fam­ily mem­bers be­liev­ing that some ar­eas of study are not suit­able for women. All the women in­ter­viewed by Fri­day de­scribed that sup­port from their fam­i­lies was present and cru­cial to their achieve­ments.

‘My fam­ily was sup­port­ive, and I was able to live away from home, study and work late nights. It re­ally de­pends on the sup­port you get and your en­vi­ron­ment,’ says Dr Han­ifa.

Think Sci­ence fair win­ner Maryam says it was her fam­ily who en­cour­aged her to be­come a sci­en­tist. ‘If it weren’t for my fam­ily’s en­cour­age­ment, I wouldn’t have done what I have, or won all those awards.’

Noura Saeed Al Qaseer, a high school stu­dent and an­other win­ner at the Think Sci­ence fair, felt that al­though she had en­cour­age­ment from her fam­ily to pur­sue her am­bi­tions in sci­ence, other girls might not have that priv­i­lege.

A lack of role mod­els reach­ing out to girls at schools and en­cour­ag­ing their in­ter­est in sci­ence also ap­pears to be a fac­tor.

‘So there aren’t enough young ladies go­ing into sci­ence? Well maybe there aren’t enough peo­ple in those fields reach­ing out to them and en­gag­ing with them,’ says Dr Moukayed.

‘To en­cour­age even more in­ter­est, there needs to be more fo­cus on high school stu­dents,’ says Dr Han­ifa. ‘Young peo­ple are now in­ter­ested in com­puter and ro­bot tech­nol­ogy, and we need to make kids more aware of the avail­able sup­port, and make more con­tri­bu­tions to high schools, which

we should be look­ing at be­cause we need to be look­ing fur­ther into the fu­ture. We shouldn’t only be look­ing at 2020, but 2030.’

Fa­tima Martin, prin­ci­pal at Gems New Mil­len­nium School, added an­other per­spec­tive: ‘It’s not so much about the lack of avail­abil­ity of women role mod­els, be­cause those are plenty,’ she says. ‘It’s more about pro­ject­ing those women as role mod­els to the lit­tle girls.’

Dr Moukayed also points out that hav­ing to choose a ca­reer path at a very young age, when girls are es­pe­cially sub­ject to ex­ter­nal in­flu­ences, may end up with girls choos­ing a ma­jor that they per­ceive as easy rather than in­ter­est­ing, or end up with their par­ents choos­ing for them. ‘Maybe at a young age, it fazes stu­dents that sci­ence is go­ing to be such a rough en­vi­ron­ment – and it can be a rough and bul­ly­ing en­vi­ron­ment, it can be harsh. Young peo­ple who gen­er­ally don’t re­ally know what’s out there in the world are best ad­vised to ask as many peo­ple about their pro­fes­sions as pos­si­ble. Be­cause they’re mak­ing a very hard choice at 16 years old. And then in their 20s, about to grad­u­ate, they feel like they’re stuck do­ing some­thing they don’t like. Maybe it’s some­thing they were pushed into by their par­ents.’

Raya hopes to change that through her work. ‘Es­pe­cially in the case of young girls, who tend be self-con­scious about be­ing con­sid­ered nerdy, and who some­times don’t want to be as­so­ci­ated with sci­ence, I want to re­de­fine what it means to be a sci­en­tist. It’s up to us to serve as role mod­els.

‘My ad­vice to young girls is to go into sci­ence if they’re pas­sion­ate about it, and not be afraid. Sci­ence is po­ten­tially the most im­por­tant thing to hu­man­ity, and go­ing into this field, they’d be con­tribut­ing greatly. I think what [US physi­cist] Lawrence Krauss said is true: Sci­ence re­ally does teach us to go be­yond our­selves.’ ‘I think stu­dents don’t have enough ad­vis­ers at a high school level guid­ing them,’ adds Dr Han­ifa. ‘So I would like to tell them that they can con­trib­ute their ideas, any­thing big or small, to uni­ver­si­ties. Mas­dar’s doors are open to all stu­dents to con­trib­ute and re­search their ideas. And many su­per­vi­sors can help them.’

‘We’ve seen over the years that even though boys are very pas­sive while they’re still try­ing to find their area or do­main of ex­per­tise un­til they’re 10 or 11 years old, by the time they’re 13 they just shoot up and be­come re­ally strong in sci­ence, maths, and an­a­lyt­ics, while the girls would still be strug­gling to find their feet, and that’s where I think the school makes the big­gest dif­fer­ence in giv­ing them op­por­tu­ni­ties to pur­sue, the con­fi­dence to be re­silient and to push for­ward in sci­ence,’ says Fa­tima.

Dr Moukayed also points out that fem­i­nin­ity and an in­ter­est in sci­ence are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. ‘Maybe some of the stereotypes are out there. Maybe peo­ple think it’s geeky, or not fem­i­nine. That’s wrong – you can take care of your­self and all as­pects of your fem­i­nine life, and still be able to take pride in one of the most pre­cious things you have: your mind, your abil­ity to think, your in­tel­lect, your con­fi­dence to project very com­plex things. Women are very in­tel­li­gent be­ings. Their in­tel­li­gence can be di­rected to­wards many dif­fer­ent ar­eas, and that in­cludes the an­a­lytic side. Women can do it.’

‘I be­lieve our cul­ture tends to be a big bar­rier to us pur­su­ing our dreams,’ says Maryam. ‘Be­cause our an­ces­tors, or our par­ents’ par­ents, they never thought of women as ca­pa­ble of pur­su­ing a ca­reer and fol­low­ing their dreams, and our cul­ture is so im­por­tant to us, that this idea starts to op­press us. But this gen­er­a­tion is start­ing to think out­side the box, un­der­stand that our cul­ture isn’t meant to op­press us, and do what they want to do.’

Dr Han­ifa says the UAE Univer­sity, which she grad­u­ated from, en­cour­aged her in many ways, and pushed her to ap­ply to the L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Sci­ence award, which she went on to win. ‘The UAE is still in a de­vel­op­ment stage, where things are get­ting bet­ter. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have done. But now we’re be­com­ing more glob­alised and more open minded,’ she says.

Dr. Moukayed be­lieves that the UAE does sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter with re­gards to op­por­tu­nity for women in re­la­tion to the global scale, and that’s be­cause the UAE recog­nises the im­por­tance of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.

‘I can tell you that I feel freer as a woman in the UAE. Be­cause I have been dis­crim­i­nated against abroad, where men tried to put me down, but I never tol­er­ated it, and that’s some­thing I like to in­stil in my stu­dents here,’ she says, adding that ‘this world needs a sea­man­ship of many skills to­gether to func­tion. We can’t all study the same thing. We need di­ver­sity and va­ri­ety, or else it would be a bor­ing world. The economies of na­tions rise upon tech­nol­ogy, sci­ence, good ed­u­ca­tion

and medicine. These need to be prime in­vest­ments in any na­tion. That’s what we’re do­ing here in the UAE.’

Ev­i­dence of this ad­vance­ment in the UAE in­cludes the Mo­ham­mad Bin Rashid Space Cen­tre, which has a work­force that’s 40 per cent women. At the helm of the Emi­rates Mars Mis­sion sci­ence team, which is 35 per cent women, is Sarah Amiri, who works as the mis­sion’s deputy project man­ager and sci­ence lead. ‘Where the rest of the world is strug­gling with get­ting women en­gaged in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, the UAE’s num­bers when it comes to sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy are unique,’ says Sarah. ‘More women go­ing into sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy goes against all the stud­ies that have been done in­ter­na­tion­ally. I think it’s be­cause there wasn’t any dis­tin­guish­ing when it came to uni­ver­si­ties, they were open to women, and the sup­port that they were given for ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion was the same as the sup­port given to men; in some cases, women were even sub­sidised more to en­ter uni­ver­si­ties and stay in those fields that aren’t dom­i­nant.’

Dr Moukayed be­lieves Shaikh Mo­ham­mad would make a nat­u­ral sci­en­tist. ‘Be­cause he has this at­ti­tude that is am­bi­tious, he wants to push and ex­plore. If the lead­er­ship is like this, then it makes it eas­ier for young peo­ple to model that.’

On the av­er­age age of sci­en­tists and engi­neers in the Emi­rates Mars Mis­sion be­ing 27, Sarah says ‘giv­ing such a mon­u­men­tally large and am­bi­tious project to a team of peo­ple un­der 35 is a clear mes­sage that there is lead­er­ship in the re­gion that be­lieves in the youth, and is will­ing to bet on their ca­pa­bil­i­ties and on pro­vid­ing them with the right tools that will en­able them to de­liver on such a large goal.’ ‘We are the youth, if we’re not go­ing to do any­thing, who is? Who’s go­ing to help our gen­er­a­tion? If you want to do some­thing, start to­day and not tomorrow,’ says Maryam.

Nina of EpiBone be­lieves that in­ter­est in sci­ence is fos­tered at a very young age. ‘If girls get dolls, and boys get Lego, then we’re likely to en­cour­age nar­ra­tive skills as op­posed to an­a­lyt­i­cal and build­ing skills, based on gen­der.’

Lego re­cently an­nounced that it is re­leas­ing a Women of Nasa set to ed­u­cate peo­ple about the con­tri­bu­tions of women in STEM. The new set will in­clude minia­ture Lego fig­ures of Nasa sci­en­tists Kather­ine John­son, Mar­garet Hamil­ton, Nancy Grace Ro­man, Sally Ride and Mae Jemi­son, as well as ac­ces­sories like books and space crafts.

‘The rea­son why I’m into di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion is about ex­cel­lence,’ says Dr New­man. ‘We have got to get peo­ple to Mars. It’s re­ally hard. We need the best and the bright­est. This is noth­ing about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness or reach­ing a quota. It’s about get­ting the best peo­ple in the world, or we’re not go­ing to suc­ceed. Ex­cel­lence is equal to di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion.’

So, in the words of Kather­ine John­son in Hid­den Fig­ures, ‘yes, they let women do some things at Nasa, Mr John­son. And it’s not be­cause we wear skirts. It’s be­cause we wear glasses. Have a good day.’

Dr Dava New­man, MIT pro­fes­sor of as­tro­nau­tics and for­mer Nasa deputy ad­min­is­tra­tor, be­lieves schools need to be more in­clu­sive

Dr Meis Moukayed, a pro­fes­sor of nat­u­ral sciences, be­lieves fam­ily has a big role to play in a woman’s ca­reer choice

Mo­hammed Bin Rashid Space Cen­tre (top left) Dr Han­ifa (top); Fa­tima Martin, prin­ci­pal Gems New Mil­len­nium (above) and Raya Bid­shari, co-founder of Cafe Sci­en­tifique

Sarah Amiri, who is at the helm of the Emi­rates Mars Mis­sion sci­ence team, says UAE num­bers for women in sci­ence and tech are unique

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